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One for the Books : Sparkling $2.2-Million Library Gives Wilmington a Lift

Times Staff Writer

“Wilmington’s Taj Mahal,” Sara Mota called it.

Well, maybe not, but the new Wilmington branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, with its 38-foot-high vaulted ceiling, interior brick arches and red tile roof, does spiff up Avalon Boulevard and the community’s commercial district.

And, as president of Friends of the Wilmington Branch Library, Mota said that kind of visibility will go a long way toward attracting new patrons to the facility, which opens for business Monday with dedication ceremonies at 10 a.m.

“People go by,” she said, “and they want to know, ‘What in the world is that?’ ”

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‘Nicest Library’

Or, as Randy Wantland, the moving man who delivered the library furniture Thursday, declared: “This is the nicest library I’ve been to, and I’ve moved a lot of them.”

The $2.2-million library at Avalon Boulevard and M Street replaces an antiquated--if charming--pale yellow stucco building on West Opp Street.

That library, built in 1927 at a cost of $28,000, is one of the oldest in the Los Angeles system. It was built to serve 20,000 residents--one-fourth of Wilmington’s current population. It has no carpeting, no air conditioning and no off-street parking--a frequent complaint from patrons who were afraid to walk to it after dark.

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The old library’s children’s section was next to the area for adults, making quiet study difficult. Its public meeting room was long ago converted into a storage room for books that no longer fit the bookshelves’ 30,000-volume capacity.

“We had severe space problems,” said senior librarian Laurie Aron. “We couldn’t let the collections grow. For every book we put in, we had to take one out.”

The new, 10,800-square-foot library is three times the size of the old one. It has a 45-car parking lot, shelf space for 55,000 volumes, a separate section for youngsters and a meeting room that seats 65 people--not to mention noise-absorbing carpeting and air conditioning.

One thing it will not have, however, is the old library’s distinctive moniker--"Biblioteca del Pueblo de Wilmington.” The name, painted on the front of the West Opp Street building, is testimony to the community’s large Latino population.

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The sign in front of the new library says simply, “Los Angeles Public Library, Wilmington Branch.”

Aron is quick to note, however, that the Latino community will by no means be ignored in the new library. She said the Wilmington branch has the third-largest Spanish-volume collection of the 62 branch libraries in the Los Angeles system, some of the staff is bilingual and signs in the new building will be in Spanish and in English.

And she said she doesn’t think the biblioteca sign will be missed by residents, who, she noted, have been pressing for a new library for nearly two decades.

It was not until 1981, when Joan Milke Flores was first elected to the Los Angeles City Council, that the residents’ campaign for a new library took off. Flores promised to make it a priority if elected. After she took office, the City Council approved plans to set aside federal funding for the building.

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The project was not without bureaucratic snags, however. There were disputes over the sale of land for the building, over the affirmative action policies of the contractor and over the architectural drawings, all of which caused delays.

‘Waiting a Long Time’

When officials finally broke ground for the building in May of last year, Mota told a reporter: “A lot of people are saying that they won’t believe it until they see it. People have been waiting a long time for this.”

Residents have spent the past year watching the progress of construction and, more recently, trying to determine what to do with the old library building. A citizens advisory committee appointed by Flores has recommended retaining it for public use, possibly as a meeting place for the new Wilmington Historical Society.

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Before it can be occupied, however, the building’s roof must be repaired and its bathrooms refurbished to provide access for the handicapped. Flores aide Susan Pritchard said that city officials are still trying to obtain funding for the work, and that once the repairs are completed, the city will look for someone to operate and maintain the building.

The old library was closed Sept. 10, and the move has been under way since then. The library staff, volunteers and the California Conservation Corps helped in the transition, which included color-coding the shelves and the books to make it easier to tell where everything went.

The crew packed and moved 2,000 boxes in eight days, Aron said. Some loose ends were still being tied up Thursday morning--the card catalogue drawers, for example, remained boxed in their cartons.

Aron said the volunteers dusted and cleaned each book they moved. “Everything was dirty,” she said--a problem she does not expect in the new library.

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“It was hot, dusty and crowded in our old building. I think people are going to want to be in this building because it’s so beautiful, it’s air-conditioned and it’s clean.”


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