A Shrine to the Printed Word

At 5,000 square feet, the makeshift Little Tokyo Branch Library suffers from an acute case of One-Room-Schoolhouse Syndrome. Shelves groaning with books line every available inch of dimly lit wall. Periodicals are wedged between the tiny children's and young adults' sections. And special events--author lectures, origami workshops, karate demonstrations--must be held in the middle of the reading room, silence be damned.

But all that will change next year when the branch moves to more spacious digs a few blocks away at Los Angeles and 2nd streets. There, in the shadow of historic St. Vibiana's Cathedral (now being renovated as a performing arts center), the Los Angeles Public Library is building a new Asian-inflected home for the system's largest collection of Japanese-language materials and a special collection of English-language books about Japanese and Japanese American culture.

"We've been dreaming of a bigger and permanent library for years, so this is a dream come true," says Cathy Chang, senior librarian.

Originally a bookmobile stop in 1977, the branch opened in donated space at Centenary United Methodist Church in 1989. Six years later, it graduated to the quarters it currently leases in an office building at Alameda and 3rd streets. Now, thanks to a 1998 bond election that approved funds for 32 new branch libraries, Little Tokyo is finally getting a custom-built facility.

Los Angeles architect Anthony J. Lumsden designed the low-key 12,500-square-foot, single-story structure. Much of his previous work--such as the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys and the Ontario International Airport expansion--features massive concrete and soaring steel. In contrast, the library's simple wood and glass construction recalls traditional Japanese architecture as well as the early work of Frank Lloyd Wright and R.M. Schindler.

"We didn't want to build a flamboyant building," says Lumsden, who also designed the Sherman Oaks Branch Library. "We wanted a building that related to natural light [and] views into a garden and how those things can change an environment throughout the day." Interiors will be finished in warm Douglas fir, cedar and pine. Vertical fins intersecting the flat roof and baffled ceiling will bounce sun through skylights and windows for indirect lighting at the center of the building. Several glass walls will look out on three small courtyard gardens, planted with azaleas and Japanese maples.

Lumsden laid out administrative offices and the stacks so that the children's section, young adults' section and main reading room could be oriented away from busy city streets and toward a more tranquil park and plaza outside St. Vibiana's. He also provided a multipurpose room for special events.

The $7-million project, which broke ground in July, is expected to be completed by late summer. For some, moving day can't come soon enough. "It means so much to us to have a state-of-the-art site where we can carry on," says Janet Minami, president of the Friends of the Little Tokyo Branch Library. "We worked so hard and so long to get this."

Twenty-seven years to be exact, but good things come to those who wait.

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