In Memory

Lawrence C Powell - Class Of 1924

Lawrence C Powell

Lawrence Powell

September 3, 1906 - March 14, 2001

Lawrence Clark Powell, the legendary librarian and literary bibliographer who founded the UCLA School of Library Service and built the fledgling UCLA library into an institution worthy of his name, has died. He was 94. Powell died Wednesday in La Rosa Health Center in Tucson, university officials announced Monday. In his 28 years with UCLA, Powell was the school's chief librarian from 1944 to 1961, director of its William Andrews Clark Memorial Library from 1944 to 1966 and founding dean of its School of Library Service (now part of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies) from its 1959 inception until his retirement in 1966. He was, as one admirer said, "a librarian with a capital L." Powell was also a prolific writer, producing biographies of Robinson Jeffers and Charles Edward Pickett among others, bibliographies and essays on Western writers from Zane Grey to Raymond Chandler, a monthly column called "Books of the West" for Westways magazine, and myriad articles and essays. In his later years, he even wrote novels. He was president of the California Library Assn. and the Bibliographical Society of America, a fellow of the California Historical Society, and an esteemed member of the scholarly Zamorano, Rounce, Coffin and Grolier clubs for bibliophiles. Powell called himself simply "a bookman." During his tenure as the second chief librarian of UCLA, the fledgling library grew from 400,000 volumes to 1.5 million. When Powell won a Guggenheim Fellowship to Britain in 1950, he spent most of the year haunting bookshops to buy material for the Westwood campus, including a 1690 tract proposing a united nations. On Powell's watch, the library gained a reputation as one of the finest repositories of 17th century books and papers. Small wonder that the stately Italianate-Gothic building housing all those volumes on the quad at UCLA was named the Powell Library Building when he retired. Read to Children at the Central Library One of the first two buildings constructed on the Westwood campus in 1927-29, the Powell houses the main undergraduate library, its computer laboratory, office of instructional development and the Film and Television Archive Research and Study Center. "Larry Powell was a great bookman who understood clearly what a research library required," UCLA head librarian Gloria Werner said Monday. "During his years here, he developed the foundations for the library's remarkable collections." Born in Washington, Powell was the son of G. Harold Powell, who became Sunkist Cooperative's first general manager, and spent his first four winters in Riverside. When he was 5, his family moved to South Pasadena. Gravitating naturally to libraries and bookstores, Powell said he learned to read in the Carnegie Library of South Pasadena and learned to work in Los Angeles' historic Central Library. In between, he earned a bachelor's degree at Occidental College and briefly taught English there, then went to the University of Dijon in France to earn a doctorate and turn his dissertation into an oft-revised and reprinted biography of Jeffers. During the Depression, he worked as a shipping clerk at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena and for Fowler Books in Los Angeles and local rare bookstores until Los Angeles City Librarian Althea Hester Warren, in Powell's words, "plucked me out of Jake Zeitlin's bookshop and sent me off to Berkeley." At UC Berkeley, he earned a certificate in librarianship, and afterward, when no jobs materialized, Warren hired him to work under her wing until she could get him into a university library, where she decreed he belonged. At the Los Angeles Public Library, Powell read aloud to children, arranged exhibits, learned to order books, and came to appreciate a library's riches. "Like the university library at Berkeley and the one to be at UCLA," he wrote, "the Central Library impressed me with the limitlessness of human knowledge. That world was where I wanted to be. It was at Central that I first learned what I meant to do with my life." During his bookselling, librarian and teaching years, he wrote regularly but limited himself to short pieces dashed off, as he said, "on the margins" of work and life. Most of that writing emphasized reading. "We've got to know what we deal in," he told The Times in 1988. "We've got to know our merchandise. A shoe clerk has to know how shoes feel on feet." He retired from academe at the age of 60 to devote himself to writing books. Far from musty or stilted, his own writing was as colorful as the writers he befriended--what one reviewer termed "the most jocund and vigorous writing about books in general this reader has encountered." Powell wrote, that reviewer said, "books whose every page celebrates the joy taken in books as companions, gate openers, world revealers, spirit emancipators." Powell incisively discerned what made a writer great, commenting for example in his 1971 "California Classics" that mystery writer Raymond Chandler "stopped the Los Angeles kaleidoscope; he arrested its spinning, so confusing to most writers who have tried to see the city clearly, and then he fixed in prose of poetic intensity the brilliant bits and pieces." The bookman and his late wife, Kay, intended to live out their lives in Malibu, about which he once wrote: "Mountains I love and desert and a few cities, but I have chosen to live what's left of my life here at continent's end, on the hem of the sea, where the water nibbles away at property to which man holds tenuous title." But the Powell house, and the book collection it contained, were destroyed in the Malibu fire of 1978. Powell was at the time in Tucson, where he was helping the University of Arizona upgrade its library facilities and establish a library school. He stayed on. In Arizona, along with writing a multivolume autobiography and more travel and bibliography books, Powell dusted off, polished and published a few novels begun decades earlier--"The Blue Train" in 1977, "The River Between" in 1979 and the coming-of-age "Eucalyptus Fair" in 1992. Powell is survived by one son, Norman. 

Los Angeles Times, March 20, 2001