Monday, April 19, 2010


The Vermont Square Branch Library is a branch library of the Los Angeles Public Library System. It is located in the South Central region of Los Angeles, California. It was the first Carnegie library to be built in Los Angeles, according to the now-defunct newspaper Southwest Wave (“City’s Oldest Library,” 1983). Its rich history spans decades, tying closely to the history of the Los Angeles Public Library System. Hence, to comprehend the history of this once-popular branch library, one must first study the origins and early history of the Los Angeles Public Library System. In this study, therefore, we will first discuss the Los Angeles Public Library System, how it started branch libraries (such as the Vermont Square Branch), and its reasons for doing so. We will also analyze the Vermont Square Branch Library's at its height, during its first four decades, while it was a popular community library (and before it started to go into decline in the late 1950s); the surrounding community's key role during that era; and the library staff and leaders who oversaw both its development and operations during those decades. Therefore, this library study will help readers to understand the history and importance behind the Vermont Square Branch Library.

The Los Angeles Public Library System and the Creation of Branches

The Los Angeles Public Library System is one of the oldest library systems in the United States of America. According to the Los Angeles Times, it began in 1872 with the creation of the Los Angeles Library in Downey Block (it used to cost 5¢ to use it but was made available to the public in 1891) (“Interesting Library Facts,” 1899). According to Gracy, Hansen, and Irvin (1999), during that time, Los Angeles was just a 17,000 square foot “provincial outpost with less than 6,000 people” (p. 313). The system was named the Los Angeles Library Association and headed by the Board of Trustees of the Los Angeles Public Library. However, the Ordinance of 1878 changed it to the Los Angeles Public Library, departments were created, and the Library Board of Regents was established. The following year, the post of City Librarian was established. In 1889, the city’s charter created the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Public Library (who was now appointed by the Mayor). In addition, the library was moved to City Hall from Downey Block. In 1891, the Library School of the Los Angeles Public Library opened in 1891 (“Interesting Library Facts,”1899; Los Angeles Public Library, 1936, pp. 31-6, pp. 77-8). Then, in 1897, the library’s first branch was established “in the form of a reading room and delivery station on Castelar Street,” according to the Los Angeles Times (“Interesting Library Facts,” 1899, p.10). Two years later, in 1899, the Macy Street Reading Room was opened as a branch. In 1900, stations were being opened, such as Boyle Heights; many soon began to be converted into branches due to the process of supply and demand. Los Angeles, too, began growing at an alarming rate; hence, the city began annexing surrounding towns and counties. Many towns that had already-established libraries, such as Eagle Rock and Hollywood, were being annexed by Los Angeles; hence, their libraries were incorporated into the Los Angeles Public Library system (“Interesting Library Facts,” 1899; Los Angeles Public Library, 1936, pp. 70, 71-73).

Due to the library system’s rapid growth, it was deemed necessary to become organized and appoint a head of the newly-created Branches Department in 1906. This was made possible through the use of Carnegie’s funds. Hence, Helen T. Kennedy was appointed as head of the branches and Betsey Foye of sub-branches in 1913. Also, the Vermont Square Branch was built that year. It was the first branch housed in a new building with a permanent collection and equipment (Los Angeles Public Library, 1936, pp. 74-5). In 1919, the Inter-Library Loan Department was organized under Blanche Herzog. A year later, the Work With Children Department was established; also, a new budget plan was developed. In 1924, the Branches Department was reorganized into 3 divisions: larger branches, second group branches, and sub-branches; each division had a leader. A year later, the sub-branches division was abolished (Los Angeles Public Library, 1936, pp. 74-6). Around the same time, stations were either rapidly being converted into branches or being discontinued. In 1925, the library system was officially “supported by [an] annual appropriation of 7¢ on each hundred dollars of…city taxes” (Los Angeles Public Library, 1934, p. 3; Los Angeles Public Library, 1936, pp. 64, 75; “Interesting Library Facts,” 1899). In 1926, due to overflowed collections, the Central Library (known today as the Richard J. Riordan Central Library) was built and became the Branches’ Headquarters (Los Angeles Public Library, 1936, pp. 61-2, 64-5; Chuck, 2002). One year later, the Library Board was given its present name: the Board of Library Commissioners of the Los Angeles Public Library.

