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Literary License

Reserved books, ordered books, returned books, new books, repaired books, not to mention mail and office supplies--in the hour before dawn, far below the Central Library’s tiled pyramid, the Los Angeles Public Library’s six vans are being loaded for their daily run. Supervising the work is senior driver Bob McLellan, 43, in jeans jacket and a faded black thermal shirt. Previous jobs at a steel foundry and in construction might not be standard preparation, but McLellan, like the other drivers, talks basic library--a language full of references to “patrons,” “holds,” “turnover” and “reserves.”

Driving the Hollywood Freeway to the San Diego north before the morning clog, McLellan says that the 82-mile West Valley route is the heaviest. “They keep coming up with better and better ways,” he says, “for the patrons to get books.” Books have always traveled among the library’s 66 branches, but since November, with the introduction of a computerized system that enables a patron to place a hold on any book in the catalog for free, more and more books are hitting the road. The new system, according to Joanna Reagan, the library’s acting director for access and collections, has increased the number of books placed on hold weekly from 2,000 to 12,000. In the words of Frank Navarro, West Valley Branch senior librarian, the drivers are “our post office, UPS and FedEx combined.”

By 7:35 a.m., McLellan is backing the 15-foot step van to the door of the new Mid-Valley regional branch in Northridge, a massive curved and turreted building that sits in an empty parking lot. After depositing 11 bins, McLellan picks up 12. Before leaving, though, he organizes the books by destination: Granada Hills (S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders”); West Valley (Sandra Cisneros’ “Woman Hollering Creek” and “The Wealthy Barber--Everyone’s Common Sense Guide to Becoming Financially Independent”); Chatsworth (E.D. Hirsch’s “What Your Kindergartener Needs to Know” and Geraldine Ferraro’s autobiography); Exposition Park (Jane Hamilton’s “The Book of Ruth”); Platt (“Conversations With Boulez: Thoughts on Conducting”).

At the early stops--Mid-Valley, Granada Hills, Porter Ranch--in the hours before the librarians arrive, the deliveries seem almost magical. McLellan uses keys and codes to deactivate alarms, propping open doors with bricks, boards and stones to make the promised deliveries. At Canoga Park he drops off “Kaffir Boy” by South African writer Mark Mathabane. The previous day, the book had been requested, the order routed to Granada Hills, and now, at 9:20, it waits for its reader. These mad jumbles of books, these startling juxtapositions of titles, probably could be found in the deposit bins of any branch any night, but in transit, traversing streets lined with car lots and shopping malls and fast-food outlets, they conjure up another city--a hidden city of readers.

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