Piece of Mind: A look back at our reading history

The biggest event in town 40 years ago this week — next to the commencement exercises being held for the LCHS Class of 1971, that is — was the grand opening of the new public library on Oakwood Avenue. Its predecessor was just one of the hundreds of casualties felt here when the state Division of Highways cut a wide swath through our valley to make way for the 210 Freeway.

Rapid gains in technology and the recent popularity of e-readers lead me to wonder what libraries (and bookstores) will morph into within the next decade or so. But I’m in a mood to look back today, so I thought I’d reflect on the history of the La Cañada library. Maybe you’ll enjoy a little trip down that road with me. Perhaps it will provide stimulating dinner table fodder: You might be able to stump your companions with such questions as, “Do you know when the first La Cañada library was founded?” Or, “Guess how many different sites La Cañada’s library has occupied?”

Well, let’s not delay in getting to the heart of the subject: According to a vintage Valley Sun report, in May 1913 La Cañada was one of the first communities in Los Angeles County to establish a branch of what was then called the “County Free Library,” and it did so two weeks after the first branch opened in Willowbrook.

The report doesn’t give the exact street address, but the branch was established inside La Cañada’s general store, so it may well have been on our main drag, once known as Michigan Avenue and known today as Foothill Boulevard. Custodian of the books, as the librarian was called, was Mrs. J.W. Stultz, who oversaw all 71 titles the library had on its shelves.

Word spread rather quickly that the new library was in business. In its first month of its existence, La Cañadans checked out books on 16 occasions. A month later, Mrs. Stultz reported circulation was up to 83. The La Cañada library ended its first fiscal year with 32 registered borrowers; a total of 24 cents had been collected in overdue fines.

By the end of 1914, the library’s collection had expanded to 423 titles, some of which had been specially requested by patrons: “Little Women,” Promised Land,” “Peter Pan” and “Fairy Tales” by Hans Christian Andersen, among them.

The library made its first move in 1915, when its 574 books were transported from the general store to the La Cañada Elementary School campus.

By the end of 1932, the number of registered borrowers exceeded 500. The library was becoming a thriving hub. It was moved off the school campus and into a storefront at 953 Foothill Blvd., where the Town Center is today. It remained there until the building’s owner sold it in 1947. During the World War II years, the librarian, Margaret Person, saw circulation drop. In a report to the county she wrote, “A number of patrons have left the Valley to be nearer their war work. Many young men have been called into war service…leisure is out for the duration.”

Due to the building’s sale, the library had to relocate again. And again the La Cañada Elementary campus became its temporary home. After six months, the county leased space in a building on the south side of Foothill, across the street from the school. This was also a temporary measure, until the county purchased property at 4510 La Cañada Blvd. in 1948. The new, “permanent,” $45,000 library was opened there on Feb. 22, 1951 and boasted 7500 volumes. There were some expansions as time went on and the collection grew, particularly in the area of children’s books, to include 27,000 volumes. It was over-crowded at the time word was received in the late 1960s that it would be demolished to make way for the freeway.

The building was closed permanently on June 22, 1968 and the library moved to leased quarters in the 1300 block of Foothill while plans were made for the library we know today.

When the $512,000 Oakwood Avenue facility opened in June 1971, it was triple the size of the La Cañada Boulevard site and was set up to hold 70,000 books.

We’re just two years out from the 100th anniversary of the La Cañada branch of the county library system. What will the stacks look like then? Or will there even be stacks?

Mrs. Stultz would be amazed if she knew what her little library has become, and probably would be astounded by the way people get their “reads” today.

CAROL CORMACI is managing editor of the Valley Sun. She can be reached at ccormaci@valleysun.net or carol.cormaci@latimes.com

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