In 1928, under Annabelle Learned, the Branches Department created the Stations division. Later, in 1933, a change took place where all branch heads were given a new title: the Department Librarian in Charge of Branches. Hence, by this time, the public library system was finally organized (Los Angeles Public Library, 1936, pp. 71, 75). As the decades went by, more branches, stations, and departments were created; new positions opened up; and, by 1950, the Los Angeles Public Library was shaped to what it is today- one of the largest public library system in the United States with over 30 branch libraries, which includes the Vermont Square Branch (Los Angeles Public Library, 1936, pp. 75-8; Los Angeles Public Library, 1950).

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Vermont Square Branch: Origins, Pt. I

Beginning Years (1880s-1913)

In a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times, Jack Smith, brothers Arthur and Jevne Rohman (1983) wrote about how the land for the Vermont Square Branch was acquired in the late 1880s. They stated that their grandparents, Lewis Eugene and Ida S. Shepherd, sold their businesses and acquired the acreage which “is now bounded by Vernon Avenue, 48th Street, Vermont and Normandie Avenues.” Lewis, who was the president of the Southwest Land Company, “subdivided the acreage and gave “parcels of land to [Los Angeles] County for a park. The county thus chose the site of Vermont Square Park to build the first Carnegie Building in the city (pp. 1-2).

In 1910, Andrew Carnegie approached the Los Angeles Library Board of Directors and proposed that they build six Carnegie libraries in the city. He decided to donate $210,000 (roughly $2 million in modern currency) with only one provision: that a tenth of the fund and future upkeeps be provided by the city, which they agreed upon, according to the Los Angeles Times (“Library Contract Let,” 1912; "Library Assured," 1912). Hence, construction began in June of 1912, while Everett Perry was the City Librarian, and ended on February 12, 1913, as reported by the Los Angeles Times (“Library Contract Let,” 1912; “First Local Carnegie Library,” 1913).

A great collection of books and materials were ordered for the brand-new library by Miss Helen T. Kennedy, who was the supervisor of the branch libraries at the time. She ordered over 2,000 new books (non-fiction, religious, cultural, and children’s) and periodicals, though the library’s shelves were able to hold 16,000 volumes. Caroline M. Brittan, who was hired as the first librarian, and her assistant Veva Hart (along with two helpers from the Central Library) began setting up the new library. They, along with the rest of those in the library system, were no doubt anticipating the opening of the Vermont Square Branch (Los Angeles Public Library, 1920, pp. 1-3; Los Angeles Public Library, 1936, p. 1).

The Vermont Square Branch: Origins, Pt. II

A New Library (1913-Great Depression)

The Vermont Square Branch Library officially opened at 6:00 PM on March 1, 1913 with a private black-tie event in the library’s auditorium (Los Angeles Public Library, 1920, p. 1; Los Angeles Public Library, 1988, p. 2). Hundreds of important people showed up for the ceremony. Speeches were given by the Henry Newmark, President of the Los Angeles Library Board of Directors; Everett R. Perry, the City Librarian at the time; and H.H. McCallum, the president of the Vermont Square Improvement Association. The rest of the Library Board members as well as the library’s new staff members were present to celebrate the opening of the new library (Los Angeles Public Library, 1920, p. 1.).

On Monday March 17, 1913, at 9 AM, the library opened up for public use. The community seemed to enjoy the new library. By the end of the month, over 1,000 people were registered library-card holders. Also, the library’s collection had totaled 2,285 and its circulation was 3,769. At the end of the fiscal year, in July, the library’s book collection increased to 4,008, circulation reached nearly 6,000, and over 2,000 people were library-card holders. Hence, the new library was a success among the community’s masses and became the most popular library in the city (Los Angeles Public Library, 1920, p. 1).

During the library’s first year, there were only two staff members working: Miss Brittan and her assistant, Veva Hart (Los Angeles Public Library, 1920, p. 1). According to a report, in the early 1900s, an average head librarian’s salary was $150/month; hence, this is what Brittan may have been earning (Hansen et al., 1997, p. 341). The library was opened weekdays and Saturdays from 9 AM to 9 PM, and Sundays from 2 PM to 6 PM. By 1915, there were library pages and aides working in the library; also, the first children’s librarian, Clara E. Perdum, was added to the staff (Los Angeles Public Library, 1920, p. 1). In 1916, Brittan left the library and was succeeded by Elizabeth C. Riddell, who took over as head librarian. In 1919, Riddell left the library and Veva Hart took over as head. In 1920, she transferred to the Lincoln Heights Branch and was succeeded by Emilie Jackson. At the end of 1920, Jackson transferred to a new library and Jessie Cavanagh was appointed as head librarian. In July of 1929, she transferred to the Felipe de Neve Branch and was replaced by Helen Spotts, Vermont Square’s most famous librarian to date (Los Angeles Public Library, 1920, p. 1.).

