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COVER STORY

The latest chapter in L.A. libraries

Forget 'shush.' Now the sounds you hear in these sleek branches are more likely to be the tapping of keyboards, the clicking of CD cases or the swinging of classroom doors.

August 11, 2005|Susan Freudenheim | Special to The Times

IT'S business as usual on a Saturday morning at the Chinatown Branch Library on Hill Street, just a block from the heart of the busy shopping district. The tiny parking lot is so full that an attendant is needed to shift cars around. Crowds are pouring in and out of the crisp concrete-metal-and-glass building where inside dozens of preteen kids squeeze shoulder to shoulder, playing video games at a long row of computers -- so many kids, in fact, that a librarian steps up to remind them that only two can play together at any single terminal.

At nearby tables, scores of adults are plowing through books or reading to toddlers. And beyond them, just as many teenagers sit at computer terminals, surrounded by research materials -- studying or chatting with friends. All this activity puts to rest the memory of the library as a place where you have to "shush."

Once predicted to be a dying breed, libraries are proving to be as vibrant as ever. They provide financial relief for those with insatiable appetites for books, magazines, DVDs and CDs -- and comic books. They are a refuge on a hot summer day for anyone with a looming deadline and a need for a cool place to rest a laptop, a place where tables -- and air-conditioning -- are plentiful, and there's no need to keep a coffee cup filled to justify a prolonged stay. And librarians are actually happy to help answer a difficult research question.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 12, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Library architect -- An article on public libraries in Thursday's Calendar Weekend section attributed the design of the Pico Union Branch Library to architect Barry Milofsky of M2A, Milofsky and Michali Architects. The project architect was Tom Michali, of the same firm.

Throughout the city of Los Angeles, which is served by the downtown Richard J. Riordan Central Library and 71 branches, about half of the library buildings are experiencing a major rejuvenation that began in 1998, when city voters approved Proposition DD, a $178.3-million bond to rebuild 32 branch libraries and add four new ones. (That came on the heels of a $53.4-million bond measure to improve libraries in 1989.)

Under the watchful eye of former city librarian Susan Kent and her successor, Fontayne Holmes, who headed up the construction project, a massive upgrading of the branch system has included attention to quality architectural design as well as community needs. Most of the new and renovated projects have been completed over the last five years, with most projects costing between $3 million and $4 million. The result is a brightening of neighborhoods both needy and affluent. And more improvements are in the works.

Each of the branches has its own character, the result of numerous public meetings designed to ensure they serve the needs and desires of individual neighborhoods. They run the gamut in site location -- some spruce up busy urban streets, others are tucked into quiet residential neighborhoods. Some of the architecture is aggressively modern, some is conventional, but making the decision as to which would fit was an inclusive process.

All offer collections geared to their individual community, often emphasizing non-English-language materials, and each has designated areas and programs for teens as well as small children. Most also have artworks, some more original and outstanding than others. Reference desks are staffed full time by librarians, in addition to check-out personnel, and every library has a large meeting room for special programs and public use.

Visiting a number of these branches can give renewed faith in the power of public works and show off L.A.'s diverse communities. The following is a small sampling of sites.

Sylmar Branch

The jutting forms of the architecture of Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates wake up an otherwise dreary strip of Polk Street, a neighborhood where older, small houses mix with liquor stores, pizza takeout and ethnic bakeries. The library, light and cheerful, comes as a surprise and serves as a welcoming entryway to the schools and playing fields just beyond. Wildly different in style from everything around it, the corrugated metal exterior, large windows and brightly colored roofline -- yellow, green, orange and blue -- beckon visitors.

Completed in 2003 at a cost of $3.7 million, the 12,500-square-foot building still looks brand-new, even though it's clear from the slight wear on the furniture that this is a well-used facility. The interior includes a bright large space that opens onto specialized secondary areas, all with clerestory windows high enough to focus only on the view of the rugged hills in the distance. Tables and chairs playfully echo schoolhouse style in both adult and child sizes. Computers are available throughout but are not the major centerpiece of activity that they are in some branches.

On several recent visits, the atmosphere was consistently quiet but welcoming, and even on the weekends the space was not crowded, though there was a steady flow of users. Signs are in English and Spanish, and the collections include numerous Spanish-language books, videos and other materials. This is a mixed-use, multiethnic area, a commercial and suburban sprawl serving a cross section of income levels, and the patrons include families, the elderly and younger adults.

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