“An Overview of the Los Angeles Public Library System” by S.M. O’Connor

The Los Angeles Public Library (L.A.P.L.) has over 6,000,000 books, audiobooks, periodicals, D.V.D.s, and C.D.s.  Founded in 1872,  it received authority to exist under a law passed by the state legislature in 1876.  It was reorganized under the City Charter of 1889 and again under the City Charter of 1925.  Bertram Goodhue (1869-1924) designed the Central Library of the Los Angeles Public Library system in the Art Deco style. Construction was finished in 1926, but due to his death two years earlier, his associate Carleton Monroe Winslow had to see it to completion. Architectural sculptor Lee Lawrie (1877-1968), a German immigrant and frequent collaborator of Goodhue’s, produced the sculptures. Everett Robins Perry (1876-1933), City Librarian (1911-1933), developed the floor plan. He wanted a central space with circulation desks and card catalogues from which would radiate stacks that, in turn, would lead to reading rooms. The Central Library Goodhue designed, the first purpose-built central library building in Los Angeles, stands on 5th Street at the southwest corner of 5th Street and Grand Avenue on Normal Hill in downtown Los Angeles.  This is now the Goodhue Building and it is more of a museum than a library today.  It is part of the larger Richard J. Riordan Central Library complex, which is a reference library.  Every day it is open, there are free docent-led tours of the buildings and its art.

37883088_10157178437717437_3230714678254501888_nFigure 1 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is a view of the Goodhue Building from across Flower Street and the Maguire Gardens. Many Art Deco structures have allusions to ancient Egypt due to Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, but Goodhue’s designed for the Central Library is one of the most dramatic examples as it is capped by a pyramid that is decorated with murals.

37821097_10157178437777437_8760137235338100736_nFigure 2 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: The legend in the entablature on the north façade reads “BOOKS ALONE ARE LIBERAL AND FREE; THEY GIVE TO ALL WHO ASK; THEY EMANCIPATE ALL WHO SERVE THEM FAITHFULLY.”[1]

37861623_10157178437882437_2980273945518800896_nFigure 3 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is a picture of the Goodhue Building from across 5th Street.  Before architectural sculptor Lee Lawrie (1877-1963) worked on Bertram Goodhue’s Central Library, they collaborated on the Nebraska State Capitol.

37811389_10157178437962437_4730143862150922240_nFigure 4 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: The figures above the main entrance on the north façade are Lee Lawrie’s allegorical figures of the Philosopher and the Poet.

37946333_10157178438077437_4574294767587819520_nFigure 5 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: Between Lee Lawrie’s allegorical figures of the Philosopher and the Poet is the coat of arms of the City of Los Angeles.

37846523_10157178438167437_7602008589690994688_nFigure 6 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: I took this and several of the preceding pictures on the Bunker Hill Steps that lead past the U.S. Bank Tower, which was originally called the Library Tower, on 5th Street.


Figure 7 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: Goodhue’s design for the Central Library is one of the most dramatic examples of allusions to ancient Egyptian history in Art Deco as the building is capped by a pyramid that is decorated with murals.

37871319_10157178437627437_1016783088706912256_nFigure 8 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is the cornerstone of the Central Library of the Los Angeles Public Library system, now the Goodhue Building of the Richard J. Riordan Central Library.


Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, Everett Robbins Perry who studied at Harvard and the New York State Library School before he went to work for The New York Public Library, where he rose to become Chief of the Reference Department.[2]  His dream was to become director of the large public library system, which was realized in 1911, when he was hired as Director of the Los Angeles Public Library.  He moved with his wife, Lilla Perry (née Simmons) and son to Los Angeles, where they took up residence on Kingsley Drive.  His wife was a Japanophile who decorated their home with artworks and antiques from Nippon and taught piano.  They had four more children.  One of those five children, Edward Caswell Perry, later served as City Librarian of Burbank, California from 1952 to 1968.

At the time Everett Robbins Perry assumed command, the Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library was housed in a department store the way The John Crerar Library was initially housed on the upper floors of the Marshall Field & Company Store on State Street.  The system had ninety-eight employees, 191,375 books, twelve branches, circulated 1,409,922 items, and served 58,134 cardholders.  Only two of the branches were in purpose-built library buildings.[3]  The branches circulated 503,257 books, which accounted for 50% of circulation.[4] The staff was demoralized because the L.A.P.L. had gone through four directors in eleven years.  Over the next ten years, the population of Los Angeles would double and library usage would triple.  Perry was up to the challenge.

