Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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News & Features » March 2013 » A Conversation with Louise Steinman, curator of Library Foundation of Los Angeles’ ALOUD Series at the Central Library

A Conversation with Louise Steinman, curator of Library Foundation of Los Angeles’ ALOUD Series at the Central Library

Welcome to Akashic in Good Company, a weekly column featuring managing editor Johanna Ingalls’s interviews and profiles with many of the remarkable people in the publishing industry today. Over the past fifteen years, Akashic has worked with an amazing array of talented, hard-working, committed people and Akashic would not be the company it is today without their help and advice along the way. This week’s installment features Louise Steinman, curator of Library Foundation of Los Angeles’ ALOUD Series at the Central Library. LouiseSteinman

When I (Johanna) was young I had three great loves: gymnastics, libraries, and California (Southern California). Okay, I had more than those three (my cat is glaring at me as I leave off cats . . . so, fine, I also loved/love cats AND dogs, because yes you can be both a cat and dog person). But for the purposes of this piece: gymnastics, libraries, and California.

My sister and I basically grew up in libraries, and somewhere along the way my mother turned this family love of libraries into a career for herself. Starting out in school libraries, my mother eventually moved on to work at the Salem Public Library, got her master’s degree in library science from Simmons College, and continues to spend most of her days running the Beverly Farms Public Library.

I remember getting my adult library card despite the fact that the librarians had been allowing me to take out books from the adult floor for years. I always felt comfortable in libraries . . . at home.

Gymnastics lasted twelve years ending with, what else, an injury combined with my old age (eighteen). And the farthest west I made it was a year and a half or so in St. Louis, MO, when I was two or so. I don’t remember it at all, but there are photos of me in 1970s hippie gear at some farmer’s market in Missouri.

Libraries, though, remain a constant. And, to satisfy my California obsession, Akashic nicely allows me an excuse to visit Los Angeles at least once a year for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

I love LA. This city that is often characterized as superficial, all about Hollywood—fame, fortune, flashy cars—is so much more than that. And while that may seem like an obvious statement, what I find many don’t know about LA its GREAT literary scene—wonderful, vibrant independent bookstores, talented, hardworking authors, and one of the best, public reading series in the country—the Library Foundation of Los Angeles’ ALOUD series at the Los Angeles Public Library, which consists of the historic downtown Central Library plus seventy-two branches all over the city.

So, it was my absolute honor to interview the curator of this prestigious series, Louise Steinman.

Louise Steinman is a Los Angeles native, “born—as it turns out—just a few blocks south of the downtown Central Library!” She grew up in Culver City where her dad was the local pharmacist. She has written both an essay (“The Pharmacist’s Daughter”) and memoir (The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father’s War) about growing up in LA.

Louise’s academic resume shows a clear love of the arts.  After studying literature as an undergrad at Reed College in Oregon, writing her thesis on the poet Robert Creeley, Louise went on to earn her MA in interdisciplinary arts from San Francisco State University.

“I also studied dance and theater at Naropa Institute,” she says. “I performed with Meredith Monk and Ping Chong. I was codirector of a theater company (called SO&SO&SO&SO) in Portland, OR, for many years. (My book The Knowing Body: The Artist as Storyteller in Contemporary Performance emerged from my practice both as a performer and, as well, a performance critic.)  I am continually amazed that my graduate training as an interdisciplinarian as well as my literature degree are absolutely relevant to what I do.”

[I would like to dedicate that last line to all the people over the years who rolled their eyes at a BA in theater from a four-year liberal arts college—asking me how this was going to help me get a “real” job . . . a career. At age twenty-two I had no idea how to answer that question. Now I don’t have to and neither does Louise!]

I ask Louise to talk a bit about her work experience prior to the curating the ALOUD Series.

“I’ve been at the Library Foundation for almost twenty years. I’ve freelanced as a journalist and I’m the author of three books (my new memoir, The Crooked Mirror, is due out from Beacon Press in the fall) . I worked as a consultant to the Sundance Institute Writers Program, taught interdisciplinary performance at San Francisco State, ran a theater company, and worked at The Kitchen in New York City.”

