IT’S business as usual on a Saturday morning at the Chinatown Branch Library on Hill Street, just a block from the heart of the busy shopping district. The tiny parking lot is so full that an attendant is needed to shift cars around. Crowds are pouring in and out of the crisp concrete-metal-and-glass building where inside dozens of preteen kids squeeze shoulder to shoulder, playing video games at a long row of computers -- so many kids, in fact, that a librarian steps up to remind them that only two can play together at any single terminal.
At nearby tables, scores of adults are plowing through books or reading to toddlers. And beyond them, just as many teenagers sit at computer terminals, surrounded by research materials -- studying or chatting with friends. All this activity puts to rest the memory of the library as a place where you have to “shush.”
Once predicted to be a dying breed, libraries are proving to be as vibrant as ever. They provide financial relief for those with insatiable appetites for books, magazines, DVDs and CDs -- and comic books. They are a refuge on a hot summer day for anyone with a looming deadline and a need for a cool place to rest a laptop, a place where tables -- and air-conditioning -- are plentiful, and there’s no need to keep a coffee cup filled to justify a prolonged stay. And librarians are actually happy to help answer a difficult research question.
Throughout the city of Los Angeles, which is served by the downtown Richard J. Riordan Central Library and 71 branches, about half of the library buildings are experiencing a major rejuvenation that began in 1998, when city voters approved Proposition DD, a $178.3-million bond to rebuild 32 branch libraries and add four new ones. (That came on the heels of a $53.4-million bond measure to improve libraries in 1989.)
Under the watchful eye of former city librarian Susan Kent and her successor, Fontayne Holmes, who headed up the construction project, a massive upgrading of the branch system has included attention to quality architectural design as well as community needs. Most of the new and renovated projects have been completed over the last five years, with most projects costing between $3 million and $4 million. The result is a brightening of neighborhoods both needy and affluent. And more improvements are in the works.
Each of the branches has its own character, the result of numerous public meetings designed to ensure they serve the needs and desires of individual neighborhoods. They run the gamut in site location -- some spruce up busy urban streets, others are tucked into quiet residential neighborhoods. Some of the architecture is aggressively modern, some is conventional, but making the decision as to which would fit was an inclusive process.
All offer collections geared to their individual community, often emphasizing non-English-language materials, and each has designated areas and programs for teens as well as small children. Most also have artworks, some more original and outstanding than others. Reference desks are staffed full time by librarians, in addition to check-out personnel, and every library has a large meeting room for special programs and public use.
Visiting a number of these branches can give renewed faith in the power of public works and show off L.A.'s diverse communities. The following is a small sampling of sites.
The jutting forms of the architecture of Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates wake up an otherwise dreary strip of Polk Street, a neighborhood where older, small houses mix with liquor stores, pizza takeout and ethnic bakeries. The library, light and cheerful, comes as a surprise and serves as a welcoming entryway to the schools and playing fields just beyond. Wildly different in style from everything around it, the corrugated metal exterior, large windows and brightly colored roofline -- yellow, green, orange and blue -- beckon visitors.
Completed in 2003 at a cost of $3.7 million, the 12,500-square-foot building still looks brand-new, even though it’s clear from the slight wear on the furniture that this is a well-used facility. The interior includes a bright large space that opens onto specialized secondary areas, all with clerestory windows high enough to focus only on the view of the rugged hills in the distance. Tables and chairs playfully echo schoolhouse style in both adult and child sizes. Computers are available throughout but are not the major centerpiece of activity that they are in some branches.
On several recent visits, the atmosphere was consistently quiet but welcoming, and even on the weekends the space was not crowded, though there was a steady flow of users. Signs are in English and Spanish, and the collections include numerous Spanish-language books, videos and other materials. This is a mixed-use, multiethnic area, a commercial and suburban sprawl serving a cross section of income levels, and the patrons include families, the elderly and younger adults.
Because it received supplemental community support, the rustic-looking branch in the heart of Pacific Palisades reflects its affluent surroundings. Nevertheless, at 11,500 square feet, it is no larger than the others, and it sports the same mix of meeting spaces, collections of books on a variety of topics and a reading room. Completed in 2003, this branch cost $3.9 million to upgrade, which included demolishing the former library and constructing a new facility, as well as a parking lot.
The site borders the tip of Palisades Park, and as a nod to the park-like setting, Killefer, Flammang, Purtill Architects created a cozy, stone-coated structure. Although there’s a cluster of office buildings and a busy shopping district just to the north, inside the library the view focuses on a peaceful ravine and the parkland beyond. Interior furnishings are done in American Craftsman style, with dark-wood tables and tall-backed chairs. On a recent afternoon, every seat was filled, and the children’s nook, decorated with a colorful Cinderella mural painted by Krist Garard in the style of traditional storybook illustrations, was overflowing with families.
Public offerings include lawyers presenting advice on divorce proceedings and salsa dance workshops for teens. A movie series geared to seniors is offered on the third Friday afternoon of each month.
Despite its proximity to the vast resources of UCLA, Westwood did not have its own public library until the opening of a new branch in May. Designed by Steven Ehrlich Architects, the 12,500-square-foot building cost $5.56 million, more than the others because of the land purchase and the fact that it was not a renovation or expansion. The building is boxed in by high-rises and parking lots. Distinct from most other branches, it is a two-story structure, with its community room on the ground level and the rest of the facility above.
The architecture is Modernist -- simple and linear, with exposed beams emphasizing the vertical structure of the building. The entrance opens onto a grand staircase leading to the central reading room, and wood paneling warms the corporate feeling of the space. Upstairs is open and somewhat stark, with clerestory windows looking out on treetops of jacaranda, palm and willow. A balcony, closed on the day I visited, allows visitors to step outside for some air.