He reorganized the L.A.P.L. system with the introduction of departments: the Executive Department, Catalogue Department, Circulation Department, Juvenile Department, Periodical Department, Registration Department, Reference Department, Documents Department, and Branches Department.[5]  Perry professionalized the staff, developed a patents collection, devoted resources to filling the research needs of the motion picture industry, and lobbied the City Council to pay for the construction of a purpose-built Central Library building.  Between 1913 and 1916, the Los Angeles Public Library erected six branches with an endowment of $210,000 from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, with the proviso that the City Council appropriate 10% of the funds.[6]  From 1914 to 1926, the Central Library was housed in the Metropolitan Office Building in specially-designed quarters.[7]  In this period, Perry introduced the Art and Music Department, the Science Department, the Sociology Department, the School and Teachers Department, and the Foreign Books Department.[8]    In 1918, the tax rate that supported the L.A.P.L. rose from four mills to five mills on the dollar.[9]  Ten years later, in 1928, Perry established Municipal Reference Department in the Los Angeles City Hall for the benefit of elected officials and bureaucrats.[10]  Perry served as President of the California Library Association in 1917 and First Vice-President of the American Library Association in 1929.

In 1921, the City of Los Angeles sold $2,500,000 bonds to finance the construction of the new Central Library and branch libraries.[11]  The next year, the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Public Library appointed Goodhue and Winslow as the architects.[12]  [Goodhue had just designed the Nebraska State Capitol (1922-1932) in the Art Deco style with traces of Neo-Byzantine and Gothic Revival styles of ecclesiastical architecture.  Previously, he had developed the Spanish Colonial Revival style of architecture as the supervisory architect for the Panama California Exposition (1915) held in San Diego’s Balboa Park.] That same year, 1922, the Library Board acquired the deed to the site on Normal Hill.[13]  In 1923, a $500,000 bond issue financed the acquisition of the Flower Street frontage.[14]

The American philosopher and poet Hartley Burr Alexander (1873-1939), a professor at the University of Nebraska, suggested the Light of Learning theme for the statuary Lee Lawrie fashioned to decorate the Central Library. In addition to the sculptures, he also modeled the Rotunda’s bronze chandelier.  Nine feet in diameter, its rim has forty-eight lightbulbs that represent the forty-eight states in the Union at the time that the L.A.P.L. built the Central Library. A glass globe at the center of the chandelier is painted with continents and oceans.  The inner rim is decorated with the Signs of the Zodiac.  The support chains have a crescent moon and stars.  The chandelier is suspended from a dome with a painted sunburst at its center.

It was muralist Julian Garnsey who painted the dome and other ceilings in the Central Library.  With A.W. Parsons, he also painted four murals in 1926 for the Children’s Reading Room that were inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.  The Children’s Reading Room was in the original East Wing, which was demolished to make way for the Bradley Wing, and can now be seen in the Language Lab in the Bradley Wing.

The tax rate was increased to seven mills on the dollar under the City Charter of 1925.[15]  The cornerstone of the new Central Library was laid on May 3, 1925.[16]  It was dedicated on July 15, 1926.[17]  The Los Angeles Public Library erected a total of eleven buildings between 1923 and 1925, fourteen buildings between 1926 and 1928, and six more buildings between 1926 and 1928.[18]  At the time Perry died on October 30, 1933 at the age of fifty-seven after two-and-a-half months of illness, the Los Angeles Public Library system had the third-largest circulation of any public library system in the U.S.A. It had 1,409,922 books, circulated 13,498,718 books, a staff of 600, and served 394,216 cardholders.[19]  The branches circulated 10,613,218 books, which accounted for 78% of circulation.[20]  The system had forty-eight branches supplemented by seventy-four delivery stations.[21]  There were thirty-nine branch buildings, which I take to mean there were thirty-nine free-standing branch library buildings while the others were quartered in other buildings.  Perry knew each of the 600 library staff members by name.  Some of them addressed him as “Father” the way members of a Roman gens (clan) addressed their clan chief as “Father” or Catholic, Orthodox, and some Anglican Christians address priests as “Father.”  Chess was his only hobby and when he died the chess editor of The Los Angeles Times paid tribute to him in print. One of the words used to describe him in a memorial in the 1934 Annual Report was “indomitable.”[22]  Althea Warren succeeded him as Librarian and a staff committee raised funds to pay for a bronze tablet to be surmounted by a marble profile of Perry made by Lee Lawrie.[23]

The Central Library was already getting cramped in the 1960s, which prompted idiots to talk about tearing it down and replacing it. The original west gardens were torn out in the 1960s to make way for an employee parking lot.