In the late 1920s and 1930s, there were many staff changes that occurred in the library. Many library assistants and senior librarians were coming and going. Staff members such as Lulah Meyers Lloyd, Oak Amidon, and Bess Markson were taking positions as head librarians in other branches. Others were retiring or died of old age, such as Mary Gertrude Hart. However, this frequent change of staff was not detrimental, but helped the library rise to prominence (due to the well-known people who were being hired) (Los Angeles Public Library, 1920, p. 2).

In the meanwhile, the Vermont Square Branch was a major community center. The Vermont Square Improvement Association took pride in the library and held meetings in its auditorium. Dr. Dennett, a pastor at the local church, actively worked with the library to provide services for youths. The library began adding new services and machinery, such as a motion picture projector, to draw in more children and adults. Hence, clubs and other programs were started, in which those in the community actively participated in (more information will later be provided) (Los Angeles Public Library, 1920, pp. 2-3).

During World War I, the Vermont Square Library was the hub of patriotic activity. The Red Cross organized its drives there and held meetings in the auditorium. The branch organized book drives for camp libraries, receptions for local-area drafted soldiers, and food drives. Groups such as the Women’s Council for Defense, the Home Guards, and the War Saving Stamps Societies used the library’s auditorium to hold their meetings, organize demonstrations, and conduct relief work. Other groups were still using the auditorium, however, to hold their meetings, such as the Boy Scouts and the Southwest Realty Board. Also, neither war nor the Great Depression prevented the library’s circulation from descending; in fact, circulation reached an all-time high during that entire era, reaching well over 400,000 in the early 1930s (Los Angeles Public Library, 1920, p. 3). Hence, it is evident that the library continued to be a popular community center even during troubled times.

-Exterior shot of the Vermont Square Branch Library
In 1931, the library threw a party to celebrate its 18th anniversary. All members of the community were invited to attend. Alice Ames Winter, a librarian from Boston, was the speaker of the evening. In addition, Frances Harmon-Zahn, a member of the Library Board, and City Librarian Althea Warren also gave brief speeches. The celebration was a huge success and community members sent letters of appreciation to the library for it. Thus, the community continued to show its strong support towards the branch library during the Great Depression era (Los Angeles Public Library, 1920, p. 6).

However, not all was well during that time. For instance, in March of 1933, an earthquake hit Southern California and the library got damaged; however, the following summer, it was repaired and the interior was redecorated (new light fixtures and paint) (Los Angeles Public Library, 1996, p. 2). Also, the library’s funds were reduced from $5,700 to $2,237. Were it not for their rental collection, the library may not have stayed afloat during the Depression. However, with the start of the 2nd World War encroaching, the hard times began to diminish and the library’s book fund mounted back to its near pre-depression level (Los Angeles Public Library, 1920, pp. 5-6; Los Angeles Public Library, 1949, p. 6).

The Vermont Square Branch: Origins, Pt. III

The Library during World War II (1939-1945)

Three years before the outbreak of the 2nd World War, in 1936, the library’s circulation was in decline. Vermont Square Library dropped from 2nd to 8th place on the branch circulation list. However, in 1939, it mounted to 2nd place and went back to 1st in 1940. Yet, during the 1940s, that number kept on fluctuating due to World War II (Los Angeles Public Library, 1949, p. 2). Also, the war was the reason for the many negative changes in the library. For instance, there was a 35% drop in the amount of cardholders. Many adults began training for new wartime jobs instead of coming to the library; hence, there were losses in adult circulation. Due to problems such as gasoline rationing, it was difficult for people to make frequent trips to the library. Therefore, the amount of books that could be checked out on a library card was raised from five to ten to make it easier for patrons (Los Angeles Public Library, 1949, pp. 2-3.).

On July 17, 1940, the Board of Library Commissioners held a conference at the Vermont Branch in order to look over its building. They also discussed the library’s problems with the head librarian and tried to find solutions to them, yet to no avail. In addition, the library was having a difficult time securing necessary funds in the spring of 1941 due to a charter amendment (Los Angeles Public Library, 1949, pp. 4-5). Thus, the staff campaigned anywhere they could- P.T.A. meetings, local churches, women’s and businessmen’s clubs- and wrote letters to officials and city voters. However, their campaigning was unsuccessful and taught them a lot about the community and its leaders. They also learned a lesson: to make group contacts instead of individual ones in order to “gain new borrowers and extend the library’s field of service” (Los Angeles Public Library, 1949, p. 4).

