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Patt Morrison Asks

Book smart: Ken Brecher

'Maybe in the 21st century we should be open 24 hours a day,' says the president of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, who has developed literacy, reading and support programs for the community.

April 23, 2011|Patt Morrison

For Ken Brecher to say that being the president of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles is the best job he's ever had -- well, that speaks volumes. Consider that he's run the Sundance Institute, the Boston Children's Museum and a major Philadelphia philanthropy; that he's an anthropologist with a Rhodes scholarship and two research tours in the Amazon on his resume. The British playwright Christopher Hampton used Brecher's field notes for his play "Savages." He landed in Los Angeles as a theatrical "anthropologist in residence" -- a.k.a. associate artistic director -- at the Mark Taper Forum, exploring the then-uncharted territory of local subjects and underserved audiences.

Brecher's office at the Richard Riordan Central Library downtown is an oooh-what's-that museum of engaging objects from his travels, but, ever the anthropologist, he's always more enticed by what he's yet to discover -- in this case, right outside his office door.

Some timing -- you sign on to run the Library Foundation at a time when books seem to be going virtual and public libraries are getting the squeeze.

Libraries are an anchor institution of a community. To me, there are two great moments in the day: the moment the library doors open, and it looks like the January sales, like the Filene's Basement sale -- people rush in to the Central Library. I've never seen anything like it -- you'd think every one of them has to get the same book.

The second great moment is after school. It's the most dangerous time for a young person; Mom and Dad are both out working; there's nobody home. You can go to the library, and in that library is exactly what you're looking for -- other interesting, smart young people who also have homework to do.

The thing that really drew me to the Library Foundation [is that it] provides, for every student with a library card, a free tutor online every day of the week, seven days a week, from 3 until 10 o'clock at night. You say, I've got to write an essay about Jane Austen, or I'm struggling with geometry, and there's a college graduate, a professor, a PhD student online [to] help you. Can you imagine what a gift this is?

Many people go to museums and come away feeling, "I didn't understand that; I felt more comfortable in the gift shop than in the exhibit." You never feel that in a library. Never. Librarians love technology, they love books, they love information and they love people -- now who else has that combination?

At the Canoga Park library, a group of young women was there to work on their prom dresses. This incredible librarian had books to show them how. There was a mother whose child had been killed, and [the librarian] was going to help her with her eulogy for her son. Everything [about a library] says, "Come on in, this belongs to you."

Do the groups you ask for support say, hey, a library is a public institution -- let the public pay for it?

That's one of the first things I say in any [fundraising] meeting: The city pays the librarians, it turns on the lights, pays for custodians and upkeep. The private Library Foundation does none of that. What we do is the programs -- the literacy programs, the reading programs, the support programs. I'm looking to support summer reading clubs and homework clubs.

People have [begun] saying: If we want to fund social services, we can do it through a library. If we want to fund afterschool education, we can do that through a library. Someone said to me, "We're interested in young Latinas with a gift for mathematics," and I said, "How many would you like to meet? Come with me now!"

And city funds for libraries are being cut too.

So shortsighted. My relatives were visiting and I gave them a midnight tour of the library. As we left, outside on the steps were young people with computers doing their homework. It's the [library's Wi-Fi] -- if they can get right onto the steps, they can do their homework. They are living in single-room occupancy, in the shelters, but they're also students. They'd borrowed computers from the shelters and huddled on the steps of the Central Library doing their homework. And there are people who don't think we should be open seven days a week? Maybe in the 21st century we should be open 24 hours a day!

You're a trained anthropologist -- you must do field work just walking around the library.

I [saw] a person I'd have to describe as struggling. Most likely he was homeless, [with] a shopping cart at the door and a little dog tied to it and it was pouring rain. This person came in dripping wet, maybe in his early 20s, and he went to one of the free computers. I walked by him and did the thing you probably shouldn't, and I'm embarrassed that I did, but I did peek over his shoulder and there was an email. It said, "Dear Sonny, where are you? Love, Mom." And he wrote back, "Mom, I'm in Venice, California. Love, Sonny." Where else in Los Angeles could that young man have used a computer [free]?

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