Haefele: Mayor Garcetti's library commission picks lack connection to, you know, books

LAPL/Security Pacific National Bank Collection

The devastating arson fire that burned 400,000 books in the LA Public Library in 1986.

LAPL/Security Pacific National Bank Collection

Workers salvaging what they can after the 1986 LA Public Library fire.


Who bemoans the loss of ancient Alexandria’s Department of Public Works? No one I can think of. But all of civilization bemoans the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria with its lost treasures of knowledge from the first millennia of human history.

                                                                                          (O. Von Corven)

The old library was inscribed "The place of the cure of the soul." And that is what libraries have been to civilization ever since.

Where were the libraries in your life? Mine stretch across the nation—the little one in Flint, the big one in Detroit, the glorious old Beaux-Arts library in St Louis with the towering stacks and glass catwalks, accessible even to 14-year-olds like me.  Then there was perhaps the greatest of them all: the lion-fronted Public Library of New York.

(Scientific American. Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection / New York City -- New York Public Library)

At home, in school, you were just a kid, but in the library your brain, your imagination soared to the heights of other people’s genius.  You partook of all the mind wealth of history.  And for most of  your life, you thought of the library as the most important of municipal services. Like most people do, according to some polls.

Just like Alexandria’s, Los Angeles’ library was burned — twice, in 1986.  It was as though the personified cultural wasteland our city is so often accused of being set out to raze this bastion of literacy.

400,000 books were lost, but many damaged books were saved by the work of hundreds of diligent volunteers. One of Tom Bradley’s latter great works was contriving an air-rights deal to rebuild the singular, vaguely Masonic 1926 Bertram Goodhue  structure  bigger and better.  Though it took seven years to finish the job, it turned out  magnificent, and it felt, with all the volunteers involved, and the cooperation between the private and public sectors, that the city had somehow earned back its intellectual treasure house.

Which somehow brings us to our new Mayor Garcetti’s appointments to the city’s Board of Library Commissioners. There’s just one problem.

Most of them have nothing to do with books. Or learning. 

Okay, I found out in a local Eastside publication that Commisioner Bich Ngoc Cao is more than “an online marketing and social media strategist who helps brands, artists, and campaigns build their communities through social media” as the mayor’s handout has it. She’s a lifetime library user, and books have brought her great joy. Well that’s a qualification.

And then there’s a holdover from Antonio, Rita Walters, former teacher and councilwoman. Having taught is sort of a qualification.

Then comes Gregory Bettinelli, “a Venture Partner for Upfront Ventures, an Affiliated Executive for Freeman Spogli & Co., Co-Founder of MuckerLab, and Venture Advisor for Mucker Capital.’’ Which does sound like a character from a Thomas Pynchon novel, but that’s not the same thing as having a real-life professional association with books and learning -- which is, I believe the basic qualification for an appointee to this particular commission. The other two appointees include a radio personality (Josefa Salinas) and a Mai Lassiter, veteran of some charitable boards. Bad fit, both of them.

But Los Angeles is a metropolis of authors and writers and even some publishers. We all know that. Say, how about we get some real book people on this board next time? At least three of them?

Here are some wild, almost random, suggestions from bookish friends of mine (eliminating, alas, suggested “Angelenos” who live in near-miss areas like Pasadena and Topanga):

  • novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • poet Wanda Coleman
  • novelist Denise Hamilton
  • Dodger pitcher Chris “Phi Beta Kappa" Capuano (suggested by bibliophile David Kipen)

And how about our former mayor Richard Riordan?

(Former Mayor Riordan with photographer Gary Leonard. Gary McCarthy/LAPL)

I visited Riordan at home once, and was shocked by what appeared to be a wall-full of overdue library books. It turned out he’d bought an entire bankrupt university’s library.

How about the LA Times’ and KPCC’s shared intellectual treasure, Patt Morrison?

How about venerable author-priest Malcolm Boyd?

Animal lovers fill the ranks of the Animal Control Commission.  There is a parallel here.

Maybe next time?

But sad to say, next time won’t come for another 5 years.

                                                                               (John Rabe)

Off-Ramp commentator Marc Haefele loves, edits, reads, and writes books, but he lives in Santa Monica.

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