Los Angeles Central Library

Jessica Macias


Library Research Blog

Professor Wrenn-Estes

San Jose State University


Los Angeles Central Library is located at 630 W. 5th Street in gorgeous downtown Los Angeles, California. With more than 6 million items in the collection, the library is one of the largest publicly funded library systems in the world. The library was first established in 1872 and was called the Central Library. The historic Central Library Goodhue building was constructed in 1926  and stands today as a historical landmark in downtown despite two fires that nearly destroyed the building. Today, the Richard Riordon Central Library (commonly known as the Los Angeles Central Library) is the third largest public library in the United States in terms of book and periodical holdings. The original name of this building was the Central Library, but the building was renamed in honor of Rufus B. von KleinSmid. He was the longtime president of the Board of Library Commissioners and President of the University of Southern California. In 2001, the building was renamed after Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.


Throughout history, libraries have been the repositories of nations’ accumulated knowledge and the epicenters of their culture. Central libraries, more than being big buildings containing books, are important landmarks designed with impressive architecture and filled with symbolic art. The Los Angeles Central Library is certainly no exception with it’s unique mix of Egyptian and Medieval architecture.

The rich history of the library’s early years was described by Los Angeles Times writer, Cecilia Rasmussen, in the following details:

“The saga of the Los Angeles Central Library is as dramatic as any that can be found in the books on its shelves. Designed by a man who died before it could be finished, the unique and beloved building was nearly torn down by city fathers and nearly undone by two arson fires, only to rise from its own ashes.”

The library originated in 1844 in a town of fewer than 1,500 people, with a collection of donated books and some cherished newspapers that were only 6 months old. For decades, the city’s collection remained a movable feast, shifting from donated quarters above a saloon, to a floor of old City Hall, to a department store. The collection would overflow one location and simply move to another.

The Central Library began as a reading room that moved around small locations in Los Angeles. In 1872, the pioneer founders of the Los Angles Public Library gathered to to establish the library system. The first trustees of the library were Samuel Bradford Caswell, John G. Downey, H.K. Bent, R.H. Dalton, W.B. Lawlor, W.H. Mace, J. R. McConnell, Harris Newmark, H.W. Potts, Ygnacio Sepulveda, George Hugh Smith, George Stonemen, and T.W. Temple. The races and ethnic backgrounds of the founders varied. Since 1872, the Los Angeles Public Library has enriched the Los Angeles community. In the early years, the community was primarily Jewish and it later grew to be primarily Latino. However, the library has long been an integral part of the community by giving individuals of every race, color and creed free and easy access to a vast array of ideas and information while supporting lifelong learning in a welcoming environment. In the 1920’s Library Board of Commissioners Chairman, Orra E. Monnette, spear headed the push for a new larger building for the central branch and for new locations for more branches in the Los Angeles System.

Since the early years, before the 1926 Goodhue building was constructed, the services were general and “inspired by the love of reading” (The Getty Conservation Institute). I got the sense that the library was targeted for all Los Angeles citizens but there was certainly a sense that prominent racism and sexism didn’t provide for a welcoming environment for all citizens . The city has long been ethnically and racially diverse. However, I did get the sense that Asian populations were not reflected in the diverse population that the library was intended to serve and also women were blocked from reading and participating in the formation of the library. Between about 1890 and 1920, the city was experiencing a surge in racial conflicts and the increase in business ownership by Whites was reflected in the library’s early years of operation.

library2 library4 library3


Staff and Operations

The following list details the librarians at the library over the years:


The first librarian, John Littlefield, oversaw the central library from 1872 until 1879. John C. Littlefield, the editor of the Los Angeles Weekly Express, was appointed the city’s first librarian in 1872. He was succeeded in 1879 by an untrained partisan appointee, Patrick Connolly, who, it was suggested, was an alcoholic who missed more than his share of days at work and was discharged by the library board, which then vowed to name a “lady librarian.”

Women played a subsidiary role in Los Angeles Public Library affairs for many years. On the library’s founding in 1872, women were excluded from even using it.

“However, this situation quickly changed. Within its first six months of operation, the board discussed allowing “ladies” limited membership, letting them use their male relatives’ membership cards to gain access to the library’s collections. In 1876 the library added a “Ladies Room” to its complex. Although the new room did not contain books, it did house a number of popular magazines as well as comfortable sofas and chairs for local club women to use” (Hansen, Gracy, Irvin, 1999, p. 314).

In the librarian history of Los Angeles, Charles Lummis and Mary Foy are two of Los Angeles’ better known librarians, though their tenures as librarians were brief compared to their larger roles in Los Angeles.

