While this map might look like a Kandinsky painting, it is actually an up-to-date visualization the Los Angeles Public Library system. With 73 branches, denoted by red dots, it is only slightly smaller than its 88-branch counterpart, the County of Los Angeles Public Library, and has been spreading like ceanothus across the basin for the past 143 years. The blue circle around each dot represents the area that library serves, and the Central Library (1) functions as the nerve center from which books are sent out to the other branches.
Though the very first research materials donated to the library—books and a handful of rare newspapers—were gathered in 1844, it wasn’t until 1872 that the LAPL was established. The library began its days on the second floor of a saloon on the Downey Block, but it wasn’t long before it up and moved to the old City Hall. After that it did a stint in the Homer Laughlin building, followed by a quick bite at the Hamburger’s store building, and finally it found its permanent home when the deluxe, Egyptian-themed Central Library at 6th and Hope was finished in 1926.
In the surprisingly literate, streetcar-sprawled Los Angeles of the early 20th century, high demand for borrowable books fueled a boom in the construction of branch libraries—among them six original Carnegie libraries, of which only three (the Cahuenga branch, the Lincoln Heights branch, and the Vermont Square branch) remain. When the Great Depression hit, there were 34 libraries operating, many of which were either shuttered or converted into humble storefronts as the economy tanked.
It took a while for the library system to get back on its feet again. Despite the passing of Proposition 13 in 1978, a tax reform that took its toll on libraries, library bonds eventually blossomed: ultimately, $178 million was spent to build four new libraries and repair 33 others that had been damaged by earthquakes and Father Time. Though doomsday journalists have for years predicted the demise of libraries, over and over again the public has rebuffed such nonsense and supported L.A. libraries, as they did in 2011 by approving Measure L (which funnels more money into the library system).
From Watts to the Palisades, each branch has a distinct personality reflecting the community it serves. Arsonists may have burned down the Hollywood branch in 1982, but it was soon rebuilt with a new Frank Gehry design. The Silver Lake branch, with its impressive, high-ceilinged reading room, is particularly inviting to screenwriters. The Los Feliz branch sits on the site where actor Leonardo DiCaprio, now a great friend of the library, was born. Chinatown does a brisk business in English and Mandarin, the Fairfax branch serves a large orthodox Jewish clientele, Playa Vista is mere blocks from the historic Ballona Wetlands, and the Memorial Branch boasts a cozy interior and glorious Judson Studios stained glass windows.
Recently, the LAPL proudly received the National Medal for Museums and Library Services, the country’s highest honor for libraries. City librarian John Szabo and community member Sergio Sanchez visited the White House and were presented with the award by First Lady Michelle Obama as L.A. library staff back home busted their buttons with pride. The LAPL offers paths to citizenship, ways to earn high school diplomas, instruction in finances, assistance in signing up for health care, a first-class literacy program, computer skills and, of course, a very cool map collection.
Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.