And, what about this series that has hosted Salman Rushdie, Janet Fitch, Daniel Alarcón, Edwidge Danticat, T.C. Boyle, and Katha Pollit, just to name a few—what makes it such a lasting success? How does it stay relevant and of interest to Los Angelenos? Louise’s advice:

“Assemble a team of people with different skill sets. My associate director, Maureen Moore, has a background in international relations, speaks Spanish, has deep ties to Latin America and LA’s Latino community. We’re a good team.

“Get out into the community and listen, watch, learn.  Partner with other interesting organizations, follow your intuitions (sometimes I have my best ideas in the middle of the night).  Know that sometimes there’s a necessary lag time between inception and production.  Some programs have a long incubation period.

“ALOUD programs are usually in a conversation format. I like to nudge our guests out of the prepared talks. We call upon a large number of Los Angeles writers, academics, journalists, and experts in various fields as our interlocutors. Those interlocutors become part of the ALOUD community; they suggest possible programs; bring in new people.

“Treat your visiting writers really well and they will want to come back. Make your audience feel welcomed and make sure they understand your mission. Ask yourself, ‘What are the issues that are front and center in your community?’ ALOUD has hosted panels on Los Angeles architecture, the renaissance of downtown LA chefs, issues around green space, homelessness, feminism, returning veterans, immigration, to name a few. We work with organizations as established as the LA Opera and as new and fresh as Machine Project, a storefront artists space. Read read read read read!”

All amazing advice, but in an era when libraries are constantly losing more of their funding, there is also a financial aspect to running such a professional series . . . I know libraries are struggling and wonder how this might affect ALOUD.

“The Library Foundation of Los Angeles supports the mission of the Los Angeles Public Library: ‘free access to ideas and information.’ It’s still a radical idea and absolutely central to our democracy. The Los Angeles Public Library, which consists of Central Library and seventy-two branches all over the city, is a vital part of the Los Angeles community. The libraries are community hubs and our new City Librarian, John Szabo, is full of great ideas for expanding the reach of the library even further. In addition to LFLA’s signature cultural programs, the Library Foundation funds adult literacy classes, teen reading groups, homework help for high school students. There are vibrant children’s reading programs, poetry workshops. You can take classes in becoming a US citizen, or learn how to file a patent. Librarians are ever more true ‘information curators’ in this digital age where we are overwhelmed with information. The library is one of the few places in this vast city which welcomes everyone. And it’s free! My colleague Justin Veach, who hosts This Is Your Library, a late-night library ‘talk show,’ with deejays, live music, and a full bar, describes himself as a ‘library evangelist’ and it’s easy to see why. Angelenos love their library; they voted in Measure L in our last election, restoring library hours that were cut in the budget crisis a few years back.”

I begin to fall in love with LA all over again, and close by asking her about some upcoming programs she’s particularly looking forward to.

“I’m excited about Bernie Krause, the great naturalist and sound curator who will talk about ‘The Great Animal Orchestra’ and play clips from his field recordings.  I’ll be interviewing Aleksandar Hemon, whose magnificent new memoir is The Book of My Lives. I’m looking forward to our panel ‘The Making of the Great Bolaño: The Man and the Myth.’ I hope cosmologist Sean Carroll and journalist Jim Holt can answer the question, ‘Why Does the World Exist?’ And I’m eager to meet and hear Eve Ensler, Mohsin Hamid, and the great poet Anne Carson—all of whom are coming to ALOUD for the first time.”

While I doubt I will have changed anyone’s mind, I am reinvigorated in my love for LA and libraries. And, if you ever have the pleasure of attending an ALOUD event, I’m confident even those most dismissive of LA as too plastic, too Hollywood, would come away with a new appreciation for this city and all it has to offer to lovers of literature.

Posted: Mar 21, 2013

Category: Akashic in Good Company | Tags: , , , ,