Emma Rojas and her 11-year-old son have relied on Boyle Heights’ Benjamin Franklin Library to check out books, use the computers, and access the Wifi.
Even as the library building has been closed, Rojas took advantage of their outdoor activities which include crafts, “espooky” storytelling, and special performances from Center Theatre Group.
Now, she can visit their temporary space that opened late December.
On a recent Saturday morning, Rojas and her son went to the new library bungalow that’s located in the parking lot of the Benjamin Franklin building on First Street and Chicago. Her son checked out “Goosebumps” books and movies.
“There’s interesting books, and he likes to check them out,” said Rojas, 35.
The building of the Benjamin Franklin Branch Library, which has been closed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, is expected to reopen in early 2024 as it continues to undergo extensive repairs and renovation. In the meantime, the temporary space opened late December and will host an Open House celebration this Saturday, March 11.
While the other city libraries reopened since the pandemic closures, senior librarian Lupie Leyva said the Benjamin Franklin Library remained closed as crews fixed the air conditioning and after they discovered other necessary repairs like the roof. The administration eventually decided that the library, which was last repaired in the 1970s, needed a full interior renovation.
“We’re really happy that we can offer a renovated library because this building is about 50 years old,” Leyva said.
Renovations include new carpets, bookshelves, study rooms, and furniture. Exterior restorations will include solar panels, a repaved parking lot, and electric vehicle chargers. Existing resources like the Adult Literacy Program – which helps adults with their reading abilities – and the New American Center – which helps residents with immigration needs – will have their own dedicated space.
East Los Angeles resident Alejandra Reyes often takes her 6-and-10-year-old sons to the Benjamin Franklin Library. Reyes is grateful for the library staff who “persevere and try and make programs for the community” in spite of the building’s closure.
“I think that’s important because it just shows my kids that it’s fine. They can still go to the library, despite not having the [main] building,” said Reyes, 29.
Reyes, who works as a messenger clerk at R.L. Stevenson Branch Library, has already visited the temporary space that she said was a “quick access spot” for people to grab their books or do a print job.
The temporary bungalow in the parking lot provides programs, books, and computers that residents can access. While space is limited in the temporary space, Leyva said that residents could request books from other branches that may not be available in their current space.
A service that’s also available at the Benjamin Franklin branch is thefree “Tech 2 go” program that allows residents to check out a Chromebook bundle that includes a portable hotspot, a mouse, and a charger. A valid adult ID is required to check out the bundle for up to six months, and individual hotspots are available for six weeks.
To Leyva, it’s important for residents to recognize the many resources the library offers at no cost.
Resources like the New American Initiative provide reliable help at no cost for immigration services like citizenship classes and green card renewals. Since the center for this initiative is currently being built at Benjamin Franklin’s renovated space, area residents can access these services by calling the Los Angeles Public Library or by going on its website.
“We don’t want people going to notarios. We want people to go to someone who can actually help them,” she said.
Library with a long history
The original Benjamin Franklin Library branch has a long history in Los Angeles.
It was the first of six Los Angeles libraries funded by philanthropist and industrialist Andrew Carnegie. It all started with a library service in Boyle Heights in 1889 which offered a free reading room and books at a low rental fee, according to a history of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Plans for the Carnegie building began in 1915 and were completed the following year. The first year’s circulation was more than 106,000, with 6,760 library cardholders. The new building had five rooms, an outdoor reading room, and two assembly rooms.
The library offered classes and workshops depending on the needs of the community. For example, in 1917, many of the classes were related to needs surrounding World War One, including a food conservation club and a Red Cross group whose purpose was to help war victims. Classes were offered in English and in Spanish.
Boyle Heights has had a vast and diverse immigrant history and the library reflected those shifts.
Early on, the library served residents speaking Spanish, Russian, Yiddish, Polish, and other languages. By 1927 library circulation had risen to more than 200,000. As Russian and Jewish residents moved to the western part of town, people of Japanese and Mexican descent began settling in Boyle Heights. By the early 1950s, circulation decreased due to the peak of the Depression in the 1930s, but the library continued to serve a diverse community.
The library was damaged due to the earthquake of 1971 and was demolished to be rebuilt and opened again in 1976. The current library is about 50 years old.
Leyva, the senior librarian at Benjamin Franklin, grew up going to that branch and has fond memories of visiting the library as a child. She remembers checking out her favorite books like “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.”
Now as a librarian, Leyva wants residents to know that the library is more than just books.
To Leyva, it’s important to teach people how to use computers as well as information literacy and how the internet works.
“Once we reopen, but even now, we do wish the community realizes that this library is for them,” she said. “And we’re there as librarians to really try to get with community wants and needs.”
Benjamin Franklin Library
2200 East First Street
Open Mondays and Wednesdays through Saturdays, 10 am to 5:30 pm; Tuesdays 12 to 5:30 pm; closed on Sundays.