This branch feels like a work-in-progress, with lots of room on the stacks to add more books, audio- and videotapes. And as an added plus, everything looks very new, with a sense of promise of more to come. Brochures enlist neighbors to become involved in an endowment campaign, appealing to the surrounding neighborhoods. Recent programs have included an animation voice-over workshop for teens and an ongoing Women of Mystery book discussion series, with more under development.
Two well-used branches serve Hollywood -- the newly rebuilt Will and Ariel Durant Branch, on Sunset Boulevard just west of La Brea Avenue, and the Frances Howard Goldwyn Regional Branch on Ivar Avenue, designed in the mid-1980s by Frank Gehry, now closed for renovation.
The Durant branch had been housed in a rickety building on a narrow apartment-lined street, squished into a residential neighborhood with inadequate parking. The new 12,500-square-foot structure, built for slightly more than $3.3 million and designed by Barton Phelps, rises in stately form and faces a fast-evolving tract of the most famous boulevard in the city.
With its terra cotta exterior and paving, the building has a natural, earthy feeling that is both neutral and inviting. The stacks are packed and include a large collection of Russian-language materials to accommodate the local population. The L-shaped space is busy at all times, given the round-the-clock nature of this part of Hollywood. A large open reading room greets visitors, but there are also private nooks and the requisite separate areas for children and teens. Two outdoor patios with seating are accessible from inside the building as well.
On Wednesdays, a writers group, focusing on all methods, meets to share, critique and improve skills, and a variety of occasional family events is offered regularly, including magic shows and used-book sales. A chess club for teenagers meets on Saturday afternoons.
The architecture of the Chinatown Branch, designed by Carde Ten Architects, stands out on busy North Hill Street at the southern end of historic Chinatown. The 14,500-square-foot project, which was built new on this site, cost $4.4 million and included archeological excavation, with the evidence of more than 350 years of L.A. history displayed in a vitrine at the library entrance. Native American jewelry from the 17th and 18th century is shown, as well as Mexican stoneware from the late 19th century and shards of Chinese pottery from the earliest days of Chinatown, in the 1930s. The building’s interior is bright and light, and the urban setting is nicely balanced by walls of bamboo growing outside the windows.
Collections are largely geared to the local Asian population, in a mix of English, Chinese and Vietnamese. Signs are in Chinese and English, but to serve the neighborhood just to the south, which is largely Latino, the library also offers a substantial selection of Spanish-language materials.
In addition, a section is devoted to English-language texts about Asian culture, including Chinese heritage reference books as well as literature.
There’s also a homework center, and English-language tutoring is offered for kids and adults. Citizenship classes are conducted on Mondays and Wednesdays. A recent Saturday program offered teens advice on “Strategies for Success in High School and College,” and computer classes teach how to use e-mail.
Mark Twain Branch, South Los Angeles
Among the 13 branches in South Los Angeles, the Mark Twain has one of the longest histories of service. First opened in 1928 in a tiny storefront, it has existed at its current site at Figueroa Street and West Colden Avenue since 1960, when a facility less than half the size of the current one was built.
The latest structure, by Tetra Design, was completed in 2002 at a cost of $3.2 million and has become a popular addition to a neighborhood of single-family houses mixed with auto resale outlets and storefront churches. The building sports a bright gold-and-purple facade that announces the library’s presence with a cheerful blast, and the 9,900-square-foot interior continues the happy disharmony.
Inside, the atmosphere is colorful, and the visitors are friendly and neighborly. Above the checkout is a large mural by artist Michael Massenburg inspired by African American history that includes inspirational sayings such as “To read is to explore” and “A book is a friend....” The library serves a mostly African American clientele and carries Spanish-language materials.
Computers have a strong presence in the large open area, and the stacks for the collections of books and other media are extensive and appear well stocked.
An evening “Sleepy Time Storytime,” in which the librarian reads bedtime stories for kids, is a frequent feature, and volunteers from the GAB (Grandparents and Books) Volunteer Readers program are regularly on hand, as in all the branch libraries, to read to children.
Pico Union Branch
The original proposal for a new Pico Union library was quite modern, which would have been out of step with the historic neighborhood on Alvarado Street, just south of Olympic Boulevard. With its mix of aging Craftsman homes and small businesses, this neighborhood serves many cultures and ethnicities, and residents wanted a traditional-style building, so the city accommodated them.
The 12,500-square-foot building, designed by Barry Milofsky and opened in 2004 at a cost of $3.4 million, echoes the Carnegie Library style of the early 20th century, with a warm brick exterior and decorative arched entryway. Inside is also very traditional, with a large entry chamber filled with dark-wood tables and stiff-backed chairs as well as Craftsman chairs in lounge areas. Old-style is broken, however, by the multiple carrels for computers that dominate the front room.
Perhaps because of the architecture, the mood here is somewhat quieter than at many of the other branches, though the place is well used, in particular by Latino neighbors, to whom the collections clearly cater. Arched entrances also lead to separate rooms for the stacks, where the collection is divided between Spanish and English materials. The children’s area is especially inviting at this branch, with a hearth designed by Mary Lynn Dominguez that, instead of flames, contains a florescent-colored painting of a peacock surrounded by flowers.
The librarians have organized many programs for every age, including preschool story time, salsa dancing, a summer reading club and computer classes. The only unfortunate aspect to an otherwise welcoming place is that outside, adjacent to the parking lot, the library also has a lovely small garden with seating that is locked off for daily use because it doesn’t have a security system and people were mistaking it as an entry and exit. However, it is used for supervised children’s activities and other special events.