Known as Miss Los Angeles, Mary Foy was the first woman to be City Librarian, serving from 1880 to 1884. She worked to preserve the city’s history in numerous ways, from organizing the Los Angeles High School alumni to organizing the First Century Families. At the Central Library, The California Room was made in Foy’s honor though it was not part of the redesign after the 1986 fires.

Foy later wrote that her responsibilities on the job in the Central Library in Los Angeles included:

“Setting up a catalogue system, keeping the library accounts, acting as hostess in the Ladies Reading Room, serving as referee for ongoing chess games in the Newspaper Room, and settling bets made in the downstairs saloon on such questions as, “Who wrote Webster’s Dictionary: Noah or Daniel?”

According to Sheri D. Irvin, in those days the appointment of women to Los Angeles city positions was often done for semi-charitable reasons such as a woman’s need for financial support. When Mayor Toberman left office, a new library board was appointed and another woman appointed in Foy’s place. Foy did not, however, leave quietly. In fact she published “a valedictory in the newspaper where she criticized the board for its lack of involvement and interest in the library.”

Charles Lummis was never trained as a librarian and only served as City Librarian from 1905-1910. His acquisitions on the Spanish and Mexican period of California’s history are still held in the library’s collection today, and Lummis’ own private library became the foundation for the Southwest Museum Library, now part of the Autry National Center’s Braun Research Library. At the American Library Association convention in 1906, Lummis founded a briefly-lived tongue-in-cheek organization The Bibliosmiles, a “Rally of Librarians Who Are Nevertheless Human.” The organization’s motto was “To Keep the Bookdust Off Our Own Topshelves’.”

Since its founding in 1872, the Los Angeles Public Library has acquired and made available books, journals and other forms of information that concern Mexico, whose influence on the culture of Los Angeles and California has always been and continues to be profound.

The Mexicana Collection is spread throughout the library system, in the subject departments, the Rare Books Department, and the community branches. It is a rich resource for students, teachers, parents, entrepreneurs, and researchers of every level who are interested in the heritage that Mexico continues to give to the world.

Books in Spanish were a large part of the first collections when the library opened in 1872. By the 1890s, the librarians were buying or receiving as gifts important books on Mexican history.

During his tenure as City Librarian from 1905 to 1910, Charles Lummis made the Mexicana Collection a priority, greatly expanding material on the discovery of the Americas, the history of Mexico and of California, and on the cultures of native peoples.

As a result, the Rare Books Department has hundreds of important and rare books on these subjects which supplement the materials found throughout the Central Library and the branches.

Very little information could be found on the salaries of the first librarians. The turnover for the position was about every 3-6 years in the beginning. The first board of trustees 1872-1878 consisted of John G. Downey-president, H. K. W. Bent, S. B. Caswell, R. H. Dalton, W. B. Lawlor, W. H. Mace, J. R. McConnell, Harris Newmark, A. W. Potts, Ygnacio Sepulveda, George Hugh Smith, George Stoneman, and T. W. Temple.

The history of the former Los Angeles Central Library is rich partly because of the people who held the position as librarian over the years. I tried to go as far back as possible to highlight some of the achievements these professionals made and the many programs and services that they introduced to the city in the library’s early years.

As City Librarian from 1889 – 1895, Tessa L. Kelso created the first library training class, increased the number of books to 40,000, and established “the first delivery stations to extend service to the growing neighborhoods of Los Angeles.” She organized the Association for the Preservation of the Missions, “the first serious attempt to preserve the California Missions,” according to George Wharton James. To promote awareness, Kelso held “stereopticon exhibitions,” led trips to the Missions, and exhibited mission photographs at the library. When she left the organization, Kelso supported Charles Lummis’ Landmarks Club to continue preservation efforts. She once sued the city treasurer because he wouldn’t reimburse her expenses for annual meetings of the American Library Association — the treasurer didn’t think it was a good use of public funds. One newspaper editorial concurred, suggesting “librarians should hand out books and type catalogue cards and not attend professional meetings to exchange knowledge.”

Kelso hired Adelaise Hasse, who the New York Times called the “Champion Fast Lady Bicycle rider of Los Angeles” in 1897. Hasse rose to national fame when she devised a classification system for Los Angeles government documents, which caught the attention of the newly authorized Government Printing Office in Washington, D.C. She was asked to be its first librarian, and later worked for the New York Public Library. Some remember her for her acerbic personality, but she had a drive for excellence and is considered one of the 100 most influential people in library history in the United States.

Mary L. Jones, librarian from 1900 to 1905, was the first Los Angeles librarian to attend library school. Under her leadership the library purchased 500 out-of-print Spanish language books, forming the foundation of the library’s California history collection. Her achievements are often overshadowed by the Charles Lummis controversy at the end of her tenure.

