Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Celebrating Mr. Cobb on National Library Workers Day

From 1925 until 1950 the Los Angeles County Public Library relied on one man who oversaw all aspects of the library’s physical locations– James E. Cobb.

A skilled carpenter and cabinetmaker, Mr. Cobb was initially hired as chauffeur to Helen Vogleson (County Librarian) and served as her assistant for property and maintenance issues. An anecdotal story for the library’s 50th anniversary recalled that, during his time as chauffeur, Mr. Cobb would repair shelves and furniture while he waited for Ms. Vogleson to conduct her business in the branches.

A 1937 report from the library’s Division of Equipment and Property (later known as the Property and Transportation Division), headed by James E. Cobb, gave a snapshot of the heavy workload placed upon his shoulders by that time. The division was broken down into four sections –Transportation, Property, Workshop, and Shipping– that handled 221 locations spread out across 3500 square miles. Overseen by Mr. Cobb, the department employed 8 full-time employees.

Los Angeles County Free Library book delivery trucks in front of Hall of Records,
Los Angeles, California [1929] LA County Library Digital Collections

Let's break down the work completed by each of these divisions. The Transportation Division consisted of four vehicles and drivers who delivered books and/or staff on a daily basis to library locations scattered across Los Angeles County. The Property Department was in charge of keeping track of all library inventory--books, furniture, buildings, etc. Anything over $2 in value was noted on its own card (including description, cost, location and “particulars concerning its purchase”). The Shipping Department, in addition to shipping, also embossed the library’s books and handled the materials deaccessioned by librarians.

The Workshop, consisting solely of Mr. Cobb in the beginning and later added three more men, was a marvel unto itself. Tables and chairs were refinished, signs were relettered, clocks were repaired, floors buffed, linoleum laid, lights repaired, walls painted, locks smithed, and plumbing plumbed. The workshop, alternately known as the Library Shop, also built furniture needed by the library that included shelving, book trucks, display cases, dictionary stands, bike racks and more. According to a couple of sources, Mr. Cobb repurposed one of the library’s delivery trucks– building and installing shelving– creating a bookmobile.

The Library Shop as seen in the 1951-52 Los Angeles County Public Library Annual Report

Illness forced Mr. Cobb to retire in late 1950 and the staff newsletter sang his praises. He was lauded for his attention to detail, time and project management skills (which he learned from his previous employment as a clerk with the Southern Pacific Railroad), as well as his warmth, humor and  impressive gardening skills.

Just as libraries are more than books, libraries employ more than librarians. There might also be clerks, delivery drivers, IT specialists, social workers, publicists, and other astounding people who wear many hats like Mr. James E. Cobb.

1 comment:

  1. In the 1930's, Mr Cobb moved the shop to a leased facility in the Florence-Firestone area as the Downtown headquarters (322 Broadway) didn't have much space for him and his team. Coincidentally, it was a few blocks away from present location of the Graham Library.

    Major remodels or utility work were not carried out by Mr Cobb and his team but by the County's Mechanical Department (now known as Internal Services Department or ISD).

    The former Property & Transportation Division used to also supervise branch janitors (part time in small branches and full time in large branches). The janitors constantly kept the library clean and performed simple handyman work. The Library no longer hires janitors and truck drivers today as they outsourced janitorial work and interfacility deliveries to private contractors usually working after hours. We all saw many contract janitors the last 3 years working during library hours disinfecting tables and computer keyboards until the contract ended June 2023. And a private courier service delivers bins of interoffice mail and requested books/DVDs to each branch after hours.

    There also used to be a requirement that County's Parks & Recreation Department landscape crews maintain landscaping if it's a County-owned building but that too ended as the Library outsourced landscape maintenance.

    Today, the Shops crew is identified by their mustard yellow utility trucks labeled "LOS ANGELES COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY" and their tan colored work shirts (most of the guys still have the older sunburst logo on the shirt from the 2000's). They perform minor jobs such as installing a new lock on a file cabinet to major jobs such as emergency roof leak repair and most of the long term remodeling. Some work orders are also handled by Internal Services (ISD).