A New Exhibit at the Library Celebrates the Stories Behind Weird Collections of Stuff

From matchbooks to a life-size elephant made of nuts, 21 Collections brings together odd ephemera

Things are about to get super meta at downtown L.A.’s Central Library this month with 21 Collections: Every Object Has a Story (September 28 through January 27), which is exactly what it sounds like: an exhibition about exhibitions.


Inspired by the idea of public libraries as repositories of ephemera, the showcase demonstrates how even the most seemingly random objects—found paper airplanes gathered by experimental filmmaker Harry Smith, matchbooks from gay bars, typewriters amassed by Tom Hanks, decades-old candy wrappers—reveal compelling histories all their own. It’s the handiwork of Todd Lerew, program manager for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, who spent years scouring Southern California for odd and obscure collections. “Libraries are responsible for maintaining collections that tell the stories of the people they serve,” Lerew says. “We wanted to highlight that role.”


Consider the show’s centerpiece, a life-size elephant made of California walnuts, originally assembled for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Built as an emblem of the state’s agricultural bounty and recreated for 21 Collections, it’s as untraditional a “collection” as any, yet it played a role in shaping the city we know today. “We found articles directly claiming that the walnut elephant was partially responsible for the growth of Los Angeles,” Lerew says. “It was that big of a driver in people making the leap to come to California.” (After all, the early boosterism efforts could never have been achieved with just “a” or “some” walnuts.) Those candy wrappers? They illuminate the histories of graphic design, fad diets, and the FDA.

“There are whole categories of knowledge that only collectors have,” says William Davies King, author of the book Collections of Nothing, whose assemblage of patterned envelope linings is part of the exhibit. The value of that knowledge may not be immediately obvious, but for many collectors, that’s kind of the point: Collections hold answers to questions that have yet to be asked. “We really liked the idea that, as a public library, you can’t know what questions someone’s going to come in with in a couple years—or even tomorrow,” Lerew says. “This idea of not knowing what questions the future will be asking can be applied to anything you can collect.”

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