A Conversation with Elizabeth Gay Teoman

On October 2, 1993, the Los Angeles Public Library opened its renovated and expanded Central Library in downtown Los Angeles after a 10-year development campaign that has endured two fires, economic challenges brought on first by inflation and then by recession, and most recently, an increasingly tight government budget.

Rising like a phoenix from the ashes, the Library is busily readying itself for a month of festivities that will celebrate and pay tribute to its remarkable resilience and broad-based community support. The Library's Director, Elizabeth Gay Teoman, talks about what may be the cultural community's most successful story of the 1990s.

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Jane Slate Siena: The Los Angeles Public Library has received enormous support from the community to overcome the fires of 1986 and also to build an expanded and renovated facility. What is your secret?

Elizabeth Gay Teoman: It's the Library's, not mine. 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, we have an extensive Californiana collection and materials related to western American history. Our rare book collection focuses on voyages and exploration, natural history, costumes, performing arts, cooking, patents, and other subjects of significance to the Pacific rim countries. We are a valuable resource to businesses, and have a complete collection of U.S. patents.

Your new facility combines the renovated five-story building dating from 1926 with an eight- story new wing. How long has it taken to make this a reality?

It has been more than a 10-year process. It became clear in the 1960s that the building was no longer adequate. By then, the collections had reached double capacity and we were dealing with electrical and environmental problems. The Library needed a major expansion, or it needed to move to new premises. In 1983, we started developing a plan to expand and renovate the Library on its original site because the city thought it was important to keep the Library in the central part of Los Angeles. By 1985, we had a "public-private" partnership among local businesses and community development agencies for financing. Our present reality is the direct result of the visionary and committed business community responding to the need to save an important cultural resource for the city.

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How did your plans compare with other building developments of the 1980s?

At the time, there was literally a proliferation of building programs around the country. The big central libraries had long ago reached critical mass. Interest in historic preservation was high, and communities were improving their museums and libraries. We visited the other large public libraries with major building programs—Dallas, Houston, Miami, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and New York—and networked heavily through the American Library Association's Buildings and Equipment Section with our colleagues in similar situations. One experiences this sort of challenge perhaps once in a lifetime. We looked at everything from sick air syndrome to personal computer access from offsite. I feel as though I've earned the equivalent of a doctoral degree in facility restoration and expansion, but in all probability will not do this again in my lifetime.

How are you blending the historic needs of the old building with the technological needs of the new "information age"?

This is really exciting. We have restored the historic building in compliance with the Secretary of the Interior's guidelines and those endorsed by our local historic preservation groups. Further, the architects, Hardy Holzman, Pieffer Associates, adapted design concepts from the old building for the new wing, resulting in a coherent environment that respects but does not confuse the old and the new. The Library reflects the city's culture and history, but it also reflects its future. We are integrating technological services in the building that make it easier for people to learn and to find information.

Where exactly were you in this process when fire struck in 1986?

We were one year away from moving into temporary space so construction could begin. Suddenly things changed. Immediately, we were psychologically removed from the building process and placed in emergency circumstances. Our priority was to save the building and the collections. We went into triage, and could save only that which was salvageable in a very limited time frame. Our greatest enemy was the fear of mildew. For three days, over 1500 volunteers worked around the clock and sometimes without light to pack water-soaked books in boxes for freezing. Within one week, everything was boxed and out of the building and in appropriate storage facilities.

What were your losses?

We estimate a loss of 400,000 books from the fires; water damage to 700,000; and smoke damage to the remaining collection. The rare book collection was immediately evacuated. But several important collections were destroyed. Ironically, the seismology collection was lost to fire.

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Sometimes disasters turn out to be clouds with silver linings. Is there one here?

Absolutely. Since the fire, the Library has established a high-profile and well-funded "Save the Books" campaign, a network of committed volunteers, renewed corporate support for educational outreach, and a new understanding of the significance of our physical environment. But perhaps most importantly, we have stronger ties with the experience of others. The fire brought experts in conservation and disaster recovery from the Library of Congress, the Getty Conservation Institute, and many other places to help us during the emergency. Their good advice has helped us take advantage of the new facility to do things differently. We now have sprinklers and other disaster preparedness and mitigation procedures. And our environment is at the proper temperature and humidity levels for the first time.

Tell us more about your new environment.

The original building has been restored and renovated to integrate those services we need to make it easier for people to find information. The new wing houses a dramatic eight-story atrium that provides access to numerous discrete departments that are actually rather intimate - open in design yet personal in scale. The development also includes an outdoor garden, named for our generous benefactor Robert Maguire, with about 160 trees, many of which are noted specimens. A public art program has allowed us to commission art throughout the interior and also in the garden. We have tried to create an artistic, natural, and perhaps spiritual environment that can be an important enclave for intellectual activity and reflection in the midst of this very busy city. I think people are going to love to come here.

What are the major issues facing libraries in 1993 and beyond?

Funding, which leads to access. We must keep our libraries in the forefront of public education and information, and public funding. Planners have said that we will be replaced by technology. We don't believe this. People still seek the pleasures that can only be obtained by reading books, and we are keeping pace with technological developments. A significant portion of our budget for the renovation is for upgrading our systems, developing access to home computers, and establishing more access points for our readers. We see no decline in use and, if anything, anticipate a substantial increase given our new facilities and services. But we have to stay with developments to avoid obsolescence.

Librarians in other countries are very concerned with security and safety issues. Are these also problems for you in Los Angeles?

Given our arson experiences in 1986, we are very sensitive to these issues. Broader access certainly involves additional risks. Increasing the availability of material means that more people will be handling more items, thereby increasing chances of physical damage and loss. We monitor visitors and ask them to follow standard regulations—no sharp objects or ink pens in the rare book area, for example. Unfortunately, theft is a reality in most large cities the world over. Our state-of-the-art security program includes a book detection system, video monitors, and professional staff to prevent theft.

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Now that you have this spectacular new physical environment, with public openings attracting large numbers to the Library, what's next?

It is time to develop new programming opportunities. We have increased our space by over 30%, but we are not able to hire additional staff. One of our most pressing needs is in preservation. Can you imagine that our 2.1 million holdings have survived disaster and normal aging without the support of a professional conservation department. It's time to turn our attentions to the books!

Elizabeth Gay Teoman has served as Central Library Director of the Los Angeles Public Library since 1984. She is past president of the California Library Association and served as Chair of the American Library Association's Buildings and Equipment Section in 1991-1992.

Jane Slate Siena is Managing Editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.