The Los Angeles Public Library is a system of 73 libraries. The libraries reach as far north as Sylmar and as far south as Long Beach. But while there are many branches, there is only one central library. This library is centered in downtown Los Angeles. Through its 2 million visitors every year it acts as a hub for cultures attracting locals and tourists from around the world. It also has daily events year-round. For many Los Angelenos, these events give them a foundation to cultivate communities based on various interests and causes.
Six Sixty-Second Soundbytes
Hear voices from visitors and employees of the Los Angeles Public Library. Each person talks about their life in Los Angeles and how the Central Library plays a role in it.
The Quest for Community
The Central Library offers access to more than 6 million books in the system’s circulation. But books aren’t the only reason visitors come to the library. Throughout the year, the library collaborates with groups in the community to put on events every day. And though the causes may be different, the goal is the same: to create and cultivate community.
Laughter and conversation echo across the hollow halls of the library.
Crimson red ribbons sway in draft of an open door’s breeze.
Outside, in the library courtyard, people stand around colorful booths. They have gathered together to recognize a population in need.
“We are here to commemorate World AIDS Day, which is a breath of fresh air. Which is a moment of intellect. It’s a coming together of the world community,” Gil Cedillo, Los Angeles City Councilmember of the 1st District, said in his speech to kick off the event. “World AIDS day is very important for us because it’s a statement that ignorance is not a solution. That we are better and stronger and we are united when we’re informed and when we’re thoughtful.”
On December 1, the Los Angeles Public Library hosted an event to commemorate World AIDS Day. Throughout the evening, there were health fair tables and an art performance in the auditorium.
“My goal was to have an event that didn’t speak to the choir,” Garry Bowie, executive director of Being Alive, said. Bowie said that at most World AIDS Day events, the same people are expected to show up including those serviced by the HIV and AIDS industry and its staff and volunteers. “We’re not really reaching out to a whole lot of new people, especially the ones most at risk,” he said.
Bowie’s non-profit organization, Being Alive, is based out of Long Beach and services 3,715 clients in L.A. County and some outside of the county. The organization is based on the idea that those who live with HIV and AIDS should help those with HIV and AIDS.
“I myself am HIV positive. And I’m one of the early persons who were affected by HIV and AIDS,” Bowie said. “In those days, there was no help. I lost all my friends—hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of friends. I don’t want anybody to have gone through that because it’s a very numbing feeling. My mission is to make sure that I can do what I can, especially as a living person with HIV to ensure that no future generations become HIV infected or reduce the risk of becoming infected.”
Four years ago, Bowie lost his younger brother to HIV. His younger brother only found out he was HIV positive two weeks before he passed. “And the sad irony to all of that was his older brother, me, had been HIV positive for over 30 years. And how did he not even come to think about getting tested,” Bowie said. “But I did not find out that he died from AIDS until I received his death certificate. That’s how he kept it as a secret and a shame. And that’s the stigma with HIV. How do we end the stigma in HIV?”
Bowie said he wanted to reach out to a community other than Long Beach and West Hollywood, which he said are the two largest epicenters in Southern California for HIV and AIDS. “I would like to see that we move the conversation and engage people who know nothing about HIV and AIDS,” Bowie said. “So what a great opportunity to use the L.A. Public Library as an opportunity for the public to come to an event that would engage them.”
“I would like to see that we move the conversation and engage people who know nothing about HIV and AIDS. So what a great opportunity to use the L.A. Public Library as an opportunity for the public to come to an event that would engage them.”
This is Bowie’s first time hosting a World AIDS Day event in L.A. On this day, he normally hosts events in Long Beach. “We’re a community player and our job is to build a healthy community,” Bowie said. “And if that means we have to be everywhere, we’ll be everywhere.”
