Los Angeles Central Library: The Story of an L.A. Icon

Richard J. Riordan Central Library | Photo courtesy of LAPL
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The Los Angeles Public Library is a behemoth system with 72 branches spread across the city. Its crown jewel and headquarters is the Richard J. Riordan Central Library, situated between the hotels and sky-high office buildings of Downtown L.A. Built in 1926, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. The eight-story building is the third largest central library in the U.S. and houses more than ten million items, from popular fiction titles to rare genealogical publications, historic photographs and U.S. patents.

"We're kind of a hybrid between a public library and a research library," says Joyce Cooper, a principal librarian who manages outreach and programming for the Central Library. The 90-year-old institution is also part-museum and part-event space, a home for unusual collections and a host for regular cultural performances and educational talks. More importantly, though, it's the city's phoenix. Like the mythical creature, the Central Library emerged full of life from the aftermath of a devastating fire.

In 1986, the Central Library was hit by two separate fires - both arson cases - set apart by a handful of months. The amount of damage was massive, but locals did their part to help resurrect the venerable space. "The fire was a horrible thing, but, at the same time, it ended up being one of the saving graces for us," says Cooper. "People really rallied around the library and people realized how much they loved it and wanted to save it."

Today, the Central Library merges old and new L.A. with the original building flowing into the Tom Bradley Wing, which opened in 1993 and is named after the city's mayor during this reconstruction period.

The Rotunda of the Central Library in Downtown L.A.
The Rotunda of the Central Library | Photo by Candice Montgomery, Discover Los Angeles Flickr Pool

The focal point of the old library, also known as the Goodhue Building, is the Rotunda. The walls feature murals depicting California history - "the very romanticized, Ramona-version of California history," Cooper notes - painted by Dean Cornwell.

Zodiac Chandelier in the Central Library
Zodiac Chandelier in the Central Library | Photo courtesy of Juan Monroy, Flickr

Suspended from the ceiling is the exquisite Zodiac Chandelier, with a stained glass globe serving as its core and zodiac symbols surrounding it. The chandelier features a ring of 48 small lights - Cooper points out that when the chandelier was built, there were only 48 states in the U.S.

Tlacolulokos, "Smile Now, Cry Later" at the Central Library
Tlacolulokos, "Smile Now, Cry Later," 2017 | Photo courtesy of Central Library

On view in the Rotunda through August 31, Visualizing Language celebrates the rich social fabric of L.A. through the lens of the city’s vibrant Oaxacan community — specifically, the Zapotec communities which make up one of the largest indigenous groups in Mexico and Los Angeles. Oaxacan artist collective Tlacolulokos created a series of murals for the Central Library’s historic rotunda that explore language and culture as a key lifeline sustaining the shared experience between Mexico, L.A. and beyond, with a look at how migration and the socio-political environment shape identity and cultural traditions.

"The Triumph of Civilization" and sphinxes at the Central Library
"The Triumph of Civilization" and sphinxes at the Central Library | Photo courtesy of Kansas Sebastian, Flickr

There's a bit of semi-hidden art off to the side of the Rotunda. The Central Library incorporated a number of works from the sculptor Lee Lawrie into its design. While most of these pieces adorn the building's facade, inside the Goodhue Building you'll find two sphinxes and The Triumph of Civilization, a seven-foot statue of a female figure holding a book. The sculptures surround a staircase between the Teenscape section and the Getty Gallery.

"Chandeliers" by Therman Statom in the Central Library atrium
"Chandeliers" by Therman Statom in the Central Library atrium | Photo courtesy of Albert Valles, Discover Los Angeles Flickr Pool

The Tom Bradley Wing surrounds an atrium, where guests can take the escalator down while staring up at Chandeliers - three massive, sculptural chandeliers created by artist Therman Statom. The chandeliers represent nature, science and the arts - their large scale and bright colors make them ideal for photographs. "Honestly, the best view is on lower level four and looking up," says Cooper. "It gives you the impression of how immense this space is."

Children's Literature Department at the Central Library
Children's Literature Department at the Central Library | Photo courtesy of Candice Montgomery, Discover Los Angeles Flickr Pool

In a sense, the Central Library is designed like a collection of small, interconnected libraries. The Children's Literature Department consists of books for a variety of reading levels, plus literature-related art installations in the form of puppets created for their annual FOCAL prize winners. Tucked into the back of this section is a beautiful wood puppet theater. Nearby is Teenscape, filled with books, media and computers designated for the 18-and-under crowd. The International Languages room features books in 29 languages and an adjacent language lab that carries tools to learn more than 400 languages and dialects.

"America's Shakespeare" exhibit on view in the Getty Gallery at the Central Library
"America's Shakespeare" exhibit in the Getty Gallery at the Central Library | Photo by Ryan Miller

Inside the Getty Gallery, guests can view exhibitions that change every few months. Currently on view through May 25, 2018 is For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights. The exhibit examines the major role imagery played in the fight for racial and social equality from the 1940s through the 1970s.

The Annenberg Gallery displays pieces from the library's permanent collection, including items like vintage L.A. restaurant menus and autographs gathered by Charles Lummis, who was the City Librarian in the early 1900s.

ALOUD performance at the Central Library in Downtown L.A.
ALOUD at the Central Library | Photo by Gary Leonard

The Central Library's 1993 reopening also gave birth to ALOUD, which hosts five to seven public programs a month, covering everything from the history of tap dance to the minds of octopi. "I really think of the program as the hearth of the city," says Louise Steinman, Cultural Programs Director for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and Curator of ALOUD. "It's really where we come together to talk about things and sometimes to disagree, and I think it's keeping in the spirit of the library as a cornerstone of democracy."

With its vast collections and ample programming, the Central Library holds the stories of L.A.'s past, while guiding visitors towards the future. Meanwhile, it's own unlikely comeback story makes it one of the city's true icons.

Tips for Travelers

  1. There's a computer center on Lower Level 3 where you can hop online for 15 minutes for free. Printing, however, will cost you. You can also access their WiFi for free if you bring your own gear to the library.
  2. California residents can obtain library cards with proof of address. These are free and good for three years. After your trip, you can use your card to access LAPL's online materials and databases.
  3. Events at the Mark Taper Auditorium are free, but they can fill up fast, so make sure you reserve your tickets.
  4. Docent-led tours are available on weekdays at 12:30 p.m. On Saturdays, there are three tours: 11 a.m. 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. Sunday tours are at 2 p.m. Want to tour solo? You can grab a guide at the information desk or online.

Getting There

The Central Library is located in Downtown L.A. at 630 W. 5th St, between Grand Avenue and Hope Street.

Go Metro: the Central Library is easily accessed from the 7th Street/Metro Center Station, which is served by the Red, Purple, Blue and Expo Lines.

Parking: www.lapl.org/branches/central-library/parking