The Los Angeles Public Library: The Social Role of Public Spaces

Más de dieciocho millones de personas utilizan la red de bibliotecas públicas de Los Ángeles. En su sede central, ubicada en un impresionante edificio de estilo colonial, es posible acceder a un enorme catálogo, en el que destacan algunas colecciones sobre la historia de la ciudad.

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Molly Malcolm

Speaker (American accent)

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The Los Angeles Public Library

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In a room in the Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles, a librarian turns a page of a rare book with a gloved hand while a scholar takes a photograph of the text to transcribe it later. The room is part of the Rare Books Department, just one section of the expansive Los Angeles Public Library. The system serves eighteen million people, a larger number than any other library system in the US. 


Established in 1872, the Library consists of the Central Library and seventy-two other branches situated throughout the Los Angeles Metropolitan area. The Central Library, constructed in 1926, is an eight-story building and the third largest central library in the country. It contains more than ten million items, one of the biggest collections of books and periodicals in the US, plus CDs, DVDs, videos and images. Everything from popular fiction titles to rare genealogical publications, historic photographs to US patents can be found here. It also offers a vast range of programmes and services.


In 1986, an arson attack on the library destroyed some 400,000 volumes, with hundreds of thousands more volumes damaged in the fire. As a consequence, the library was extensively renovated and today it has almost ninety miles of shelves and seating for more than 1,400 people.

A bunch of really beautiful things

When Joyce Cooper, a principal librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library, tells someone what she does for a living, they often say, ‘Oh, you’re going to go out of business!’ But she does not think so. While the digital world offers information in an instant, Cooper’s experience is that hundreds of thousands of people still prefer to come to public libraries for information, education, enjoyment and discovery. Speak Up met with Cooper. We began by asking her why libraries remain an essential resource.

Joyce Cooper (American accent): I think that libraries are so valuable, especially in this society, in this day and age, because we are one of the last places that does not charge admission, lets everyone in, and you can come up to a librarian, ask them whatever question you have, whatever you want to know, and someone will take your question, address it earnestly, try to find you an answer and get it to you. And there’re so few places these days where you can do that. 


And, she says, while technology may appear to make things easier, it is often frustrating and even manipulative.

Joyce Cooper: I think people a lot of times will try Google first, but then they get ten thousand hits on their question and they don’t know how to sort through that information, or it doesn’t exactly give them what they need or they’re overwhelmed. And so a lot of times, we’ll get people that have tried the Google search, that have tried to look for the information on their own, and they come to us because they’re so frustrated that they weren’t able to find what they needed, and they ask us and there’s nothing like connecting with a person one on one, who actually is an information professional, who has a master’s degree, who knows how to search, and who can find you exactly what you need. And then just beyond information, I think libraries are one of the true last great spaces where people can gather from all walks of life.


The library is in possession of some valuable and beautiful texts, says Cooper.

Joyce Cooper: We did have a librarian who was very heavily invested in curating the collection. She pulled together a lot of collections that were kind of out at different branches, started purchasing one-off copies, really rare copies of things. And so now, we actually have a department based in the rare books department. And we have temperature-controlled storage for a lot of these items. We have some really rare items. We have a Fourth Folio by Shakespeare. We have a page from the Gutenberg Bible. I think some of the most interesting things that we own ... we have an account by one of the Spanish explorers when he ‘discovered’ California, and he kind of writes about his travels. We have a map that depicts California as an island. We have a bunch of really beautiful things. We also have some really gorgeous art books that we’ve purchased over the years from L.A. authors, L.A. artists, that have put them together. 


We asked Cooper whether there was any collection at the library that people were drawn to in particular.

Joyce Cooper: We actually have a few collections that people are really drawn to. One of the really cool collections that the library owns is a menu collection of L.A. restaurants. It’s very interesting to see through the years how menus have changed and the prices and what people were eating, and it always makes me laugh when I see cottage cheese as the diet menu on the older menus. It’s always funny to me. Another really big collection that we own is the photo collection. We have a really extensive genealogy collection at the library, in the history department. And so we get a lot of genealogy clubs and groups that visit us from all over the country, that make a pilgrimage to our library, to use our collection. And then the last collection that gets a lot of attention in our library is our map collection. We have over a hundred thousand maps and those are from all over the world, but a lot of them are about L.A. and about California. 


And the library also plays an important social and educational role, as Cooper explains.

Joyce Cooper: We do a lot of work on film screenings and discussions. We do art exhibits. We do language classes for people that want to learn a language. We provide services to immigrants that are coming to this country and need to learn how to orient themselves to banking, to immigrant services, to rental assistance, to how to navigate life in the United States. We do counseling. We have a job and career center, where we help people learn how to write a résumé, upload a résumé. We get them interviews, we give them interview tips... Things like that.

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