If you believe recent reports, the Library Foundation of Los Angeles’ ALOUD program, where literati come to see important authors interviewed about their works, is doomed.
These reports have prompted dire appeals at public meetings, angry opinion pieces and a petition protesting the reported demise of a program that has been at the heart of a small sector of the writing community.
I’d be outraged, too, if ALOUD were going away. But it isn’t.
The truth is we at the Library Foundation are changing ALOUD, and we’re changing it because we must.
The ALOUD literary series was created 16 years ago, and it has failed to keep up with the profound social and demographic changes that are reshaping the city and its cultural life. Our data show that it serves a very dedicated, niche audience that is increasingly unrepresentative of the patrons in the library system’s 470-square-mile service area.
As downtown L.A. explodes with new life, ALOUD isn’t attracting new audience members.
The foundation has known this for some time. Since 2014, a number of outside consultants have warned that ALOUD was beginning to stagnate. Its one-on-one interview format, once cutting-edge, was no longer unique. Its weeknight schedule of free programs anchored at the Central Library’s Taper Auditorium has rendered the series all but inaccessible to much of the public.
As downtown L.A. explodes with new life, ALOUD isn’t attracting new audience members from the dynamic mix of people filling lofts, art galleries and cafes surrounding the library. ALOUD has on average 50 empty seats per event.
Meanwhile, ALOUD is facing competitive pressure. Book lovers and civic-minded residents are turning to bigger venues such as the ACE Hotel on Broadway, where they can also hear marquee authors and nationally recognized thought-leaders speak.
ALOUD experimented over the last few years by holding a number of its own off-site events featuring authors, leading artists and prominent public figures such as Patti Smith, David Axelrod and Judy Blume.
In May, ALOUD sold out the Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo for an evening with former FBI Director James Comey discussing the Trump administration and the 2016 presidential election. It attracted 800 people from throughout the Los Angeles area who bought 665 books, compared to an average of 47 books sold at ALOUD’s usual events.
Major off-site programs generate essential revenue that can help support the rest of ALOUD’s programming. But doing only one or two off-sites does not offset the increasing expenses for a series such as ALOUD.
I wanted ALOUD managers to augment their regular schedule at the Taper with off-site events each year. This would widen the appeal of the program, raise its public profile and make ALOUD financially self-sufficient. I also hired additional staff in 2015 to help ALOUD with this new mandate.
However, the program never consistently scheduled the number of off-sites that I requested. Unfortunately, based on my interactions with the former managers, who had been involved in all of our deliberations, I concluded that our visions were not aligned.
As a result, I decided to restructure the program and fold ALOUD into a bigger portfolio under a newly created management position for public programming.
I regret that the Library Foundation hasn’t been more forthcoming about the reasons for changing ALOUD. We kept silent out of respect for the former ALOUD managers, whose valuable work created a signature program.
To those who have protested the changes, I promise that ALOUD’s core programming will continue. You can expect to spend many nights each year at the Taper Auditorium listening to compelling authors discuss their works for free. But we can’t stand still while the city around us is transformed and other programs lure away writers and commentators who once were exclusively ours.
ALOUD must change. Building on its strong tradition, we will expand this series to reach a larger section of L.A.’s cultural life. And we will do it by diversifying its events, its audience and its venues to engage with all of Los Angeles.
Kenneth Brecher is president of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, a private nonprofit organization that provides philanthropic support for the Los Angeles Public Library.