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Lawrence Clark Powell: The Good Life in Libraries

May 29, 1988|Kay Mills | Kay Mills, a Times editorial writer, is the author of "A Place in the News: From the Women's Pages to the Front Page," to be published by Dodd, Mead in June

TUCSON — Even in retirement, Lawrence Clark Powell, founding dean of UCLA's library school, lives amid books. Larry Powell without books would be like Malibu without an ocean or Arizona, his new turf, without cactus.

Powell, 82 this year, admits not being a man of the computer age. If he were still working, he says, he'd appreciate computers, but he wouldn't be able to control them. "I don't have that kind of mind." Some librarians, Powell said, have the wrong mind-set about computers, thinking that if they set up a solid system, they don't have to do anything else well.

"Gradually the librarians set the computer up as a kind of god, you see, that does everything. But it doesn't do book selection. It doesn't make choices . . . . It's simply an executor of what people tell it to do." Computers don't enable the chance encounter, the trained scanner walking through the stacks, examining books, often knowing who donated them or under what circumstances they were purchased.

Powell, for instance, once went to Harvard's Widener Library, "the greatest university library in the world," and asked the reference librarian to show him the section on Italian local history.

"There was a whole stack of absolutely nothing but Italian local history--a quarter of a million volumes. And on Perugia (on which he was writing), a roomful of books . . . . I could move along the shelf and decide just by looking at the backs what would be interesting, you see, but the titles themselves meant nothing. But the look of a book, the period binding, opening it and the whole feel tell you you've got to look deeper into this. Whereas just a list of titles that the computer would give you, you'd still have to look at the stuff."

So Powell does not have a computer at home in the Santa Catalina foothills above Tucson. Books, he does have: 5,000 spill from his den into the hall and a few even surreptitiously into the living room where Fay, his wife of 55 years, has ruled them off limits lest they take over everything. The Powells had more books but the 1978 Malibu fire finally did what other fires had long threatened: it consumed their home. At the time, the Powells were in Arizona where he had earlier been hired to beef up the University of Arizona library and their house was rented.

Powell is almost a native Californian, spending his first four winters in Riverside where his father, a horticulture expert, did research. The Powells moved for good to the orange groves of South Pasadena in 1910. Ward Ritchie, printer and fellow bookman, haunted the Carnegie Library with Powell and went from Marengo Avenue Elementary through Occidental College with him. Author M.F.K. Fisher, a college classmate of Fay Powell, later went to Dijon, France, to live and helped Powell get there himself to do graduate work on Robinson Jeffers.

In France, Powell discovered that he was truly a Californian. He had grown up with no sense of California history (he injects that he grew up with no sense, period), but while he was in Dijon for three and a half years he grew enormously homesick.

He remembers finding Mary Austin's "The Lands of the Sun" while sheltered under an umbrella at a Paris bookstall, and the radiance of her descriptions of California called him home.

He'd also read an article by historian Carey McWilliams on California writers, and he sensed that much was happening in Southern California without him. "All the emphasis was in Southern California. There was more excitement, there was more energy, there was more feeling that this is the place that's exploding and I've got to express it. There wasn't that in San Francisco. It was content to lie back and live on the past."

The late Jake Zeitlin published Powell's dissertation on Jeffers and gave him a job at his bookstore. Powell went to library school, then worked at the Los Angeles Central Library before becoming head UCLA librarian in 1944. He kept that job until he started the library school in 1961. Feeling that he had done what he could do, he left UCLA in 1966.

For 44 years, he also contributed to Westways, the Southern California Automobile Club Magazine. Eventually, the club decided the magazine "was getting too literary, too cultural," Powell says ruefully. "They wanted it more of a house organ."

"California Classics" and "Southwest Classics," his essays on Jeffers, Robert Louis Stevenson, Helen Hunt Jackson, John Muir, Raymond Chandler, Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, John Wesley Powell and others emerged from that period. A few passages:

--Robinson Jeffers "towered too high for most to see the full bulk of him." He "rose to supreme eminence, a Shasta among poets."

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