Friday, October 15, 2010

Los Angeles' Downtown Central Library


I landed a part-time job at the Central Library at 5th and Flower Streets in August, 1976, during my second year of school at Los Angeles City College.  My civil service title was Messenger Clerk, and I retrieved books and other library materials from within the closed book stacks of the Social Sciences Department.  I also re-shelved books and filed government documents including thin sheets and thick volumes of legislative bills and reports.

The original building had two public floors, and a third floor that housed administrative and cataloging offices and a telephone switchboard room.  The third floor along the 5th Street side of the building also had amenities for staff that included restrooms, a dark room with sleeping cots, a snack bar, and an expansive employee break room that overlooked the Arco Towers, the Bonaventure Hotel and the rest of 5th and Flower.  From this vantage point, the employee open-air parking spaces could also be seen.  Today, the restaurant Cafe Pinot is situated on a portion of the former parking lot.

The postcard shown above is viewing the library from the east.  There used to be a walkway near 5th Street and Grand Avenue leading to the east entrance as seen in the postcard.  The east wing of the library included the Art and Music departments.  The lawn and most of the eastern facade is gone, resulting from the renovation and expansion, after the two library fires, that created many new floors to a new east wing below and above ground.

The Social Sciences Department was situated on the west wing on the 2nd floor; its neighboring departments were Science and Technology to the north, and the History Department to the south (today the Children's Department gets to enjoy the murals overhead).  Directly below Social Sciences was the Business and Economics Department on the 1st floor.  Also on the 1st floor of the west wing was Philosophy and Religion.

Labyrinth of Book Stacks

I guesstimate that more than 80 percent of the library collections were kept in closed-off areas.  These stacks were lit by bare 40-watt incandescent bulbs.  Also, only a chain across an open doorway deterred the public from trespassing into the staff areas.  The inner guts of the building consisted of the closed book stacks laid out within low-hanging tiers:  tiers 4 and 5 were in line with the public 2nd floor; tiers 2 and 3 took up the 1st floor.  If my memory serves, there were also tiers 6 and 7 (the 7th tier housed all the bound volumes of periodicals).  There were also book stacks in the basement level.  As a Messenger Clerk, I could travel up and down a set of stairs, or ride in an old-fashioned elevator with the metal accordian folding door.  This elevator went as far as the 3rd floor of the building, so this was the fastest way to get to the breakroom.

The tiers were designed with book shelves aligned from tier 7 all the way down to the basement, and there were slit-like cuts into the floors and ceilings to fit the book shelves.  This design allowed a book to faultily be pushed off a shelf and fall as far as it could go, conceivably falling from an upper tier all the way down to the basement level.  This open book shelf design enabled the historic arson fire on April 29th, 1986 to quickly spread and realize the Fire Department's worse fear in the 1926 building.

1986 Library Fire

My part-time job in Social Sciences had turned into a full-time clerk position around 1981.  But by the time of the fire, I was no longer working at the library because I had transferred to the Convention Center a month earlier.  By that weekend, however, I was one of thousands of volunteers to enter the unrecognizable space and pack water-damaged books in preparation for a freeze-drying salvage process.  Shockingly, the library was filled with emergency lighting, wooden planks, and people milling about with hard hats.  I recall we were urgently trying to meet the deadline at midnight to get as many boxes of books into the truck.  When I finished, my nostrils were black.  Back at the Convention Center, I noticed later that some of the vacant exhibition rooms were used to store the books during different stages.

Several years later, I transferred back to the Central Library and worked in the Save the Books store in the temporary library's location at the Design Center, 433 So. Spring Street.  The library moved back to the renovated building in 1993, while I had transferred out to City Hall.


A metal bookmark was a part of the fundraising merchandise.
This logo was printed on tee-shirts and book bags for sale in the store.
The Save the Books project was underwritten by the Atlantic Richfield Foundation.

Another fundraising idea involved the sale of laminated magazine pages that displayed fire-singed damage.

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