Central Reopens by Glen Creason, Map Librarian, History & Genealogy Department
“It's a thing to see when a boy comes home.” ―John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
The day my own dear Central Library reopened I got my name in the L.A. Times which elicited ragging from pals around the city. “As soon as I crossed the threshold I got down on my knees and kissed the ground,” it said in gushing prose, but looking back from my current vantage point that seems totally appropriate. Years of wandering in the desert were over and everything in front of me was brand new and full of hope. Kissing the floor in any public library may not seem like a good idea now but on that day the hallowed ground was antiseptic in more ways than one. I remember it well. Chunking is how psychologists describe the phenomena of the mental collecting of big picture memories of life passages. The brain manages to organize these recollections into categories that when lumped together seem to pass more and more quickly as the old planet spins us toward old age. It is the one L.A. freeway that is always moving briskly. While the last 25 years seem like weeks when I recall that sweet day I made my return to dear dirty Central Library, the previous 8 years to that wonderful day seemed like the biblical forty years. In my four-decade career, the reopening is at the top of my very best days at Goodhue’s masterpiece. I even have an old, wrinkly balloon stamped for the gala event that I keep for some reason and a cassette of celebratory songs I made just for the occasion. One of the songs was “Wellington’s Victory march” by Beethoven which fits the mood perfectly.
Finally, there was a conclusion to a molasses-slow crawl to becoming a real major library again following the fire of 1986. The great day had arrived with plenty of “fuss and feathers” including lots of ink and air time. It was October 3, 1993, and we had just a couple of days before the big show to prepare for the greatest outpouring of library love in L.A. history. I was so excited I showed up on time with my nine-year-old daughter and walked past already gathering giddy crowds to enter the building on the sweet Maguire Gardens side (once known as the Flower street door). The long-suffering staff was euphoric like kids let into Disneyland early and we were all being treated to a genuine hot, deluxe breakfast by the Biltmore Hotel, just to add a little hollandaise to the fabulous feast of the senses on that memorable day. The first thing I saw was a homeless guy briskly walking away from the buffet table with a face like the cat who ate the canary. His plate was piled with bacon, scrambled eggs, actual French croissants and he was balancing a glass of fresh-squeezed OJ in his right hand. It was that kind of day for everybody. Party time in downtown! Imagine the Super Bowl, the Oscars, the World Series, and the NBA championships taking place at 630 W. 5th street. I saw old library friends smiling smiles you could not have wiped off their faces if the devil himself had tried. We had come home, minus a few dear ones but pretty intact considering the span of years and the plagues that had swept through our ranks in our time away. Staff were shaking hands with admin and hugging the formerly feared Betty Gay Teoman. It was just THE place to be in L.A. on that sunny Sunday and Huell Howser was there with Luis and cameras were clicking everywhere. The place just shone and everything was new and mostly working. The interior had that new library smell and when they threw open the brass doors at 10 am it was wall to wall proud and happy Angelenos rushing into the ballyhooed gem of downtown. I could hardly stand still and joined the surging masses up and down the “grand canyon of books” even forcing myself and kid into a frame or two of the “Visiting” episode Huell was creating. It really was like Main Street in Disneyland on a summer day even if it was the fall. Central Library was at the center of the solar system or so it seemed. A couple of months later we even had a float in the Rose Parade!
Central was in my blood going back to the 1930s when my Mom used to walk over from Los Angeles Polytechnic High School on Washington Boulevard, where Trade Tech now sits, to do her homework before returning home to the family home on Bond street (near the Convention Center). She loved the quiet dignity of the place and was overjoyed when I announced I would be joining the History department where she often studied. That same grand reading room where she used to study with the tall lamps, hardwood tables, acorn motif chairs, and murals on the walls that were bathed by soft light from the tall windows facing Hope Street. It was a room rich in L.A. lore, every inch well-worn but full of stories. When I actually began working in the history department in November of 1979 I found out some other stuff about the beautiful and stately library. The tall windows could only be opened with poles so long and heavy that an Olympic pole-vaulter would be hard-pressed to make the crusty vents unlock. One man, Ted Itagaki, could pop them open without fail but then someone had to shut them at day’s end. It got very hot in all of the reading rooms and icy cold in spots during our short winters. There was a huge grate outside the department that belched heat twelve months a year which made summers hotter than hell in long underwear. The dumb-waiter that connected the department to the periodicals pool, a couple of tiers above us smelled like burnt cork and was not terribly reliable. There was an unpredictable stacks elevator that looked like it was from a science fiction novel that once imprisoned me for an hour after the Laker parade of 1980. We requested materials in good old-fashioned lamson pneumatic tubes like a department store and they worked most of the time but hopeful patrons would wait for a good long while as the magazine pool was mostly Miss Williams and a helper (Bob Colwell or Cary Moore). This besieged pair basically had one of the biggest periodical collections in the U.S. around them and every department in the building shooting the pool tubes full of requests for mostly heavy hard-copy magazines. The wait sometimes exceeded an hour but they worked hard up there. There were quaint balconies off the California room and map room at opposite ends of the department but the doors were wired shut because dishonest researchers (see movie studios) used to toss reference books down to partners in crime, sometimes using fishing nets. When it got hot, is was miserable inside the old “masterpiece” and the few fans, now encrusted in greasy dust were not turned on because the electrical system was not equipped to power such demands. After all, in the stacks, they had to use low watt bulbs so as to not blow out the entire building. The dim lights and very low clearance (less than my height) of these tiers made navigation dicey but interesting in a kind of creepy way. There is lots more about the shortcomings of the building and parking and security and the unique sights and smells but when you worked at Central you grew to love the old dear. It was a rare privilege to be part of the great library even if there were plenty of blemishes on the venerable building.
