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Treasures of the Great Libraries of Los Angeles

  • By Judy Lin Eftekhar
  • Published Dec 1, 2001 8:00 AM

Cynthia Burlingham knew a secret about Los Angeles: This youthful upstart among American cities has special-collections libraries with impressive, world-class holdings that span the last 10 centuries.

"Many people were really unaware of the vast range of materials in Los Angeles," says Burlingham, deputy director for collections at UCLA's Hammer Museum, who recognized that the Hammer would be the perfect showcase for these treasures.

And so, four years ago, Burlingham and Bruce Whiteman, head librarian of UCLA's William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, and representatives of special-collections libraries throughout the county formed an organizing committee to assemble an exhibition. The team scoured through thousands of precious books and objects from 32 special-collections libraries throughout Los Angeles County, from UCLA's collections to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, from the Getty Research Institute to the Western States Black Research and Education Center.

The culmination of their efforts, The World From Here: Treasures of the Great Libraries of Los Angeles, is a landmark exhibition of 350 rare books, manuscripts, photographs, prints, drawings and other artifacts spanning 1,000 years from every continent, many of which have never been on public view.

Exquisite ancient Chinese and Japanese scrolls, a rare first edition of Galileo's 1610 Starry Messenger recording his first astronomical findings with a telescope, John James Audubon's lavishly illustrated Birds of America, the first English edition of Euclid's Elements of Geometrie, Charles Darwin's seminal 1859 On the Origin of Species, Amelia Earhart's flight log from her historic 1928 transatlantic flight and a pamphlet announcing the discovery of DNA are among the exhibition's historical treasures.

"It's amazing, looking at the books that announced Galileo's discoveries to the world," says Burlingham, "or anatomical books with beautiful illustrations in minute detail."

She and her fellow curators also aimed for the unpredictable.

"The idea was that it wouldn't necessarily be what you expected to see," she says. "It wouldn't all be books with leather binding and Latin text."

Hence, also on display are such unassuming yet intriguing items as a box of 50 glass eyes; a turn-of-the-century, pocket-sized obstetrical guide to childbirth, including paper dolls with which to practice; children's games and books - including a rare 1901 first edition of Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit; a script for West Side Story with handwritten annotations by script supervisor Stanley K. Scheuer; and a copy of the first Los Angeles City Directory listing many of the city's first residents, their addresses and occupations.

The exhibition is organized in eight thematic sections, from "Starting Here," focusing on Los Angeles and California, to "Fully Alive," covering the areas of philosophy, spirituality and religion, including the Bible, Koran and the Lotus Sutra, and works by Shakespeare, Walt Whitman and - one of Burlingham's favorites - the original handwritten diaries of writer Anais Nin.

"They're not just written diaries," Burlingham says. "They start when she was 11 years old and have other items in them - photographs of herself and other people, her confirmation notice, invitations, things like that. It's a whole life."