The Los Angeles Library’s all-male board of directors didn’t look fondly on Jones’ outreach efforts to women and children. In spring 1905, the board fired Jones and hired Lummis, believing a man was better suited to the position. Jones appealed her case to Los Angeles women’s organizations, who pressured the board. Lummis, previously considered a friend to the women’s clubs, was banned from attending events sponsored by several clubs. Even Susan B. Anthony, who happened to be in Los Angeles in 1905, offered an opinion: “I wonder why it is that the city of Los Angeles can afford to pay Mr. Lummis one hundred dollars a month more than Miss Jones without even trying him.” (Los Angeles Herald, June 1905). The library board prevailed, and Lummis’ appointment stood. Anthony was not surprised which is revealed when she stated, “Of course the man will win, because there’s only men to settle it.” Jones went on to library positions at UC Berkeley and Bryn Mawr Women’s College, returning to Los Angeles in 1913 where she worked in the newly established Los Angeles County Library System.

Miriam Matthews
Miriam Matthews was another pioneer librarian. Miriam Matthews was the city’s first black librarian and considered the first in California. As the dean of Los Angeles black history, she pioneered in the promotion of Negro History Week beginning in 1929, now celebrated as Black History Month. As early as 1940, she began gathering primary source materials and writing articles on early black history in California. For the city’s bicentennial in 1981, historian William Estrada explained that Matthews “led a community-wide effort to install a founders plaque in the Plaza for the city’s bicentennial. The plaque correctly lists the names and racial identities of the 44 pobladores.” A branch of the Los Angeles Library has been named “Hyde Park – Miriam Matthews Branch Library” in her honor. For the library opening in 2004, City Councilman Bernard C. Parks told The Los Angeles Times that “Miriam Matthews faced gender and racial discrimination while ‘breaking down not the glass ceiling, but the stone ceiling.'”

Elizabeth Martinez was a librarian in East Los Angeles during the 1970 Chicano Moratorium. In a recent ALA article, Martinez remembered the event as she marched with a library contingent to protest the disproportionate number of Mexican-Americans dying in the Vietnam War. When the police tear-gassed the crowd, she and her colleagues fled to the nearest library for safety. At the time, she was assigned to a federal grant called “The Way Out Project” which provided relevant programs in the Chicano communities and to the African-American communities in South Central Los Angeles. She was a member of the late 1960’s Committee to Recruit Mexican American Librarians, which led to Cal State Fullerton’s Mexican American Library Training Institute. Later she co-founded REFORMA, an organization established in 1971 to advocate for the library needs of Spanish speakers. In 1976, Martinez established the Chicano Resource Center at the East Los Angeles Library; She then led the Orange County Library system and the Los Angeles Public Library system and became executive director of the American Library Association.

The Central Library’s histroy reveals that the diverse location led to some pioneer work being down for multicultural integration and for the preservation of the histories of various groups in the area. The library developed quickly due to the rising population in the area and withstood the challenges it faced with funding and catastrophe due to the community’s support. There were some large gains made for women in the profession and also for African Americans and Latinos. The road these professionals paved for the future of the profession in America was marked by challenges but their influence in the Central Library could not be denied.

Building and Facilities


The first library was located in downtown Los Angeles as a reading room in a building that held multiple small businesses including a saloon just downstairs. The small room held newspapers, journals, and other reading items that were sought after by men in the area. The first reading room moved around as the collection grew. It generally catered to business men and local topics of interest. The exact location was difficult to track as the city has drastically changed over the years and the library moved continuously until the early 1920’s.

The Los Angeles Central Library did not receive a Carnegie grant. However, other LAPL branches in the system did receive the Carnegie grant. When the Central Library took roots in downtown the city pushed for larger facilities over the years.

The historic building we see standing today was not the first central library in Los Angeles. Between 1878 and 1926 there were several structures at various locations. This structure was constructured in 1926. Los Angeles County Central Library was designed by architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, a prominent architect who was recognized and hired by America’s most powerful people. His works include governmental and military buildings, churches, libraries and the private houses of politicians.The architecture of this building mimics that of ancient Egypt. There are similarities to Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska which was also designed by Goodue. The central tower is topped with tiled mosaic pyramid with suns on either side with a hand holding a torch representing the “Lights of Learning” at the apex. Other components include sphinxes  snakes and celestial mosaics. The building was dedicated on July 15, 1926. Unfortunately, Goodhue died in 1924 and never saw the product completions.

The choice of design is not simply an aesthetic one, it rather recalls the teachings and the symbolism of the ancient mystery schools of Antiquity.