Unlike the first war, World War II had a major effect on the library’s hours. From December 10, 1941 to May 1, 1942, the library was closed during the evenings (as a wartime measure). The library’s regular hours were from 9 AM to 5PM the first two weeks of the month and closed at 6 PM the last two weeks. The branch was open on Sundays from 2 PM to 6 PM. In 1943, the branch’s hours were changed from 1 PM to 9 PM. During 1942 to 1945, all of the branch libraries were closed during the last two weeks of August for staff vacations. This thus occurred because it was nearly impossible to obtain vacation substitutes during the war (Los Angeles Public Library, 1949, p. 3).

However, just like during World War I, the Vermont Library was the center of wartime activity. The library was selected as an air raid shelter and a Red Cross casualty center. War drafts were conducted there, and district air raid wardens held meetings in the auditorium. The United States Service Organization (U.S.O.) also held its meetings there for the Southwest District. In addition, the library was accredited as a Civilian County Defense Information Center. Rallies, book and food drives, and relief work all took place at the branch during this time. However, just like during the previous war, these things did not prevent regular groups such as the Girl Scouts (and even the Board of Library Commissioners) from holding their own meetings at the library (Los Angeles Public Library, 1949, p. 3). Also, it during this time, on March 1, 1943, the library observed its 30th anniversary, with newspapers covering the event. Scrapbooks were made with photographs depicting the library’s change over the past three decades. Hence, even though it was a somber time due to the war, people showed support towards the library and commemorated that special event (Los Angeles Public Library, 1949, p. 5).

During the 2nd World War, Helen Spotts continued to be the head librarian at the Vermont Square Library. She had been in that position since 1929, according to the Southwest Wave newsletter (“Know Your Southwest,” 1930). She was extremely well-liked by the community and was a social leader. She publicized the library through many avenues- posters, letters, activities, etc.-and drew up plans for the branch. She served on many different committees and integrated the library’s services with local programs. In addition, she attended many different conferences. For instance, in 1945, she attended the University of Chicago’s Graduate Library Institute’s “The Library in the Community” conference (Los Angeles Public Library, 1949, p. 5). Spotts used such meetings to gain information on how to improve the library, especially in the community. In 1943, Manual Arts High School, a local school that had a partnership with the library, awarded her with a lifetime membership in their Parent Teacher Association for her outstanding achievements in the community. Spotts, with her incredible leadership skills, was thus arguably the best librarian in the history of the Vermont Square Branch Library (p. 5).

The Vermont Square Branch: Origins, Finale

Postwar & End of the First 40 Years (1945-1953)

With the 3 roughest decades in human history behind it (World War I, Great Depression, and World War II) the Vermont Square Branch went back to “normal times.” By the end of World War II, the library’s now over-flowed book collection was ranked one of the highest in Los Angeles. A survey conducted by the Los Angeles Public Library Survey Committee displayed the library’s rankings: #1 in labor materials and U.S. history; #2 for health, geography, economy, and religion; #3 in science, technology, reference books, education, and European reconstruction; #4 for photography; and #6 for literature and nutrition (Los Angeles Public Library, 1949, p. 7). With such numbers, therefore, the library was getting back on track after enduring through tough times.

The library was also in talks about developing into a regional branch. Helen Spotts greatly anticipated this and centered her planning around this objective. However, it did not occur until February 1, 1949, nearly three years after her departure from the library. Thus, from 1949 to 1979, the Vermont Square Branch Library was the regional branch of the public library’s Central Region (Los Angeles Public Library, 1949, pp. 5, 8; Los Angeles Public Library, 1959, p. 2; Los Angeles Public Library, 1988, p. 2).

By 1949/1950, however, the library was seeing rapid changes in its circulation. There was a sharp decline in “reading for pleasure” and the community’s educational level was slightly below the city’s average (Los Angeles Public Library, 1959, p. 2). In addition, the library’s collection dropped from over 400,000 pre-war to 186,114 by the end of the decade. During the 1950/51 fiscal year, it dropped to 152, 926. It climbed up to 165,059 by 1952, but dropped again to 141,934 in 1953 (p. 12). Another disappointing figure was the number of registrations for library cards. The number fell from 11,176 by 1949 and kept descending, dropping to 8,891 in 1953. The branch went from being #1 in circulation in 1930 to #8 in 1950. That ranking kept plummeting, for a report stated that its rank was #23 by the end of that decade (pp. 3, 12). With these figures, it was evident that the library was losing its popularity. Therefore, according to a current librarian at Vermont Square Branch, it may have been factors such as the advent of television in households, movies, and American parents working longer hours that began putting the library on a fast-track to declination, a trend that still continues to this day (M. Jones, personal communication, April 6, 2010).