“We were actually just in the library doing some job research and we had seen the health education booth, so we came up here and decided to check it out,” Ernesto Nevarez said. Nevarez and his friend, Elissa Antieri came to the World AIDS Day event by chance. It was actually their first time at the library despite only living a few miles away. But it’s people like Nevarez and Antieri that Bowie hopes to speak to. “It kind of caught us off guard because we didn’t realize they were going to have anything here,” Nevarez said. “It was informative. It was funny. At the same time, we got some good resources.”
“World AIDS Day is a great time to talk about the epidemic worldwide,” Phillip Nails said. Nails’ wife directs the Art and Global Health Center at UCLA, which runs the UCLA Sex Squad who performed that night. “It’s great that it’s here at the library—just a central artistic meeting place in a downtown landscape of Los Angeles that’s continuing to be reinvigorated with art.”
Nails is the founding director of the Poetry Society of Los Angeles and often collaborates poetry events with the library. “I think the library has really great people who care about it—really trying to adapt a large organization, a large institution to the ever-changing landscape of the world—of the globe—of Los Angeles,” he said.
Just 24 hours before the World AIDS Day event, another kind of community was gathered at the library.
“Los Angeles gets a bad rep I think a lot of times because there is some kind of atomization of people doing their own thing and a kind of lack of community,” Jim Sherman, a librarian in the Literature and Fiction Department, said. “It’s interesting to see the interesting people that came here and formed a kind of ersatz community around the writing and maybe that make friendships that continue.”
“Los Angeles gets a bad rep I think a lot of times because there is some kind of atomization of people doing their own thing and a kind of lack of community. It’s interesting to see the interesting people that came here and formed a kind of ersatz community around the writing and maybe that make friendships that continue.”
–Jim Sherman, Librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library
During the month of November, the library celebrated National Novel Writing Month, dubbed NaNoWriMo. Writers all over the world challenge themselves to write a 50,000 word novel in the span of 30 days. “The community is really strong. They meet all over the city,” Justin Walters, who leads the group meetups at the library, said. “I was looking for a spot that I could get to on the subway, so that was how I ended up emailing the library and they were excited about it.”
Like Garry Bowie and Being Alive, Walters found the library to be a landscape for a community. Walters said this is his first time trying to write a book and so Los Angeles’ writing culture is new to him.
“When you do NaNoWriMo by yourself, you’re motivated by the little counter on the website that tells you how far along you are,” Matisse Mozer, a fifth time participant, said. “So you need other people, just given familiar faces, to keep you going—keep knowing that you’re not alone in this ridiculous crusade.”
For some, NaNoWriMo is an opportunity to finally write the novel they’ve always wanted to. “I have a problem with sustaining a narrative,” Jennifer Palmer-Lacy said. “It took me from 1969 to 2003 just to finish a short story. It’s hard to keep going and this makes you sort of keep going.”
“It’s very affirming to know that’s going on; all these people are writing their various stories,” Palmer-Lacy said. “And there are a lot of people doing this secretly, you know. In every street corner, there’s people doing these kind of things and you might never know.”
On this floor of the library, the divide between old and new can be clearly seen. The old murals and painted ceilings on one side contrast against the flourescently lit modern bookstacks.
The Central Library retains Los Angeles’ historical culture through a group of materials called The Special Collections. On this wall, there is a frame that represents each type of collection from L.A. restaurant menus to old theater program books. Hover over the frames to see what they’re about.
THE ROTUNDA: A 180º VERTICAL PANORAMA
Los Angeles and California culture is closely intertwined with the Central Library’s architecture. Architect Bertram Goodhue built the library on the theme of “Light of Learning” in which he believed it was important to reference history and culture through art in the building.
The elevator represents how the library continues to reflect on the past while staying relevant with the times. When the building was renovated, the old card catalogues were used in an art installation in the library. You can see them through a window in the elevator (Cameron Quon/USC).
The Los Angeles Public Library: A Historical Perspective
The library has been around since the very early stages of Los Angeles' development. Scroll through this timeline to see the journey the Central Library has taken over the years.
ON THE MAP
The Los Angeles Public Library consists of 72 branches. However, there is only one Central Library, which is marked by a purple building.
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