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How Do Our Libraries Stack Up?

Libraries are among man’s most ancient and enduring cultural achievements, and at the same time among the most fragile; witness the obliteration of the great library at Alexandria, Egypt; the wanton destruction of the Hollywood branch library by fire, and the disastrous damage inflicted on the Los Angeles Central Library by a sociopathic arsonist.

Sociopaths are not the only villains.

Now we read that the California Historical Society has closed its library in San Francisco for lack of money. The library houses 8,500 manuscripts, 35,000 historical texts, 3,000 maps and several special collections found nowhere else. All will now be closed to scholars and the public.

Also, according to a letter to the editor from Dr. Patrick A. Mauer, the library of the Los Angeles County Medical Assn. will soon be closed so that the association may divert the money it costs to other uses. The library is to be surrendered to something ominously called “reconfiguration;’ meanwhile, its collection is to be scattered or sold, and physicians are to be directed to other library services.

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Whatever the association’s rationale, I would hate to see this library vanish, if not by fire by ukase. It has stood for 55 years on its quiet corner at Wilshire and Westlake, a block from MacArthur (Westlake) Park, serving not only the medical community but also the public at large.

I am not a doctor but I have used this cozy library many times, recently to search its 1,000 medical journals for the latest articles on a neurological disorder I am interested in.

Besides holding 87,000 books and 63,600 bound volumes of periodicals, it has a precious collection of rare medical books, and serves as a quaint museum of medical artifacts. In its lobby a collection of antique medical instruments is displayed under glass; in an alcove one stares incredulously at a life-size model of a pregnant woman once used by students in the study of obstetrics.

The library obviously has been built and administered with love and care. I agree with Dr. Mauer that “It is difficult to envision the continuation of (the association’s) worthy tradition (‘the betterment of the medical profession and the interchange of knowledge within the profession’) if this library is so wantonly destroyed.”

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Meanwhile, as the central library labors toward restoration and renaissance, the Pasadena Public Library is showing what a library can do with generous community support.

I toured the library recently with its librarian, Edward Szynaka; he is orchestrating a multimillion-dollar restoration that will prepare the library for the 21st Century without defacing architect Myron Hunt’s 1927 Spanish Colonial Revival masterpiece.

The great reception hall, 42 feet high and lined with oak panels, will be kept intact. (One problem is the removal of pits caused by women’s stiletto heels in the original cork floor.) The children’s room is being restored with a gift from a Pasadena businessman.

Szynaka demonstrated the computerized indexing system that is replacing the old card catalogues. One simply punches the title of a book, an author, or a subject, and the computer screen shows whatever is in the collection. I wondered if the technology might be difficult for some users.

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To show how easy it was, Szynaka punched in my name. Instantly the screen showed that 22 copies of my books were in the collection. “And they’re all in the library,” he said.

Obviously it was time to retire some of the copies, perhaps in the annual public book sale.

The computer index includes the library’s eight branches and the Glendale Public Library, with which Pasadena has reciprocal privileges. “Eventually,” he said, “it will include the whole nation. If you want something from the Harvard Theological Library, you can get it.”

Last year the library checked out 1.6 million books--10 per capita of the city’s 160,000 population. Cardholders may check out 50 books at a time for 28 days. At any time, 12% of the books in circulation are overdue.

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Szynaka seems happy in his work. No wonder. His first assignment, after his graduation from the University of Syracuse, was at the library in Massena, N.Y., on the St. Lawrence River Seaway. “It was 40 below in February,” he recalled. “At night only the library and the pool hall were open.”

Libraries need all the help they can get. As Ray Brabury says, they are “the universities of the poor.”


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