As mentioned, the library was the headquarters of the Central Region. The first regional branch meetings were held in its auditorium on January 22, 1951. Its second annual meeting was held in the same place on February 19, 1952. However, by 1953, the library was hurting financially and its staff had been reduced; therefore, the new Baldwin Hills Branch was used as the temporary regional headquarters until October 11, 1949 (Los Angeles Public Library, n.d.; Los Angeles Public Library, 1959, p. 3).

The first 40 years of the Vermont Square Branch Library thus capped off with a grand celebration on March 17th, 1953 (Los Angeles Public Library, 1953, pp. 1-5). The newspaper Southwest Wave published a story on its front page chronicling the branch’s history. The branch also exhibited special displays on its history. Furthermore, the Board of Library Commissioners held a special meeting at the library and a reception was held honoring the patrons who have used the library since its 1913 (Los Angeles Public Library, 1959, p. 8). Hence, there was no better way that the Vermont Square Library could have celebrated its 40th anniversary.

During the post-war years, a change in staff once again occurred. In 1945, the beloved Helen Spotts was transferred to the Hollywood Branch. Her replacement, Eleanora Crowder, led the library until 1946, when she transferred to the West Los Angeles Branch. Gertrude Bergman was brought in as head librarian in 1946 and stayed until her transference to the Pico Branch in 1949 (Los Angeles Public Library, 1949, p. 5). That year, history was made at the Vermont Square Regional Library. The first African-American librarian in Californian history, Miriam Matthews, was chosen as head librarian, which was reported by the Los Angeles Times (La Ganga, 1983). Though faced with financial difficulties and a declining circulation, she ensured that the library was a cultural center in the community and succeeded. She may have not been as celebrated as Miss Spotts; however, Matthews have been noted for her intelligence and her community activities. She served as the library’s leader until 1959, when she decided to retire from the librarian profession (La Ganga, 1983; Los Angeles Public Library, 1949, pp. 5, 8; Los Angeles Public Library, 1959, p. 11).

-Miriam Matthews, California's first African-American librarian

Designs, Designers & Architects of the Library

The 8,000 square feet Vermont Square Branch Library is a T-shaped, one-story building that was designed in an Italian Renaissance-style fashion and “Prairie style proportions” (National Park Service, 1987, p. 6; Los Angeles Cultural affairs Department, 1993, p. 4; Los Angeles Public Library, 1996, p. 2). The library's building dimensions measures 85' x 57' (Los Angeles Public Library, 1928, p. 13). Its foundation is raised and it has a red-tile roof supported by expansive, stained overhanging eaves. The building’s fa├žade, which is symmetrical, is “divided into three sections with its center portion protruding slightly” (National Park Service, 1987, p. 6). The center portion is “faced with terra cotta blocks with geometric patterns” that are “reminiscent of Classical motifs.” The library’s short staircase leads up to the entrance which “has a Palladian transom above (p. 6). The entrance is located on a midway that is halfway up the stairs, and the staircase’s top half is located inside the building (p. 6).

The library’s two wings are divided horizontally by “two different facing materials” (National Park Service, 1987, p. 6). The exterior walls below the window sills of the library are covered by cream-colored glazed brick covers. The windows are long and vertical, and “located high up the walls.” They are grouped in 5’s on “either side of the entry, the sides, and at the rear” (p. 6). Between the windows are terra cotta panels, which harmonize with the entry’s decorative border. Also, the central arch is “recessed within a decorative arch” and “a cornice of terra cotta forms a cornice around the entire building” (Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, 1993, p. 4; National Park Service, 1987, p. 6).

The library’s original charging desk is still found on the main floor. The reading room, with its coffered ceiling, features a row of large octagonal columns running down its center. To top it off, the library’s outdoor reading room, located on its northwest side, is located above the large community auditorium (National Park Service, 1987, p. 6).

The beautiful branch library was built by prominent architectural team Hunt & Burns (National Park Service, 1987, pp. 2, 6; Los Angeles Public Library, 1928, p. 13). The entire cost for the construction of the branch was $38,466 (about $350,000 today) (Los Angeles Public Library, 1928, p. 13). The style that was used was typical of those that were adopted by the Carnegie Corporation. With its exquisiteness, the Vermont Square Branch Library is considered to be an architectural masterpiece (Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, 1993, p. 4; National Park Service, 1987, p. 2).