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Diamond Jubilee: Seventy Five Years of Public Service

IV. Collection Development and Collection Access

Table of Contents

Early in 1913, the first County Librarian requested lists of suggested titles from civic and community leaders interested in establishing branch libraries. When the first shipment of these books arrived, 650 volumes, they formed the nucleus of Los Angeles County Public Library's book collection. The first two titles accessioned were Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales. From such a modest beginning, the collection grew to over a quarter of a million volumes during the first fifteen years under a policy "to secure the best and to satisfy every reasonable demand." Held up by depression and war, the total book stock did not reach the million mark until 1956, but the last million (from four to five) took only five years!

The original idea of the Los Angeles County Public Library was to feature a "revolving" book collection in order to distribute books over as wide a territory as possible. Book stock was exchanged among various branches at periodic intervals, thus making it possible for patrons of even very small branches to have a wide variety of books available to them. This "revolving system" worked well for a number of years in an environment of many small, scattered library outlets serving a basically rural population. "By a very flexible system of distribution and exchange," declared the County Librarian as late as 1937, "a small number of books can thus be made to serve a greater number of people than in a fixed system in which the books become dead wood sooner because they are not transferred to another place where they would be welcomed by other readers." As evidence, she pointed to annual book circulation figures totaling over seven times the entire book collection!


Books and Notes of the Los Angeles County Free Library (1931), published from 1926-1955. With urbanization and the postwar consolidation of small outlets, many of the larger branch libraries began developing permanent collections, particularly of reference books and standard works. In ensuing years, permanent collections became the norm in many libraries -- established collections which were developed continually to meet best the local needs of the communities served. Formats were also expanded. The Library was "not just books anymore." Although pamphlets, documents, and back runs of periodicals had been offered for years through the Central Library, these collections became widely available to field libraries in the postwar era -- along with audio visual materials and a myriad of special collections including microforms, telephone directories, college catalogs, picture files, and even computer software! Especially notable from the standpoint of collection depth was the establishment of the government publications program once depository status was achieved in designated libraries beginning in 1966. Also developed at designated libraries were a number of special collections, including Californiana, the Granger Poetry Collection, art prints, sheet music, and topographic maps. Books and magazines in large print and in languages other than English became standard components of most collections by the mid-1960s. On top of all of this, Regional specialities were developed, with each Region responsible for maintaining an in-depth collection in its specializing area of the Dewey Classification System.

Throughout all of this, the Library continued to keep in mind first and foremost the needs of the general reader by emphasizing standard materials and services as being of primary importance in the broad pattern of operation. While special subjects were necessarily emphasized, as in certain technical classifications, general collections in community libraries continued to be characterized by diversification, by a broad range of popular fiction and standard literature, and by the extensive representation of subjects of current interest and importance in scientific fields, the social sciences, arts, and humanities. Also, throughout all of this, the system never lost its flexibility. Today, each library has a "permanent" collection, but a very active request network still makes every book in the County-wide collection available to every patron in every branch.

While development of the Los Angeles County Public Library collection thus has been "evolutionary," development of access to that collection has been in many ways "revolutionary." The Library began, like others of its time, with a basic card catalog. This posed few problems in the early days when administration of the system was so highly centralized. Considered a drastic step for the times (1924) was the elimination of the cumbersome, line-by-line accession record in favor of a dated entry on the shelf list card. Another "big step" was the acquisition of electric equipment for duplicating author, title and subject cards!

The card catalog, in the end, was foredoomed by the changing demographic landscape of Southern California. In the postwar era, the Library was faced with serving a booming population in a politically complex territory that also included many other public, academic, and special libraries offering services independently. By 1937, twenty-four of the County's libraries had been supplied with card catalogs for their own local collections. Yet, fifteen years later, only two more (26 of the then 114 service outlets) had such catalogs, and developing one for each remaining branch was seen as prohibitive for budgetary reasons. Worse still, the only union catalog and location file remained at Library headquarters -- closed evenings and weekends.


IBM Print Punch, used for the new book catalog (1955). Faced with increasing service demands, with mounting pleas for catalogs from branch librarians, and with budgetary constraints, the Library -- in a national pioneering effort -- developed a bookform catalog. The first, a children's catalog, was produced in 1952 using punched cards and unit record equipment. The first adult catalog appeared three years later, and thereafter, a complete "master" swas published annually with supplements published at varying intervals. The Library found that it could distribute this catalog to all service locations at half the cost of the card catalog. The product was improved in 1964 when multilith duplication was abandoned in favor of a sequential camera process and further improved in 1967 when the first computer-produced catalog appeared. Yet, in the end, the book catalog was limited by the economics of the printing process and the inflexibility and expense of early data processing. In addition, where the broad distribution of this catalog provided all County residents with a list of the entire collection, it did not tell them where individual items were located physically. A hierarchy of antiquated card files in local libraries, Regional offices, and Library headquarters were still used to record item locations.

The County Library again responded to the challenge, this time with a more flexibly automated access system. The Computer-Output Microform (COM) Catalog first appeared in 1976. It was substantially cheaper to produce than the old catalog and provided more frequent updating to field libraries. It expanded the scope of bibliographic access to include non-book media and materials on-order or received, whether cataloged or not. It also allowed economical production of spinoff paper tools (such as the Subject Guide and Union List of Periodicals) on an as-needed basis. Of equal importance, the conversion to machine-readable form of the Library's then four million location records (a two-year project) allowed system-wide location access, which increased tremendously the efficiency of the request process. At about the same time, the volume of original cataloging was reduced by the use of shared cataloging. In 1979, an on-line ordering system was introduced. In 1986, the Library began piloting use of the Compact Disk (CD ROM) Catalog. The CD Catalog soon proved easier to use, easier to read, faster, and quieter than the old microcatlogs. It had a much greater storage capacity, allowed a Boolean search capability, and had the added advantage of a printer option. When cost considerations were taken into account, it also had the potential for being cumulated frequently enough to rival the advantages of an on-line catalog.

Use of the Los Angeles County Public Library throughout the years has been related closely to both collection development and accessibility. Population and economic trends also have been factors. The growth in circulation from 1,014 during the first year to over twelve million today -- while dramatic -- has not always been uniform: the first dip occurred during the First World War; the 1933-34 high was not reached again for another eighteen years; even the fiscal crisis of 1978-79 took a heavy toll. The rules and methods of registration and circulation have also influenced use. Borrowers' cards were used during the early years, but, until 1936, it was necessary to be a property owner or to have a property owner as a reference in order to obtain such a card! (Presentation of a driver's license and a voter's registration receipt was then required until 1943, after which verification of an applicant's signature by means of a driver's license, voter's registration or a membership card was considered acceptable.) The first circulation system was the Browne Pocket Charging System, replaced in 1926 by the Newmark Method in which book cards were filed to form a time record. The Detroit Self-Charging System of having borrowers write down their own card numbers when taking out books was adopted in 1934. The Signature Charging System was adopted in 1948 and discontinued the use of borrowers' cards. This method has been used ever since, although certainly considered as antiquated in recent years. Today, the Library is on the brink of a comprehensive Automated Circulation System -- the largest of its kind in the nation -- which will tie together, simplify, streamline, and centralize the circulation-related functions of all of the libraries as well as to improve further the access system with instant circulation status information.

Images:

  • Books and Notes of the Los Angeles County Free Library (1931), published from 1926-1955.
  • IBM Print Punch, used for the new book catalog (1955).


Diamond Jubilee:
Seventy Five Years of Public Service
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