Carolyn Kozo Cole, left, and Kathy Kobayashi. LAPL
Two decades ago, a Los Angeles Public Library librarian named Carolyn Kozo Cole assumed responsibility for the library's treasured photograph collection. She found, time and again, that vast swaths of the city's people and story were not represented in the 2.2 million images. Out of her exasperation grew a project to copy thousands of family photos and take oral histories of Angelenos of many ethnicities. It remains a signature achievement of the library. At KCET's Artbound website, journalist Lynell George tells the story of how the project took life, after Cole found the library's folder on Watts contained only a single picture, of a Pacific Railway Station. Excerpt:
It hadn't been the first time someone would come in seeking a glimpse at L.A.'s day-to-day ethnic past, and it wouldn't be the last, Cole knew. There would be people poking around for the fine details of life: what houses and front-yard gardens looked like, the interiors of a corner store or restaurant . In this wildly diverse city, why wasn't there photographic record of that growth as well? There was "official" history and then there was "authentic" history -- the minutiae of accumulated routine and ritual that happened within the everyday moments and collectively add up into history.
For the next six years, Cole with the assist of [Kathy] Kobayashi, project coordinator Amy Kitchener and a quickly-assembled (and steady-growing) group of dedicated volunteers would seek to fill in the vital gaps in the story of Los Angeles. Cole figured, if the photographic history of these neighborhoods hadn't made their way to library by the usual channels (newspaper photographs, corporate or personal archive donations among them); the librarians resolved they would have to go to them, in that unwavering decision: "Shades of L.A." was born....
Now the Shades of L.A. archive contains more than 10,000 images, copies of photographs drawn from family albums, keepsake boxes or mantle-top photographs gathering dust or passed-down archives stored for safe-keeping on closet shelves in far-flung bedroom communities across the Greater Los Angeles basin -- Rosemead, Watts, Compton, Boyle Heights, Riverside, Downey and beyond.
The project's launch, it's first "Photo Day" occurred in 1991 at LAPL's Vernon Branch on L.A.'s former jazz street -- South Central Avenue. There, to everyone's relief, were lines of folks carrying hat boxes, grocery bags, well-thumbed scrapbooks and albums. The volunteer photographers had set up to 6x7 medium-format cameras to copy on-the-spot the images that would ultimately become the first tier of this collection. The undercurrent of enthusiasm let both Cole and Kobayashi know that they had hit on something.
Semi-related: The photography collection is housed in the History and Geneaology Department on the lowest level of the Central Library. That is also where the map collection resides. The map curator of LAPL, Glen Creason — the author of Los Angeles in Maps — writes at his personal blog about being a librarian for 34 years.
Waiters for Southern Pacific at the Central Station at 5th Street and Central Avenue. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Susan Ahn in her uniform on Downey Way in Los Angeles. She was the first Korean American in the WAVES, the women's division of the U.S. Naval Reserve in the 1940's. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Sister and brother wear Halloween masks in the yard of their home at a flower nursery on Los Feliz Boulevard. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.