Finally, in 1983, the City Council chose to air rights to finance restoration of the Goodhue Building and construction of a new wing. The air rights were sold for the construction of an office building that was originally called the Library Tower, was later called the First Interstate Bank World Center, and now is called the U.S. Bank Tower. The firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates was to carry out the design. Things came to a head in 1986 when two arson attacks consumed 400,000 volumes and an earthquake in 1987 did further damage. To fund the project, in addition to the sale of air rights, in a truly communal effort, rich people donated large sums of money and schoolchildren donated nickels and dimes. With a new, partially subterranean 330,000-square-foot wing that replaced the old East Wing, the Central Library reopened in 1993.  The new eight-level east wing was named after Tom Bradley (1917-1998), 38th Mayor of Los Angeles (1973-1993), whose Save the Books campaign helped raise the funds.

37858288_10157178438362437_1794642579870973952_nFigure 9 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is the Mark Taper Auditorium in the Tom Bradley Wing of the Richard J. Riordan Central Library.

37794289_10157178438437437_6927856310864052224_nFigure 10 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: These are the Richard Riordan Central Library’s Maguire Gardens, as seen on Friday, July 20, 2018.

The new west gardens were named the Maguire Gardens in honor of Robert Maguire, a real estate developer who rallied people to preserve the Goodhue Building. These gardens are adjacent to the Central Library.  They are west of the Central Library and stand at the southeast corner of 5th Street and Flower Street.  Taken all together, the complex of gardens and buildings occupy a whole block on 5th Street between Flower Street to the west and Grand Avenue to the east.  In 2001, the whole complex was named after Richard Riordan, 39th Mayor of Los Angeles (1993-2001), the Richard Riordan Central Library.

37742193_10157171659747437_6531129279789400064_nFigure 11 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This structure located around the corner from the Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library, which looks like it might be an embassy, is the California Club.


Figure 12 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: Designed by Robert D. Farquhar (1872-1967) in the Italian Renaissance Revival style, it opened in 1930 (so, yes, during the Second Great Depression).

37736722_10157171659797437_1551081826397716480_nFigure 13 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is the (well-furnished) clubhouse for a social club that held its first meeting in 1887 and incorporated in 1888.

Children’s Literature, Teen ‘Scape, and Galleries are in the Goodhue Building.  Check-In/Check-Out, The Library Store, Café, Security, Computer Classes, Meeting Rooms A & B are in the Main Lobby of the Goodhue Building.  The Café is now a Panda Express.

The Bradley Wing has four floors above ground and four floors below ground.  The Boardroom is on the top floor (identified as the 4th Floor).  Literature and Fiction are on the 3rd Floor.  Art, Music, and Recreation are on the 2nd Floor.  International Languages, the Mark A. Taper Auditorium, and the Courtyard are on the 1st Floor.  Business and Economics are on the first subterranean floor or basement (-1 Floor).  Science, Technology, and Patents are on the second subterranean floor or subbasement (-2 Floor).  Social Science, Philosophy, Religion, and the Computer Center are on the third subterranean floor or sub-subbasement (-3 Floor).  History and Genealogy are on the fourth subterranean floor of sub-sub-subbasement (-4 Floor).  Note that audiobooks and movies, magazines and other periodicals are present in every department because they are distributed with other materials by subject.  The Popular Library, Caroline and Henry E. Singleton Adult Literacy Center, and Galleries are in the three-level corridor between the Goodhue Building and the Bradley Wing.

