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Through January 13, 2001 at the UCLA Hammer Museum, West Los Angeles

by Judith Hoffberg

If you were a scholar, what kind of book would you be? --Anne Waldman

The answer is now at the Hammer Museum, where for the past four and a half years the special collections librarians of Los Angeles County have spent endless hours trying to select the best of cultural offerings from their large and sometimes small collections of 32 local institutions. As large as Los Angeles County is, so is this incredible collection of treasures emanating from Santa Monica to Pomona, from Northridge to Long Beach. And the institutions themselves range from a dozen university libraries, to specialty libraries devoted to film and television, botanical books and books for the blind, as examples.

The depth and diversity of almost 400 objects chosen for this exhibition represents only a tiny fraction of the important material in these libraries. Not only were they chosen because they are rare and valuable, but they also reflect the depth of the collections from which they are drawn. And there is no Gutenberg Bible in this show, but most objects illuminate Los Angeles's cultural history and its importance as one of the great book cities of the world. As importantly perhaps, they have proven that libraries are more than books.

Just take a look at a box of glass eyeballs, movie posters, the first stop-motion pictures. Or the small scroll in a miniature pagoda from 770 A.D., which is the earliest extant, reliably dated example of textual printing in the world from the East Asian Library at UCLA. And of course handwritten letters such as one from Freud to Schiller, or two from Amelia Earhart. There are architectural models, Japanese obstetrical charts, Mexican children's bookcovers illustrated by Posada, a Lotus Sutra scroll from the 17th century, and visually delicious books on birds and insects. The whole range of knowledge opens its doors to "readers" of this exhibition.

Since 1963, when Marshall McLuhan predicted the end of books and the beginning of the global village, the book has been under attack, defending itself from its predicted demise. Yet it has been championed by collectors, librarians, bibliophiles, theoreticians, booksellers and publishers alike. The book and all its ancillary materials, as demonstrated in this exhibition, is bound to endure, thanks to the repositories of these treasures, not only in Los Angeles but throughout the world. As demonstrated, the book has endured as the best information storage and retrieval system in the world, perhaps not as speedy as the Internet with a fast modem or DSL, but in fact accessible, portable, and exchangeable. That allows for convenience, and although this show is not "convenient" to the touch (the exhibits are properly protected), the objects themselves in their library habitats can usually be retrieved with proper identification, documents and demonstration that the reader is a serious researcher in those libraries. The treasures are not put away for posterity, but in fact they are available for the use of serious scholars. And no one library shines brighter than another in this exhibition, which is a feat beyond all else.

Robert Hooke, “Micrographia: or
Some Physiological Descriptions
of Minute Bodies Made by
Magnifying Glasses,” London: J.
Martyn and J. Allestry, 1665.

Utagawa Kunitoshi, "Shinhat-
sumei nimpu rokuto junitai,"
woodblock print, 1880.

José Guadalupe Posada, bookcover
illustrations to Heriberto Frías, "Biblio-
teca del niño mexicano", Mexico City:
Maucci Hermanos, 1899-1901.

"Saddarmapundarika (Lotus
Sutra)", scroll, 1667.

In the years during which this exhibition was being prepared, the librarians themselves discovered more than they ever knew about what is out there: not only books, but photos, maps, drawings, prints, manuscripts and all those treasures that are unique to Los Angeles, such as Edward Weston's photographs of early California, the first books printed in the state, and original movie posters, as well as the first City and County Directory of the City of Los Angeles from 1872, with a mere 1500 entries. The influx of World War II emigrés is suggested by Thomas Mann (his Dr. Faustus is shown), or Bertold Brecht's Kriegsfibel, produced in Santa Monica in 1944, a kind of "war primer" and collection of satirical verses and tiny photographs. His intent was to expose the ways in which mass-media images of the war, with their aura of truthfulness, serve as a "terrible weapon against the truth in the hands of the bourgeoisie." Sounds familiar these days, doesn't it?

Hollywood certainly is part of the package, with plenty of movie posters (King Kong, Citizen Kane, the Wizard of Oz, Lady and the Tramp, and West Side Story [the script], as well as The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett). Then there is the sketch of Siquieros's America Tropical (1932), the infamously whitewashed mural located on Olvera Street. All of these varied treats are beautifully presented in a design by the team Durfee Regn Sandhaus (drs), whose motif of the "X" suggests both a marking on a treasure map as well as the many "here's" implied in the identities of Los Angeles, of libraries, and of books themselves. They have lit the exhibition to conceptually turn the gallery inside out: the lights are inside the display cases rather than on the walls, and the sweep of the show meanders like a river of ideas. There is also a reading room which allows for quiet reading of the catalog as well as computer searching. Included in the exhibition are video, audio and interactive sliding panels and facsimiles that invite access to special objects in the show. Durfee Regn Sandhaus is to be commended for solving many of the difficult problems of any book show. Books are a one-to-one experience, and to put them on "exhibit" makes for problems built into the medium. So both the treasures themselves and the designers who have made the treasures accessible are part of the totality of this extraordinary exhibition.