Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Lawrence Clark Powell

I have spent many wonderful hours in the Powell Library at UCLA, but I knew nothing about the man for whom the library is named until I found his books. I quickly pulled his books off the shelf and began a few days’ worth of rapturous reading, and even wrote about him in a previous post. I quickly realized that even though they were out of print, I wanted my own copies. So I scanned my usual used book outlets on the web and found clean copies to order. Now, after several weeks of reading each book and reveling in Powell’s delightful memories and prose, I am ready to say that these books need to go back into print, especially now that we face a budget crisis with libraries, public and private, and the art of reading seems to be migrating to electronic readers from the tactile pleasure of the physical book.

At his heart, Powell was a bookman, a lost breed of salesmen who knew their products and traveled the world buying up old and antiquarian books for their used book stores and libraries. Powell began his career at Vroman’s Books in Pasadena, California, an institution in Los Angeles having been around since 1894. It remains a vibrant and important place today after all the other great independents have gone out of business.

From selling books, Powell moved on to the UCLA libraries where he worked himself up through the ranks to head librarian and first dean of the School of Library Service. He felt that UCLA was the place for which he was destined, and under his leadership, the holdings of the library grew from 285,000 volumes to more than two million. He taught librarians across the country, and worked as an advisor to a number of university libraries who followed his example at UCLA and became important centers of learning and scholarship.

Although he wrote fiction, his m├ętier was nonfiction books about books. I examined four of Powell’s works in particular, two books of memoirs and two books of essays. The man was, in addition to being a reader, a prodigious writer, publishing hundreds of articles and papers in journals and magazines about books, writers, and the literary life.

Fortune & Friendship: An Autobiography By Lawrence Clark Powell (R.R. Bowker Co) appeared in 1968. He begins at the beginning, detailing his early years in Washington D.C. with Quaker parents. In 1911, he moved to southern California where he grew up in the Pasadena area. Upon reaching maturity, Powell found his life’s work and began climbing the ladder at UCLA after studying at Occidental College, the University of Burgundy in Dijon, and U.C. Berkeley. When writing about books, Powell has no equal. However, the one problem I had with this book is that many of the people mentioned have dropped into obscurity now. Powell throws out names and book shops like a madman, and sometimes the stories could have been improved upon if he took some time to dig deeper into the experiences. There is a lot of “then we did this, and then we did that,” and although during the time of publication, many people may have known of whom he was speaking, readers today might need a bit more context. The book does work as a portrait of a life-long reader, and Powell’s love of the printed word always shines through in every story.

In 1986, Powell wrote a sequel called Life Goes On: Twenty More Years of Fortune and Friendship (The Scarecrow Press, Inc.). The edition I found contains a separate checklist of publications by and about Lawrence Clark Powell from 1919-1986. Here we see Powell in the twilight of his career, moving back and forth from Arizona and the American southwest to his home base of southern California. Powell wrote extensively about Arizona and his travels there. His life shifted in retirement from a guardian of books to a writer of books.

His book of essays, A Passion For Books (The World Publishing Co.), was published in 1958. All of these pieces originally appeared elsewhere in such publications as Antiquarian Bookman, AB Bookman’s Yearbook, or as lectures given across the country and later composed into essay formats. In his Preface, Powell writes: “These essays on the art of librarianship were written from 1948 through 1957. Some were intended to be spoken to library conferences; others were meant only to be read.” Powell is able to meld travel and life experience with his reading experiences, and that is what makes this book so readable and enjoyable. He discusses some of his favorite authors, and explains how he searches out rare books for his libraries. The passion in his title is clear on every page, and this book has special appeal to those of us who remember how we came to love the heft and feel of a book.

Books In My Baggage (The World Publishing Co., 1960) is really a travelogue through the world of books and people. Of special interest is what Powell calls his “biblio-geiger counter,” a tingling in his fingertips when searching in a dank cellar or drafty estate somewhere and he realizes something of rare and exquisite value is nearby on a dusty shelf. He takes us through how he manages to scoop up these rare artifacts without letting the seller know he is interested. It is the joy of the hunt that comes through Powell’s every line. The book also addresses a few of Powell’s favorite writers, Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, and J. Frank Dobie. For native Los Angelenos, it is interesting to note that Miller and Powell were neighbors up in Beverly Glen, a hilly canyon behind the UCLA campus that connects Westwood with Sherman Oaks. Powell also tells us some moving, poignant stories here. In the essay, “Speaking of Books,” he writes of a student with whom he works in the library order department. The boy is a track star, a discuss thrower, who moonlights unpacking the shipments of books that come to the library each day. The boy discovers just who Powell is when he stumbles across an article written and published in a journal. They strike up a friendship. Powell writes: “That was the first of many conversations we had before he was called to duty in the navy. I learned that this lad was akin to Thomas Wolfe, in that he wanted to be a writer in order to release the immense feelings and desires that were locked up inside himself. He would have become a writer, I am sure, and possibly a good one, if he had lived. He was killed in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.”

Lawrence Clark Powell is a writer of uncommon grace and goodwill. Books were his world, and he brought them to us in our everyday lives. Just last evening, I heard on the news that public libraries will now be open on Mondays here in Los Angeles thanks to a ballot measure. This means more access for those who need books and a place to study, and more jobs for librarians to staff the additional days. Libraries are democratic institutions, and they are imperative to our democracy. Lawrence Clark Powell made this his life’s mission, and I cannot help feeling his spirit beckoning me into the stacks, to read, gently reassuring me that my love for books is a good love, and must be nurtured.


  1. While studying for information Science comps I also discovered Lawrence Clark Powell. What an amazing man! I feel a loss not having ever met him or known of him till now! Researching him brought me to your blog! A delight I must say! I agree with you completely that his books should be in print. What a gifted gentleman and wonderful prolific writer! Thank you for your thoughtful blog entry on Lawrence Clark Powell. I hope others have the fortune to find this entry also and in turn learn to appreciate a "bookman" and a blogger! Thanks again!
    Linda Bowers, TN

  2. I found Powell's work over the summer and read every word. If you love books, Powell's the guy.

    Thanks for commenting, and please come back.

  3. Ah! I'm so glad to find this. Another lover of LCP.

    I collect his books as well and truly cherish his view of librarianship.

    Drop me a line if you're interested in reading some of the essays not published in his books. (Also, have you had a chance to see his oral history interview? It's available through archive.org, and through UCLA. I recommend it. It's long, but worthwhile.)


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