The Autograph Book of L.A.: Improvements on the Page of the City is of course, a book first and foremost and as such can be read cover to cover, across lively and insightful essays and thoroughgoing captions. It is also a stately object, with a clean heft and gorgeously reproduced images that give an eclectic optical cross-section highlighting Los Angeles arts and culture figures from the last century-plus. But I’ve been using it as something else, too — as a kind of oracle or daily meditation. Opening to any random page and taking note of whose imprint appears there, and letting their gift be the prompt of the day or just of the moment.
The more old-school lede would go like this. Question: What do L. Frank Baum, Helen Keller, Isaac Asimov, Cheech Marin, Langston Hughes, Shepard Fairey, Sandra de la Loza, John Muir, Father Gregory Boyle, Mercedes Dorame, and Chaz Bojorquez have in common? Answer: They contribute just a few among the most fascinating entries in the Los Angeles Public Library’s Autograph Collection.
In 1906, City Librarian Charles Lummis began asking a sort of cultural Who’s Who of American men and women to contribute to the nascent institution in a rather unique way. He mailed them blank stationery and famously asked them each to “improve the enclosed page” in whatever way they saw fit. He got a lot of pretty amazing replies. In 2018, City Librarian John F. Szabo took up the mantle in earnest, inviting all Angelenos “to add their names and drawings, poems or memories” to the archive, and even staging a multi-branch open call day where the public were invited into the process as well, and hundreds heeded the call.
With this open-book act, Szabo and the institution both expanded and democratized the initiative, asking fundamentally salient questions of the city’s residents and of themselves as its collective record-keeper. For starters, who deserves, and who receives, due credit for shaping the culture? The answer, at least from the LAPL standpoint, has always been rather progressive; but like society broadly, it is also becoming less patriarchal, less stratified by income or gender or race, and more respectful of all manner of contributions to the character of this incredible and unique place.
The autograph collection functions sort of like a guest book, except for the entire city, and is full of art, music, literature, philanthropy, and activism — and there are currently over 1700 entries. This was the archive confronted by author, historian, and editor Josh Kun as he and his collaborators at the LAPL and Angel City Press undertook the construction of the new book. The challenges of editing 1700 items down to anything manageable, all while proceeding with an expansive, inclusive ethos, were manifold. All the more so as the approach also reframes the idea of the “autograph” to include street art and even the impulse to carve into wet cement, inscribing it all under the aegis of literally and figuratively “making one’s mark on the city.”
The book is accompanied by an exhibition at the Central Library in downtown through January, as well as slate of book-related author and art events at branches across the city. The exhibition itself includes both intriguing pages and supporting materials from a Disney film to a Mixografia edition by John Baldessari mimicking cement-writing and even a writing desk and stack of LAPL letterhead for anyone wishing to add their names to the ledgers of this never-ending story.
Upcoming book events with Kun include:
Monday, October 21, 7pm at Chevalier’s Books
Tuesday, November 5, 7:30pm at Skylight Books
Free Programs at the Libraries:
Saturday, November 16, 3:00pm
Graffiti Art at Arroyo Seco Regional Library
Tuesday, November 26, 4:30-5:45pm
The Autograph Book: Make your Mark! At Exposition Park | Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Regional Library
Thursday, December 05, 4pm
Leave Your Mark: Create a Zine at Arroyo Seco Regional Library
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