Los Angeles librarian is all over the maps

Glen Creason, map librarian at the downtown Central Library, helps preserve a street-by-street history of Los Angeles.

Glen Creason is used to waiting at the downtown Central Library. At the reference desk in a large space four floors below 5th Street, he knows the questions will come. They always do.

"There was a baseball field somewhere in L.A. in 1888 that only lasted one year. Where was it exactly?"

"How do I find the gravel pit where the Sleepy Lagoon murder took place?"

Creason has heard it all. "One I get constantly is, 'Do you have maps of the secret tunnels dug under L.A.?' .... They are secret tunnels and they do not appear on maps," he says.

Amid the stacks of history and genealogy volumes, and the drawers of microfilm, Creason, 65, leaves no doubt about where his heart lies: maps.

Tall and affable, he has helped preserve a street-by-street history of Los Angeles.

"I love to answer map questions," says Creason, who has worked at the Central Library for 32 years and became map librarian in 1989.

On a tour of some of the 100,000 maps in the library's collection, Creason pulls out the large, heavy volumes of Sanborn maps — detailed drawings of each block of the city prepared for insurance purposes that are a trove of information about old L.A.

He also points out the one-sheet street maps given away by gas stations and real estate agents years ago, survey maps, souvenir maps of movie stars' homes and pictorial maps, all snapshots of the city's past.

There's also what he calls the Ry Cooder map of Los Angeles, now hanging on a wall, which was used for the "Chavez Ravine" album.

Creason, author of "Los Angeles in Maps," knew almost nothing about maps when he got the job. "At the first staff meeting that we had, one of the other librarians asked me what scale was and I didn't know," he says of the measurement on every map showing its ratio of distance, such as each inch equaling a mile.

A Los Angeles native raised in South Gate, Creason worked as a janitor, was a mail carrier in college, sold scientific equipment and made deliveries for his father, a ticket broker. "I got robbed at gunpoint and I decided I didn't want to do that anymore," he says.

"I used to spend a lot of time at the library in South Gate," he says. "It helped that there were two beautiful librarians that worked there. Then on a whim I said, 'Why not go to library school?' "

He graduated from Cal State Fullerton shortly before the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which diminished his chances of a job in the public sector, so he worked at the Herald Examiner library for two years until he was hired as a children's librarian in San Dimas.

The Central Library in downtown Los Angeles was considered the big leagues.

"I had applied, just as a dream, because I always wanted to work in this building," he says. He was hired in 1979 in the history department.

But the old library — before the 1986 fire — had some drawbacks.

"There was no air conditioning, there was really no heat," he says. "It was completely unkempt and [had] almost no security. Ninety percent of the books were in closed stacks and had to be retrieved."

The reference desk was hectic and nonstop too.

"When you hung the phone up it would ring again," he says. "If you worked a night shift, you got a lot of drunks asking, 'What's the longest river in the world?' "