In addition to the Central Library, the Los Angeles Public Library system operates seventy-two branch libraries, eight of which are “regional branches” akin to the Chicago Public Library’s two Regional Libraries: the Conrad Sulzer Regional Library on the North Side and the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library on the South Side.  The eight Regional Branches are the Arroyo Seco Regional Library in Highland Park/Garvanza, the Exposition Park – Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Regional Library in Exposition Park, the San Pedro Regional Library in San Pedro, the Frances Howard Goldwyn – Hollywood Regional Library in Hollywood, the West Los Angeles Regional Library in West Los Angeles, the North Hollywood Emelia Earhart Regional Library in North Hollywood, the West Valley Regional Branch Library in Reseda, and the Mid-Valley Regional Library in North Hills.  The smaller neighborhood branches are the Benjamin Franklin Branch Library, the Lincoln Heights Branch Library, the Pio Pico-Koreatown Branch Library, the Vernon – Leon H. Washington, Jr. Memorial Branch Library in South Central, the Juniperro Sera Branch Library[24] in South Park, the Echo Park Branch Library in Echo Park, the Wilmington Branch Library in Wilmington, the John C. Fremont Branch Library in Hancock Park, the Westchester – Loyola Village Branch Library in Westchester, the Vermont Square Branch Library in Vermont Square, the Palisades Branch Library in Pacific Palisades, the Donald Bruce Kaufman Branch Library in Brentwood, the Jefferson – Vassie D. Wright Memorial Branch Library in Jefferson Park, the Malabar Branch Library in Boyle Heights, the Robert Louis Stevenson Branch Library[25] in Boyle Heights, the Cahuenga Branch Library in Cahuenga, the El Sereno Branch Library in El Sereno, the Palms-Rancho Park Branch Library in Palms and Rancho Park, the Van Nuys Branch Library in Van Nuys, the Canoga Park Branch Library in Canoga Park, the Studio City Branch Library in Studio City, the Angeles Mesa Branch Library in Hyde Park/Leimert Park, the Cypress Park Branch Library in Cypress Park, the Wilshire Branch Library in Mid-Wilshire, the Ascot Branch Library in Florence, the Will & Ariel Durant Branch Library[26] in Hollywood, the Eagle Rock Branch Library in Eagle Rock, the Hyde Park Miriam Mathews Branch Library in Hyde Park, the John Muir Branch Library in Vermont-Slauson, the Sunland-Tujunga Branch Library in Sunland and Tujunga, the Los Feliz Branch Library in Los Feliz, the Mar Vista Branch Library in Mar Vista, the Panorama City Branch Library in Panorama City, the Venice – Abbot Kinney Branch Library in Venice, the Washington Irving Branch Library[27] in Arlington Heights/Mid-City, the Robertson Branch Library in Beverlywood/Cheviot Hills/Pico-Robertson, the Alma Reaves Woods-Watts Branch Library in Watts, the Atwater Village Branch Library in Atwater Village, the Mark Twain Branch Library[28] in Vermont Vista, the Baldwin Hills Branch Library in Baldwin Hills, the Encino-Tarzana Branch Library[29] in Encino and Tarzana, the Felipe de Neve Branch Library in Westlake, the Memorial Branch Library in Country Club Park, the Sherman Oaks Martin Pollard Branch Library in Sherman Oaks, the Sun Valley Branch Library in Sun Valley, the Pacoima Branch Library in Pacoima, the Sylmar Branch Library in Sylmar, the Playa Vista Branch Library in Playa Vista, the Granada Hills Branch Library in Granada Hills, the Valley Plaza Branch Library (formerly known as the Vanowen Park Branch Library) in Valley Glenn/North Hollywood, the Woodland Hills Branch Library in Woodland Hills, the Northridge Branch Library in Northridge, the Chatsworth Branch Library in Chatsworth, the Fairfax Branch Library in Fairfax, the Lake View Terrace Branch Library in Lake View Terrace, the Chinatown Branch Library in Chinatown, the Little Tokyo Branch Library in Little Tokyo, the Platt Branch Library in West Hills, the Porter Ranch Branch Library in Porter Ranch, the Harbor City-Harbor Gateway Branch Library in Harbor City and Harbor Gateway, the Edendale Branch Library in Echo Park, the Pico Union Branch Library in Pico-Union, the Westwood Branch Library in Westwood, and the Silver Lake Branch Library in Silver Lake.

The Richard J. Riordan Central Library is open from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Sundays.  Kren Malone is the Director.  The address of the Richard J. Riordan Central Library is 630 West 5th Street, Los Angeles, California 90071.  The phone number is (213) 228-7000.





