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100 Candles for County Libraries

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In the beginning, the county library that served Lakewood Village -- a few dozen houses surrounded by lima bean fields -- was only slightly larger than the original county "free library." The original in 1912 was a room in a house in Willowbrook. The village library in 1938 was a converted storeroom, about 650 feet square.

When I was first taken to the library, probably in 1954, the county had moved it to a storefront in a row of shops on the eastern edge of the Lakewood Center parking lot. The county also sent a bookmobile around; there so many children eager to read.

The library moved again, in 1959, to the newly opened Lakewood Civic Center. At 6,400 square feet, it was the largest branch library in the county system with over 20,000 books. That was the library of my childhood. It was one large room with blond wood furnishings, a central checkout and information desk, and a floor-to-ceiling window on the south side of the room that flooded the rows of shelves with light.

Children's books filled the entire western end of the library, within a bay created by two long, low shelves of books for the youngest readers.

Of course, you'll already know this story: my impatience with the limit on the number of books I could check out, attendance at the library on Saturday afternoons with the same regularity as attending church on Sunday mornings, and the habit of reading every single book the library had on some topic. My fixation was sailing. I used to know the order of sails from bow to stern of a square-rigged ship.

There were a lot of kids like me. By 1961, the Lakewood branch was the busiest in the county system. By 1964, 300,000 books a year were being checked out. Ten years later, the library moved to a larger building in the civic center. It remained (and remains) one of the busiest in the county library system.

Lakewood once had three library branches, one of them in a building funded by the Weingart Foundation. County budget cuts, driven by state takeaways of county revenue, closed that branch in the 1990s. More budget cuts reduced the operating hours of the remaining branches until Lakewood voters adopted a special parcel tax. But another round of state extractions from counties reduced hours again, closing the civic center branch on Sundays and Mondays.

Inevitably, the library is different in other ways. The cubicles with electric typewriters (ten cents for an hour) are gone. More of what a library is has migrated to the Web. Shelves of out-of-date reference books are empty. DVDs take up some of the vacant space.

There are still lots of kids. I hope they read all the books the library has about snakes or Egyptians or Native Americans or presidents or . . . Well, it doesn't really matter as long as they fall into some fascination that brings them back to the library again and again. I wish sometimes that I could join them.

You can capture that feeling, if you want, on Saturday (09/08) at your county library branch and celebrate a century of service and wonder (more here).

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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