The Los Angeles Public Library is celebrating its 150th anniversary through various activities, including a system-wide celebration featuring reading challenges, public programs, giveaways, storytelling events, a physical exhibit “LAPL150—Our Story is Yours: A Los Angeles Public Library Sesquicentennial Celebration” at the Getty Gallery located in the Central Library, and finally a digital collection on Tessa.
The archive comprises materials such as building blueprints, newsletters, reports, contracts, and correspondence that hold memories of numerous people who worked as library staff and how their work impacted the lives of Los Angeles residents over the past 150 years. These items also demonstrate the considerable time and effort that went into selecting and purchasing books, designing public programs, writing official letters, managing building and construction projects, campaigning for rebuilding the library after the fire, and reimagining the library services during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is now left to the audience's imagination to envision what library staff’s work was like 150, 100, 50, 30, and a few years ago by viewing items physically and digitally.
Upon receiving news about the 150th Anniversary celebration, Rosemarie Knopka, the Librarian Archivist in the Digitization & Special Collections Department, started to process the Archive with more focus. More department staff, including Juan Avalos, Sung Kim, Dan Nishimoto, Luci Odono, and Ryan Peña, then began working on digitizing a selection of items to provide digital access to this archive. The digitized items complement the physical exhibit in the Getty Gallery and also shed light on some interesting aspects of the library's history. The following is a small selection of items from a much larger collection; the Digitization & Special Collections Department plans to digitize more items in the future for greater access:
Before discussing the library’s history through its artifacts, we have to address the elephant in the room: there wasn’t always a library – at least in the 2023 sense of our 72 branches and a Central Library. In the beginning, 1872 to be exact, LAPL was LALA (the Los Angeles Library Association), an organization that arose from previous efforts to establish a public library in the growing city. LALA used a suite in a building called Downey Block, located on the corner of Temple and Spring Streets. Over the next half-century, the library continued to grow, which meant moving to several Downtown locations. The need for a permanent space was finally met with the passage of the $2.5 million City of Los Angeles Public Library Bond in 1921, which allocated $1.5 million towards the creation of Central Library. For more details about the early history of Central Library, please read the “Feels Like Home” series ; and to learn more about the architectural history of LAPL, please visit our “Art & Architecture of the Central Library” series, both of which are on lapl.org.
The How Los Angeles Public Library Orders Books scrapbook, dating back to the 1930s, includes instructions, photos, and examples of order cards that illustrate book purchasing workflows at LAPL. Librarian Info Meetings, also known as "order meetings," likely stemmed from the tradition of head librarians of departments and branch librarians gathering to discuss which books to purchase.
The LAPL Broadcaster 21st Anniversary Edition is a compilation of publications from 1926 to 1947. The Broadcaster was first published on December 15, 1926, and the former head librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library's branch locations was its first editor. The staff newspaper was established due to the continued growth of staff and was imagined as a centrally located bulletin for all staff. All library workers were encouraged to contribute, and each page includes writings that are encouraging, humorous,and sometimes a good dose of sarcasm. It is important to note that the language and word choices used in the past are quite different from those used today.
Some items in this archive tell a painful history that recounts racial hostility towards racialized, non-citizens. The Alessandro Branch Library Construction Contract from 1926 includes a sentence that reads, "It is further understood and agreed that no Chinese labor shall be employed upon said work." This type of racially exclusive language was later modified to "IT IS FURTHER UNDERSTOOD AND AGREED that no alien labor shall be employed upon said work" in the Ascot Branch Library Construction Contract from 1938. Such explicit discrimination reflected decades of government-sanctioned xenophobia, such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and its renewal in 1892, the 1902 expansion to also exclude immigrants from Hawaii and the Philippines, the creation of an expansive “Asiatic Barred Zone” spanning from the Middle East to Southeast Asia in the 1917 Immigration Act, and the quota system in the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act which explicitly favored Nordic and Anglo Saxon groups over Southern and Eastern European and Asian immigrants. It also arose from a city that had previously lynched over 10% of its Chinese population in 1871. Unfortunately, the Library was not immune to such racist policies.
This groovy looking brochure was published for the Los Angeles Public Library’s 100th anniversary in 1972. The brochure features an overview of the library’s history along with a breakdown of the library’s budget and notable services available throughout the entire system which at the time consisted of the Central Library and 61 branches. One of the notable services previewed in the brochure would be particularly beneficial for those who consider themselves “night owls.” The “Night Owl” service was referred to as an experiment planned for the following year which would offer, “immediate answers to short reference questions,” everyday from 9:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.
This pin may have been given out to volunteers of the “Service to Shut-Ins” program. Although this program was led by librarians, volunteers played a crucial role in visiting and delivering all types of library material to those patrons who were unable to visit a library regardless of their age. Additionally, the program led to a rise in senior citizen volunteers as a number of those who experienced the service chose to join.
The 1986 Central Library fire dealt a devastating blow to LAPL and the city. However, numerous efforts helped not only rebuild the building, but grow the institution. ARCO and library staff created the “Save the Books” campaign to help replace lost materials, as well as build more support for LAPL. Staff artist Tom Yerxa created a campaign logo which was used on numerous promotional materials, such as the pin below. For more information about “Save the Books,” please read Sheryn Morris’s blog post on lapl.org about the campaign, written for the 25th anniversary celebration of the reopening of Central Library.
The familiar adage about the youth being the future certainly holds true at LAPL. Looking to better serve the next generation of adults, the Library created a Young Adult Service Department in 1994. Many of the teen-specific resources and programs from this period may sound familiar: school and homework support, teen councils, and, of course, book clubs. The t-shirt below is from the second annual Comic and Animation Festival, which took place in 1997 – perhaps in some ways a precursor to the more recent Teens of L.A. Film Fest?
The 150th Anniversary exemplifies the significance of the Library in Los Angeles history. The Digitization & Special Collections staff is proud and grateful to steward the Los Angeles Public Library Institutional Archive, making it one of many parts of this celebration. While the Archive will continue to grow and tell its story for many years to come, the department will work towards making the archive more accessible. In the meantime, members of the public are invited to use the collection for research: to make an appointment to view items from the collection, please use the Rare Books Appointment Request Form on lapl.org.