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Perimeters / PATT MORRISON

Of Carnegie, Gates and Library Lore

January 31, 1996|PATT MORRISON

Within the official memory of Los Angeles, there is no special reason that April 1989 should adhere.

It had none of the flash-bang of April 1992 or January 1994, just same-old same-old headlines, of layoffs at the Long Beach shipyard, the Red Line behind schedule, a slumlord sentenced to time in his own hotel. And one more headline. A bond issue that passed.

Whether you voted for it, against it, or voted not at all--the likeliest of the three, for a scant two voters in 10 bothered, the lowest turnout in 30 years--Proposition 1 ponied up $53 million to build libraries in the San Fernando Valley and spruce up branches across the city.

It is nearly seven years later, the amount of time it takes a savings bond to mature, and the Prop. 1 payoff has come to Hollywood. On Monday, in an event far rarer than the launch of another Planet Hollywood restaurant, the city reopened a library.

*

"I have always imagined," wrote Argentine fantasist Jorge Luis Borges, "that paradise will be a kind of library."

But perhaps not this kind of library. Before it closed for its make-over in 1990, the Cahuenga branch was a dark and grotty hole, a spirit-shriveler of a place that was intended to uplift--"the scariest place I ever worked," one of its alumni librarians declared--and indeed, the only people who found it perfect were the film crews that made horror movies in its varnished gloom.

It will be a while before it can reacquire that authentic library smell, the aromatherapy of paper and books and bindings, once the scent of new paint and floor wax fades. Your bond issue money bought the paint, the wax and 1,400 more square feet of space, creamy-white light and deep shelves, a community meeting hall, 25 parking spaces, and trompe l'oeil murals of a boy and a girl loaded down with books, and of brick library walls bursting free from their rebar moorings onto the larger world.

And that last image made reality is what makes the Cahuenga branch exceptional:

In 1916, Andrew Carnegie's money built this library.

In 1996, Bill Gates' money--in the words of Los Angeles City Councilmember Jackie Goldberg--will help to bring the city into the 20th century "before it ends," with the first link in Microsoft's $3-million nationwide "Libraries Online!" public library project.

Computers sit at homework centers in the Cahuenga branch. Computers admit users to CD-ROM world, to dozens of databases, to the World Wide Web and specialized libraries and to the Central Library. (That in-house system is named for Charles F. Lummis, the city's first and flamboyant librarian, who branded his books when other people settled for writing their names on the flyleaf.)

What a collision of history that these two men, Carnegie and Gates, financial visionaries born more than a century apart, would intersect at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Madison Avenue. One made his name and his fortune in steel, the other in silicon. Gates' name is invoked as the echt industrial billionaire of his age; so was Carnegie's.

In 1900, the same year Carnegie's salary was the 1995 equivalent of half a billion dollars, all of it tax-free, he wrote a book, "The Gospel of Wealth," declaring that the rich should give away their fortunes in their lifetime. In the 19 years he had left, he did.

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The Cahuenga branch library unwrapped its made-over self on a day of bright sun and a whipping wind that carried off the topmost notes of "The Star-Spangled Banner" from the musicians of Thomas Starr King Middle School.

Monday's ribbon-cutting was in the back of the building, at the new entrance off the parking lot--a frank acknowledgment of urban reality, for it has been decades since the Red Car let off library patrons at the elegant front entrance.

The parking lot was full of chairs, and the chairs were full of school kids, who made tents of their programs to deflect the sun. In the upstairs apartments overlooking the parking lot, laundry had been draped over the railings, and women leaned on their forearms over the laundry to watch.

It is their kids for whom this library, and the other 65 across the city, should mean the most. In apartments where there is no place to dry laundry, there is probably nowhere to do homework, no encyclopedia to consult.

There have been children like this longer than there have been libraries to serve them.

Queen Silver had earned her front-row seat at the ceremony, for 75 years ago, when she was a child of 10 and the city's first library bond measure was on the ballot, she went door to door--a good distance in Hollywood back then--to get the grown-ups to vote for it.

Queen Silver's mother was an itinerant women's rights lecturer, not exactly a profit-making calling. In such a family, matters often came down to buying a book or buying food. "If it hadn't been for the library," says Queen Silver, "I might have grown up a lot thinner."

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