Doheny Memorial Library History

In 1892, Edward Laurence Doheny Sr. struck oil in Los Angeles, setting off a major land boom. The Dohenys built a financial empire based upon their success in the oil-producing business. Their son, Edward L. "Ned" Doheny Jr., studied at USC and remained involved in the university after his graduation in 1916. Tragically, he was murdered at his home in Beverly Hills in February 1929. As a memorial to their son, the Dohenys contributed the entire $1.1 million needed to build the Edward L. Doheny Jr. Memorial Library and actively participated in the design and construction of the facility.

Building the Library

In 1930, the president of USC, Rufus B. von KleinSmid, in conjunction with the Doheny family, settled on the Boston firm of Cram and Ferguson to design the library. Ralph Adams Cram, an expert in Gothic church architecture, believed the primary goal in the design of institutions of higher learning was to instill in visitors a sense of reverence for a building's purpose. The Pasadena-based architect Samuel Lunden was chosen to fashion the interiors and create the final working drawings for the building.

Construction of the building, from groundbreaking to dedication on September 12th, took only 12 months. Doheny Memorial Library was recognized instantly as a landmark building in Southern California, earning numerous design awards for its beautiful Italian Romanesque architecture. In setting the four-story structure 270 feet from University Avenue, facing the Bovard Administration Building, the architects created a quadrangle in the center of campus. The sycamore trees planted ninety years ago now tower majestically over the area and provide a shaded canopy during the annual commencement ceremony in May.

The architects said that they aimed to "create an original expression in brick and stone that would harmonize with the other buildings on the campus. Round arches in groups, walls of pale Roman brick with cream colored limestone trim enlivened with colored marbles are suggestive of the Romanesque styles of Northern Italy, though the Romanesque has been taken only as a point of departure."

The parties involved in building the library agreed that the decor of the building should reflect the activities taking place inside, namely those of education and higher learning. Cram felt that the unity of proportion and sense of reverence found in Gothic architecture best supported this goal. The ornate ceilings, magnificent stained glass windows, elegant chandeliers and light fixtures, and custom furnishings and cabinetry lend a cathedral-like air to the building's interior.

The theme of higher education is commemorated in many forms throughout the library. Statues of William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri flank the main entrance to the building. Above the doors is a marble sculpture that portrays three seated figures-a teacher instructing two students. On either side of the medallion is depicted a mythological scene related to ingenious thinking: Hercules obtains the golden apples guarded by the Hesperides (outsmarting the gods in doing so), and Alexander the Great uses his sword to cut the famously intricate Gordian knot (instead of attempting to untie it). The massive, hand-chased bronze exterior doors weigh some two tons yet are balanced so well they can be moved with the touch of a finger.

Marble, granite and travertine are featured in much of the interior surfaces and decorative details. Estelle Doheny took a keen interest in the artistic program, requesting that all the furnishings be made in America and that California companies especially be involved. The library contains many woods native to California wood—black walnut, white oak, sycamore, satinwood and knotty pine.

Upon entering the doors, one may descend a double-sided grand staircase to the ground floor or climb to the first floor.

For a self-guided tour of Doheny Memorial Library, click here.

Ground floor

Upon descending the stairs, one enters the ground floor rotunda, where exhibitions from the university's special collections are displayed. On the south side of the rotunda are entrances to the Cinema-Television Library and the David L. Wolper Center. The Cinema-Television Library holds some 20,000 books, the archives of five major Hollywood studios and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and papers and memorabilia from hundreds of actors and directors. The Wolper Center was created in 1999 through a gift from producer David L. Wolper to hold his personal archives and films.

On the north side of the rotunda and up a short flight of stairs is the Music Library, the main research and study area for students in the USC Thornton School of Music. The Music Library holds approximately 20,000 books; 55,000 music scores and 25,000 sound recordings in various formats. Past the library, a long hallway leads out to a beautiful courtyard, part of the Nazarian pavilion which includes the popular LiteraTea tea house.

First floor

At the top of the stairs, one stands in a soaring rotunda featuring massive yet jewel-like hanging light fixtures and six stained glass windows designed by the distinguished Boston artist Wilbur Herbert Burnham. The windows contain decorative medallions that pay homage to important foreign and American universities and noted scholars throughout history.