Preservationists would tell you that Central was a historical landmark and a bone fide treasure house but it was a lousy building for storing materials or providing creature comforts. Everybody knew the place was a tinderbox and that we were all living on borrowed disaster time but it was so much fun working there that we all overlooked impending doom because there was normally someone standing in front of us asking a question.
One of the most painful aspects of the library fire was the evaporation of the roles we had in the civilized side of Los Angeles. Central Library offered hope and encouragement to those who had little in society and a rich bounty for everyone who looked for enlightenment. Before the internet, before cell phones, and before the grip of the Me Generation took hold, we were heroes with the keys to the treasure house that despite our modest remuneration made the job a joy. After the fire, we were just in the way and sad creatures who were allowed to continue despite having nothing important to contribute except endurance and dedication. We had no patrons to tell us how great we were, we had no books to refresh our own hearts and the dismal, dirty surroundings just dragged us further down into the pit of depression. The dream of a new and better Central Library seemed far away, like standing at the foot of Mt. Everest and looking up.
After the fire, the staff was gone on the LAPL winds and I ended up at the West LA branch while others spread across the landscape including the infamous Rio Vista warehouse over off Soto Street. After happy years at West L.A., I was forced to return to the misery of the Processing Center next door to our temporary home on Spring Street in 1989. Even though we were thrilled to be reunited with our dear old book friends 433 Spring Street was even less suitable as a library than the pre-fire Central. Besides introducing us to the computer as reference tool our time on Spring showed the seedy side of libraries in the inner-city with an exclamation point. The plan was to reclaim Spring to its former glory when the Stock Exchange and Theater Center blended commerce and culture but it was mostly drugs and depravity that held grip on those blocks. We traveled in packs on gritty Broadway and learned to walk long distances to find lunch or relief from the mean streets. Basically, we were in a holding pattern until we could get back to the real Central. When the library closed Spring Street to begin the move back home I ended up over at the good old Rio Vista warehouse for a project of transferring the tattered historic photo collection from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner into archival envelopes and boxes. We paced ourselves but finished a few months ahead of schedule whereupon I was placed once again at a branch, this time at Summertime Granada Hills where I discovered a great staff and San Fernando Valley heat.
The words in the morning papers and the stories on television and radio could not touch the pure joy of coming home where we belonged. Most librarians I have known are dedicated to service to their fellow man. It is not a job one takes on to gain wealth or glory but the rewards are great when looking at the big cultural picture. Beyond our sarcastic, dark humor, the humorous patron nicknames and the complaints about the craziness that exists in these public spaces there is something like genuine love. Standing at the top of the Bradley wing and looking down is all about that affection and satisfaction. Soaking up the library vibe in the rotunda or strolling through the Children’s department is like putting on the mantle of our profession.
Being even a little cog in the big wheel of Central gave us pride in our work for building this magnificent collection and offering service to every bright-eyed kid, every eager immigrant, every homeless wreck seeking a little solace and a morsel of humanity. What makes library work so fulfilling is the knowledge that you are handing out joy and hope and healing in a hard and not terribly caring world. Over the years we have given confidence, dignity, and self-reliance without charge to a very complicated human mosaic. We soften the sharp edges, strum the heartstrings, and give people a reason to join together for improvement of the human race. “Love that conquers hate. Peace that rises triumphant over war. And justice that proves more powerful than greed.”
All of this we offer in this funny building with the pyramid on top if you just know where to look. Coming home for us meant coming home to those ideals and holding up the light of learning, handing over the key to the treasure room back to the people. It was our chance to be heroes again.
Glen Creason has been the map librarian for the Los Angeles Public Library for the past twenty-nine years and a reference librarian in the History department since 1979. He was a co-curator of the landmark map exhibit “Los Angeles Unfolded” in 2009 and in October of 2010 he published the book “Los Angeles in Maps” for Rizzolli International. He has written about local history, maps, and popular culture for local publications including the Downtown News, Mercators World, the International Map Collectors Society Journal, the Public Historian, the Communicator, the Los Angeles Times, and Edible Ojai. He blogged weekly on maps for 170 posts as a columnist for Los Angeles Magazine and is a contributor on research topics for the Huffington Post and LAist.
Feels Like Home: Reflections on Central Library: Photographs From the Collection of Los Angeles Public Library (2018) is a tribute to Central Library and follows the history from its origins as a mere idea to its phoenix-like reopening in 1993. Published by Photo Friends of the Los Angeles Public Library, it features both researched historical accounts and first-person remembrances. The book was edited by Christina Rice, Senior Librarian of the LAPL Photo Collection, and Literature Librarians Sheryn Morris and James Sherman.The book can be purchased through the Library Foundation of Los Angeles Bookstore.