LA Law Library at 125

(Event photos by Paula Parisi)

Hard to believe, but when it comes to the law, the wild west is actually a bastion of civilization. Outside of Washington, D.C., our own LA Law Library is the largest public law library in the nation. When it comes to the enthusiasm, knowledge and helpfulness of the staff, it is second to none.

This summer, the group hosted a period-themed 125th anniversary celebration, welcoming local dignitaries, patrons and the public to enjoy each other’s company and bask in the emanating wisdom of all those lovely books. A highlight of the July 27 event was the ability to tour the floors that house the foreign and international and historical materials.

The seven-story library has more than 35 miles of shelves filled with primary and secondary materials for federal law and that of all 50 states, with an emphasis on California resources. The international law floor includes treasures from around the globe, including many rare volumes from 120 jurisdictions. Touring the closed stacks, filled with 275,000 items, we were invited to examine the smallest of the library’s tomes—the Italian Penal Code—and the largest—the Dutch Gazettes. The frontiers don’t stop at earthly borders: there’s  a section on the laws of space.

The California Gold tour showcased the world’s largest public collection of materials on laws of the 31st state, including vast documentation of the legal system as the area evolved from European-influenced territory to sovereign jurisdiction of the federal government of the U.S., including many early materials in Spanish. It’s impossible to overestimate the tremendous value of this library and the good fortune of having it a part of our local community, a jewel among the edifices of Los Angeles’ Civic Center and Grand Park.

Executive director Sandra Levin emphasized the charter of not only serving professional attorneys (many calling in from other states to seek assistance) but the local citizenry, some actually undertaking to represent themselves in court. Of states that require by statute that each county maintain a public law library (CA Business and Professions Code, 6300-6364), California and New York are foremost in taking the charter to heart.

The Los Angeles County Law Library was incorporated in 1891, started by five attorneys in a room at the Los Angeles courthouse at Temple and Broadway. Then, as now, the library was funded by a portion of proceeds from civil court actions. Back then it was $1, today it’s $24.

The funding enabled librarian Thomas W. Robinson, who served through 1938, to acquire “reports of last resort” from the states that had joined the union. In 1905 the 15,000-strong collection was relocated to the Merchant’s Trust building on South Broadway.

The collection would move into another office space in 1909, then transition to the Hall of Records, where it remained from 1912 until 1953. That’s when it found its current home at 301 West First Street. Designed by the same firm that conceived the Stanley Mosk Courthouse and Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration right across the street, the beautiful  moderne structure was executed as part of a grand civic plan, by Paul Williams and the firm of Austin, Field and Fry. Wedged into the side of a hill, the low-slung structure belies its size, as two floors are underground.

In 2004 the building was named in honor of California justice Mildred L. Lillie—the state’s longest-serving appellate justice, with 44-years on the bench. Lillie’s portrait casts a somber gaze on all who enter the building, and a bust of Robinson also decorates the lobby. The current structure opened with 205,000 books. An addition in 1970 almost doubled the structure’s size, and today the library holds the equivalent of about a million items when factoring in multimedia. Around 2011, extensive renovations were initiated, and along with the refurbishment the facility was rebranded the LA Law Library.

The library still hangs onto vestiges of its colorful past. As befits an institution that offers books on the laws of the occult, the building is said to harbor a ghost, possibly that of Forrest Drummond, the esteemed librarian who served from 1950 to 1980, credited with the “vision” for the current building.

Shortly after Drummond’s death in 1993, a janitor photographed a strange apparition in the “dead stacks” on the uppermost floor, where the lights flicker spookily and disconnected phones have been known to ring. An alternate theory posits the return of Frank Howard, library director from 1892 until his mysterious disappearance in February 1896 (though the fact that more than $600 in library funds went missing with him made it slightly less mysterious).

While celebrated among library fans, researchers and members of downtown legal circles, the urban legend has yet to get the venerable facility onto the “Haunted Hollywood” tour map. “We’d rather be known for our depth of legal material and helpful staff,” head of reference and research Ralph Stahlberg said.

In addition to its enormous research collection library patrons have access to costly, subscription-based online databases that are available for the price of a library card (which is free, but if you want borrowing privileges, a $140 deposit is required). The library is also has conference rooms available for meetings, and the main space can even be secured for private events. A full complement of public and MCLE classes are scheduled monthly, starting at $20 (although some are free).



The 50s moderne architecture of today's LA Law Library Mildred L. Lillie building mixes clean lines with a lively terracotta orange tone.

Photo: courtesy Wikimedia Commons