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A site worth 70 million words

If a picture is worth a thousand, that's the value of the 70,000 historical images on the L.A. library's website.

October 22, 2006|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

Four stories underground, in a basement room of the Los Angeles Public Library, Carolyn Kozo Cole gazed at a worktable littered with images of Los Angeles in 4-by-5-inch format. She pushed at the photos' edges with her fingers, carefully moving them around the table as she considered what constituted an iconic image of downtown.

Cole, the library's curator of photographs, and assistant Katie Shapiro, a photography student at California Institute of the Arts, compared three nearly identical photos shot recently at the corner of 1st and Main Streets by photographer Gary Leonard. Cole pointed out the subtle differences: In one, route information flashed across the front of two Metro buses. In another, a man and a woman drove by the camera in a green minivan.

"What's this sign?" Cole asked about the third picture, which also featured a No. 33 bus "Not In Service."

It was the neon sign above the Rosslyn Hotel, a few blocks south.

"I think this is going to be the one," Cole said.

For years, Cole and her team toiled in relative obscurity, cataloging images for a few lucky academics who could get into the back rooms of the public library, where approximately 3 million photos sit in file cabinets and archival boxes.

But thanks to the Internet, their work is far from obscure anymore.

The L.A. library became one of the first in the nation to post portions of its vast collection -- mostly of historical L.A. photos -- online, able to be accessed and in many cases used for free.

Its website, www.lapl.org, has become the central repository for glimpses into L.A.'s past. It is where teachers find historical photos of the city to post on bulletin boards, movie production companies find inspiration for re-creating the Los Angeles of bygone eras and banks buy photos of L.A. neighborhoods to decorate new branch offices. For ordinary people, it's an easy place to find an inexpensive, if not free, way to decorate apartments and houses.

Veteran historians are left to marvel at how posting the photos on the Web has been a democratizing force, giving access to the city's past that before now the average person could see only in a history book or exhibited on a wall.

"It's a way of getting more people to use" the archives, said author and former state librarian Kevin Starr. "You can search it, order from it and get the pictures delivered, all on your computer."

In the last year, the viewing of library photos off the website has skyrocketed, going from about 84,000 viewings in July 2005 to more than 550,000 in the same month this year.

The website's popularity has transformed Cole and her staff into tastemakers, responsible for anticipating what kinds of images the public wants and for offering their own selections for what makes Los Angeles L.A. They carefully choose images to add to the database, which today includes about 70,000 photographs and is growing by 250 to 300 images a week, a number limited more by staff time than bandwidth.

In some cases, the online database has turned average users into photo curators.

Seattle blogger Gerard Van der Leun stumbled across a trove of L.A. photos by Ansel Adams -- mostly outtakes from a shoot for Fortune magazine -- on the library's website in March. Van der Leun was a fan of the photographer but didn't know he had taken extensive photographs of city life. So he posted the pictures to his online Flickr site. Suddenly, the photos got linked to sites around the world, and he was flooded with e-mails about the shots.

The decision-making process that goes into choosing images to include is a bit alchemy, a bit intuition and a bit treasure hunt.

Sometimes, Cole will simply open one of the file cabinets from the library's collection and let serendipity guide her. Wandering through the files, she has discovered pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger at the gym and Marilyn Monroe with an escort. "It's always exciting to see something new," she said.

Cole grew up in Fairfax, Va., and spent her childhood summers "in chemicals," working at her grandparents' portrait studio in nearby Fredericksburg.

She arrived in Los Angeles via the Pacific Northwest in 1981, the same week the public library received a donation of 250,000 images from Security Pacific National Bank. Armed with her background in photography and a degree in library science, Cole convinced the library to let her mount an exhibition of the photos. Nine years and eight exhibits later, she was hired as the library's photo curator.

Recently, Cole pulled a box of images from the files of the old Herald Examiner newspaper off the shelves. The files inside held photos of an Italian American boxer in the 1930s, Salvatore Ruggirelli, and of E. Joberhauser, superintendent of the men's prison in Chino, circa 1962. She passed them both by.

What makes a photo worthy of being placed online?

"If it's beautiful, it goes in," said Cole. "If it's significant, it goes in."

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