by Jennifer Chen
When I was a kid, I read so voraciously my mom found it hard to keep up with my demand for new books. Her solution: Drop me off at the Monmouth County Library branch in Shrewsbury, New Jersey. I roamed through the children’s section, grabbing every Baby-Sitters Club book I could find. I spent most of my free time at this library, learning about dogs and, later, Emily Dickinson. I often pretended that the big gray building was my home.
As an adult, I’m still excited when I walk into a library. When I first moved to Los Angeles in 2013, I explored the city’s public libraries and talked to librarians about what their branches had to offer beyond books: online SAT prep classes, children’s story time read by SAG actors (we are in L.A. after all), and DVD collections rivaling those of any film snob. As I photographed L.A.’s public libraries, I realized that the art and architecture in the City of Angels is stunning, ranging from 1920s art deco to modern eco-friendly buildings.
The West Hollywood Library is a great example of the new generation of libraries— 32,000 square feet of sunlit rooms, a children’s theater, and a rotating art gallery packed into a LEED-certified structure. On the wall, above the wooden steps to the second floor, hangs a sculptural white tree made from steel, copper, and porcelain that stretches 60 feet toward a huge skylight. You can’t help but feel in awe of this indoor sycamore, a nod by the artist to the trees that grow outside in the park.
I love writing at the West Hollywood Library. The floor-to-ceiling windows upstairs showcase an epic view of the Pacific Design Center and the Hollywood Hills. The panorama beats any coffee shop, and there’s a constant buzz of readers, writers, and researchers. You can even find inspiration and creativity on the outside of the parking garage, where there are murals by artists like Shepard Fairey.
The brand-new Santa Monica Pico Branch Library is nestled in the middle of greenery and basketball courts. You can smell the ocean as you approach the library. Gone is the feeling of a stodgy, dark library where silence is of the utmost concern; here, you feel invited to stay and watch the world go by on the beach outside the wall-to-wall windows.
The renovated Silver Lake Library also blends the indoor and outdoor through metal and glass walls intermingled with lush outdoor plants. Architect Barry Milofsky, who lives in the neighborhood, drew from Silver Lake’s local architecture, including the homes of masters of mid-century modern buildings like Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler. Senior Librarian Lisa Palombi said the glass walls in the front room “help us feel like we are a part of the neighborhood all day.” When I visited, the small but bustling library was filled with parents and children, waiting for story time to begin.
At Burbank’s Buena Vista Branch Library, a giant oak tree sits in the middle of the children’s reading room next to a space that mimics the look of a woodland area—complete with skunks and squirrels painted on the walls. At the Beverly Hills Public Library, Steve Johnson and Jim Favaro—who are also the architects behind the West Hollywood library—created ceilings that look like a book’s open pages. The bookshelves in the fairy tale room are at kid height, and the walls are covered with larger-than-life black-and-white illustrations from famous children’s books.
Some libraries in L.A. keep a close communion with their early-20th-century roots. I was struck by the classic adherence of downtown Los Angeles’ Central Library to its 1920s art deco origins. A massive fire in 1986 destroyed about 20 percent of the library’s holdings, but it reopened in 1993—and preserved its original look while integrating new art in the renovated sections. Antiquated library catalogue cards, rather than being tossed, line the elevator walls behind plexiglass, some with handwritten corrections from past librarians.
High above the escalators are massive fiberglass and foam chandeliers created in 1993 by artist Therman Statom, to represent nature, man-made objects, and heaven. I love that the Central Library is a history and art museum and a working library. I can spend hours meandering through the halls and geeking out. Did you know that restaurant menus in the 1940s could be beautiful, hand-painted pieces of art? You can find original samples in the Central Library’s menu collection.
The newly restored Brand Library and Art Center in Glendale resembles its original early 20th century appearance, when it was the mansion of Leslie C. Brand, a businessman who left his home to Glendale and was informally known as the father of the city. My favorite spot in the library is the room I’ve nicknamed the “Blue Room” because the ornate woodwork window is ideal for gazing out mid-brainstorm.
Like its sister library in Glendale, the Pasadena Central Library adheres to its 1920s style. Librarian Dan McLaughlin told me that Pasadena had a public library before it was even formally a city. This branch comfortably blends old and new: E-readers are available for circulation, and you can still use card catalogues in the ultra-quiet rare collections room.
In an era of downloadable books and the Internet, why are these bastions of printed matter and data bits still important? Libraries curate the collective matter that our culture deems worth saving and sharing. They enable us to better ourselves and find camaraderie with fellow book lovers. I regularly meet a friend at my local branch, the Buena Vista Burbank library, for hours-long writing sessions. I always smile when I see kids carrying stacks of books to check out. I’m also plotting how to make the West Hollywood branch my secret dream home. Some things from childhood just never change.