[1] It is a quote from Bishop Richard de Bury (1287-1345), a Benedictine priest who became Bishop of Durham and tutor to King Edward III when the latter was Prince of Wales.  Bishop de Bury as a bibliophile (book-lover) who wrote The Philobiblon, a book about the acquisition, preservation, and organization of books.  It was one of the earliest books on the subject of librarianship and library management.  Since he wrote The Philobiblon in Latin, this is a quote from The Philobiblon translated into English.

[2] Board of Library Commissioners, “Report of the Library Commissioners.” Forty-Sixth Annual Report of the Board of Library Commissioners of the Los Angeles Public Library for the Year Ending June 30, 1934, p. 1

[3] Board of Library Commissioners, “Points of Progress in the Leadership of Everett R. Perry.” Forty-Sixth Annual Report of the Board of Library Commissioners of the Los Angeles Public Library for the Year Ending June 30, 1934, p. ii

[4] Board of Library Commissioners, p. ii

[5] Board of Library Commissioners, “Points of Progress in the Leadership of Everett R. Perry.” Forty-Sixth Annual Report of the Board of Library Commissioners of the Los Angeles Public Library for the Year Ending June 30, 1934, p. i

[6] Board of Library Commissioners, p. ii

[7] Board of Library Commissioners, p. i

[8] Board of Library Commissioners, p. i

[9] Board of Library Commissioners, p. i

[10] Board of Library Commissioners, p. i

[11] Board of Library Commissioners, p. i

[12] Board of Library Commissioners, p. i

[13] Board of Library Commissioners, p. i

[14] Board of Library Commissioners, p. i

[15] Board of Library Commissioners, p. i

See also Board of Library Commissioners, p. 1

[16] Board of Library Commissioners, p. i

[17] Board of Library Commissioners, p. i

See also Board of Library Commissioners, p. 1

[18] Board of Library Commissioners, p. ii

[19] Board of Library Commissioners, p. i

[20] Board of Library Commissioners, p. ii

[21] Board of Library Commissioners, p. ii

[22] Board of Library Commissioners, p. 1

[23] Board of Library Commissioners, p. 1

[24] Note this branch is named after Saint Juníperro Sera, O.F.M., the Franciscan friar who founded ten missions in Baja California and Alta California.  In 1771, he ordered the foundation of Mission San Gabriel Arcángel (Mission of Saint Gabriel the Archangel).  Ten years later, forty-four townspeople and four soldiers founded Los Angeles as El Pueblo de Nuetsra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula (“The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula”).

[25] Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson (1850-1894) was a Scottish Man of Letters, a novelist, poet, essayist, and travel writer, as well as a musician.  He is best remembered now for Treasure Island, serialized in the children’s magazine Young Folks in 1881-82 and published in book from in 1883; Kidnapped, serialized in Young Folks in 1886 and published in book form that same year; A Child’s Garden of Verses, published in 1885; Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, published in 1886; and Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale, published in 1889.

[26] William James (“Will”) Durant (1885-1981) was an American Man of Letters, a historian, writer, and philosopher.   In 1913, he resigned his job at the Ferrer School and wed his fifteen-year-old student, Ida Kaufman (1898-1981), a Russian-Jewish immigrant whom he called “Ariel.”  She became his researcher and co-authored many of his books. He was best known for his book The Story of Philosophy, published in 1926, before they wrote the eleven-volume The Story of Civilization, published between 1935 and 1975.  The tenth volume, Rousseau and Revolution, published in 1967, received the Pulitzer Prize.  They described their lives and work together in A Dual Biography, published in 1977.

[27] Washington Irving (1783-1859) was an American Man of Letters, a short story-writer, essayist, historian, biographer, and diplomat best known for the short stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

[28] Samuel Clemens (1835-1910), who used the nom de plume Mark Twain, was an American journalist, novelist, and lecturer best known for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1875, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1885.  Politically, he was an abolitionist.  In the late 19th Century, Clemens went from supporting American imperialism to opposing American and European imperialism.  He also sided with revolutionaries.  Raised a Presbyterian, Clemens was a deist who hated Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular.

[29] The neighborhood of Tarzana was founded on the Tarzana Ranch owned by adventure novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950), who moved from Oak Park, Illinois to Los Angeles.  He, of course, derived the name “Tarzan” from his character Tarzan.

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