For over 100 years, the Library has held a position of respect in the city. Its architectural and decorative elements show that it was conceived as a place where all cultures come together. The oversized canvas murals in the rotunda, for example, tell the story of the city’s development – the period of exploration, the mission period, the city’s founding, and its rich history of immigration over both land and sea. The Goddess of Civilization sculpture on the second floor is flanked by two sphinxes representing knowledge that is hidden and that which is revealed. The Goddess is decorated with elements borrowed from Egyptian pyramids, Viking ships, Greek and Roman temples, Indian dancers, a Renaissance cathedral, a covered wagon from the American southwest, the Liberty Bell, and finally angels representing the city of Los Angeles. The cultural diversity of the past and present was thought to be significant and maybe even unique when this building was built in 1926. This, of course, remains an important message today.

The Library’s collections have a stronger regional focus than most major urban libraries. For example, there is an extensive Californiana collection and materials related to western American history. The rare book collection that was mentioned earlier also focuses on voyages and exploration, natural history, costumes, performing arts, cooking, patents, and other subjects of significance to the Pacific rim countries. Linking back to the roots of the library as a place for local businessmen to gather, the library is still a valuable resource to businesses and has a complete collection of U.S. patents.


On then morning of April 29, 1986, a major fire occurred at the Los Angeles Central Library. Extinguishing the fire required sixty fire fighting companies, 1 arson unit, 9 paramedic rescue ambulences, 3 helicopters, 4 salvage companies, 1 squad, 2 emergency air units, a heavy utility company, and over 40 staff and support personnel, for a total of almost 350 Fire Department personnel. Approximately, 45% of the on duty Fire Department resources were committed to this fire. Members of this department were commended for their bravery, courage, determination and outstanding effort in controlling the loss of precious resource of the City of Los Angeles. There were no deaths or critical injuries and one minor civilian injury. There was an estimated loss of $2 million to the structure and $20 million to its contents. More importantly, 85% of the total value of the structure and contents were saved. There was a second fire on September 3 of the same year which destroyed the contents of the Music Department Reading Room.



The Los Angeles Central Library sold its air rights to developers as a part of a rehabilitation plan, this allowed the construction of the Library Tower (now known as U.S. Bank Tower) skyscraper across the street. Mayor Tom Bradley raised additional funds through the “Save The Books” campaign. Other funds were raised through corporate and individual contributions.

It was extensively renovated and expanded in a “Modernist/Beaux Arts style” from 1988 through 1993, including an enormous, eight-story atrium dedicated to former mayor Tom Bradley, a five-term mayor of Los Angeles, California. The interior of the library is decorated with various figures, statues, chandeliers, and grilles. The architecture of the building is grand and ornate. In the main lobby on the first floor, Los Angeles artist Rebee Petropoulos painted the ceiling with a cornucopia of color, text and imagery. This 36 foot by 36 foot ceiling has Los Angeles novelists names intertwined in the design. Petropoulos as a statement about counterpoint to the building’s symmetry painted the design off center.

The Thomas Bradley Wing is an enormous skylit atrium which runs the length of the wing. This addition to the library is eight stories. In order for the wing not to be taller than the Library Tower, four floors are above ground, and four below. Stacks and reading rooms are on each side. Massive glazed terra cotta columns are aligned on one side. The wing was designed by Hardy, Holzman, and Pfeiffer Associates.

There are three chandeliers hanging the Bradley Wing atrium were created by Therman Statom. For the chandeliers, Statom explored the concepts of man-made endeavors, natural phenomena and ethereal ideas. Each chandelier is meant to evoke one of these themes which were designed to echo the elements of the solar system reflected in the Cook Rotunda chandelier. The city of Los Angeles is certainly known for its rich history of decadence and indulgence. I would say that the library reflects a bit of that sentiment but in a refined and very beautiful way. The architecture and design of the library is undeniably interesting and ornate. Since the early 1920’s when the new building was constructed, the library must have been a fine place to work in. It has expanded over the years and altered after the fires. Yet, the library stood as a fixture in the city of knowledge and welcoming of diversity. The role of the library has shifted over the years, but the image has remained one that reflects the communities thirst for knowledge and tireless pursuit of the arts and literature.

The design and layout of the first reading rooms are difficult to get specifications on. The turnover of the first librarians suggests that the changes in location may have contributed to less than ideal circumstances and working conditions for the pioneer librarians. When the larger building was constructed under Goodhue in1926, the new building set a new tone for the role the library would play in the community and the expectations of the new librarian.





The current layout can be seen in the following PDF



LA Conservancy. (n.d.). Los Angeles Central Public Library. Retrieved from http://www.laconservancy.org/tours/downtown/library.php

Ramussen, C. (2002). Storied history of Central Library speaks volumes. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2002/mar/24/local/me-then24

Siena, J.S. (1993). Rising from the ashes: The Los Angeles Public Library, A conversation with Elizabeth G. Teoman. The Getty Conservation Institute.

Wallach, R. (2010). Los Angeles public library and the Maguire gardens. USC Libraries.


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