The place looks more like an abandoned warehouse than a library.
Wedged between an auto body shop and a one-hour laundry on busy Vermont Avenue, the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research looks as drab as its name.
The narrow side yard is filled with high grass and weeds. The front door is obscured by a locked iron gate.
But inside, under a broken ceiling and hanging electrical wires, the library offers one of the more unusual literary collections in Los Angeles--more than 16,000 volumes chronicling Marxist movements, civil rights crusades, labor uprisings and other activities of the left.
Included are rare or hard-to-find books by authors like Dalton Trumbo, Alvah Bessie and Ring Lardner Jr., who were blacklisted during the McCarthy era of communist paranoia in the 1940s and '50s.
Emil Freed, a former labor activist who compiled most of the collection, began accumulating the material in garages, expanded to a downtown storefront and finally moved into South-Central Los Angeles shortly after the Watts riots because of the low prices on property there, library Director Sarah Cooper said.
Although Freed died several years ago, the nonprofit library lived on, marking its 25th anniversary Friday. To celebrate, patrons, staff workers and a couple of notable supporters--Ring Lardner Jr. and folk singer Pete Seeger--held a musical tribute at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, singing folk songs, reenacting dialogue from McCarthy-era anti-communist hearings and honoring the heroes of past social movements.
"I can't think of any similar institution," Lardner said of the library, at 6120 S. Vermont Ave. "It seems to be the best record of important movements in this area over the last 50 years or so."
Lardner, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, was one of the famed "Hollywood 10" who were indicted and later sent to jail during the McCarthy-era inquisitions. He was blacklisted and later participated in the 1948 book by Gordon Kahn, "Hollywood on Trial," which is now part of the library collection.
"I think history is something that Americans generally aren't very good at," Lardner said in an interview. "Some of the things in that library you don't see in history books. I'm glad it's there."
Seeger, who also was blacklisted after participating in leftist movements during the 1930s and '40s, was scheduled to toast the library with pro-labor folk songs such as "Which Side Are You On," by the wife of a coal miner, and "Roll the Union On," by a former sharecropper.
He described himself as a lifelong library user. "I know that most libraries, as pressed as they are for funds, can't handle the special interests as much as they would like to," Seeger said. "Here's a special interest that normally would be ignored by most libraries."
At the time that library-founder Freed began collecting leftist material, many in Hollywood and elsewhere were afraid of being indicted, said assistant director Mary Tyler.
"When the witch hunts started, a lot of people were starting to throw away their books, papers, pamphlets . . . anything that would incriminate them," Tyler said. "(Freed) started keeping the stuff in garages. He said he would take care of their papers for them."
Today the library's long shelves are filled with the works of social philosophers such as Marx and Lenin and muckrakers like Upton Sinclair and Lincoln Steffens. The titles are often provocative: "Rights in Conflict," "Rules for Radicals," "The Death of a Rebel." One book, "The Truth About Socialism," dates from 1913, when it sold in hard cover for $1.
"Essentially, we're trying to preserve a part of history that is usually not preserved," Tyler said. "When the Vietnam War came along, we started collecting works by the anti-war movement--books, pamphlets, flyers and manuscripts from lawyers who defended people (from) the draft."
With its three-member staff and a yearly budget of about $100,000--raised through book sales and donations--the library now houses literature spanning the farm workers' movement, the women's movement and the Iran-Contra scandal. It also preserves rare film footage from social movements covering much of the century.
Cooper said the work is considered invaluable to scholars and film makers. But street traffic, especially since the locked iron gate was installed, is usually slow. "I wouldn't say people just drop in," she said.