From left to right on the top row: Socrates holds a scroll and the cup of deadly hemlock he was forced to drink; Plato holds a book and scroll; Aristotle holds a scroll and rule; Moses Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher, humanitarian, physician and theologian, holds a book that represents his "Guide," St. Thomas Aquinas, who holds a book, is depicted with the sun on his breast; and Francis Bacon holds an open book.

The middle row of medallions features seals of the following American schools:
Harvard University, College of William and Mary, Northwestern University, University of California, Stanford University and Princeton University.

The lower tier of medallions depicts the seals of foreign universities: University of Paris, Trinity College (Dublin), Oxford University, Heidelberg, the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos (Lima), and the Universidad Nacional de Mexico (Mexico City).

Across from the stairs is the main circulation desk. To the right of the desk is the entrance to nine levels of stacks, where the majority of the library's books are held.

Turning to the right, one can see the entrance to the Treasure Room down the hallway. The room, now an exhibition space for materials from the library's special collections, originally held the rare book and manuscript collections. Inside, a frieze of murals by the noted Santa Barbara artist Samuel Armstrong honors the history of the written word with a work entitled, "The Written Word Passeth on the Torch of Wisdom."

The Los Angeles Times Reference Room in the southeast wing of the first floor inspires awe in first-time viewers. Designed to accommodate 400 students, some 6,000 books and the main reference service desk, it remains the busiest study room in the building. The room also serves as home to the annual USC Scripter Award ceremony. Capturing one's attention is the gold and blue coffered ceiling, designed by John D. Smeraldi, who also worked on the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel. The room's chandeliers are made of bronze and pewter; the furniture and recessed bookshelves are of walnut; and the tall side windows are of English antique leaded glass. Above an exquisitely detailed carved wood entrance, a frieze running along the base of the ceiling celebrates distinguished contributors to the history of the printed book. Repeated around the perimeter of the room are fourteen early printers' marks. The emblems include those of Fust and Schäffer, who in 1457 produced the third book ever printed and the first to contain a date; William Caxton, who in 1477 printed the first book in English; and the famous Aldine family company of Venice, who produced many of the first editions of classic Greek and Roman writings.

The north side of the first floor includes the dean's suite and the former card catalog room—today called the Hall of Honor—where donors who have contributed $10,000 or more to the USC Libraries may have their names engraved. The East Asian Library is located on the other side of the Hall of Honor, and it offers access to a reference collection and periodicals in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.

Second Floor

The second floor of the library holds a mixture of offices and collaborative workspaces. Many of the staff on this floor participate in the acquisition, preservation, and display of unique archival materials.

The Intellectual Commons is designed for study and academic discussion. The room holds the Boeckmann Iberian and Latin American Reference Collection, which consists of core reference sources in the humanities and social sciences for the study of the Luso-Hispanic world from pre-Columbian times to the present.

The Friends of the USC Libraries Lecture Hall lies to the east of the Commons. The multipurpose room is used for conferences, lectures, and readings. Behind it is the USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study, which offers a series of conversational encounters intended to intensify polymathic (integrated interdisciplinary) awareness

On the south end of the second floor is the Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, which houses some 8,000 volumes from the personal collection of the German émigré writer Lion Feuchtwanger. The space was configured during the mid-1980s and serves as the main rare materials reading area. Down the hall from the Feuchtwanger Library is the Horton Rare Book Room, one of the most beautiful interior spaces on the campus and home to the Cassady Lewis Carroll collection.

The Evolution of a Library

The twentieth century saw a dramatic increase in published material over previous centuries. Charlotte Brown, the head librarian of USC at the time of Doheny Library's construction, came up with a visionary plan for managing the book collections. Originally built to hold 450,000-500,000 volumes, the stack wing required expansion in the 1960s to double its capacity, as Brown had projected.

When it opened, Doheny was one of the most advanced libraries in the nation. To obtain a book, one looked it up in the card catalog, brought a call slip to the loan desk and waited while pneumatic tubes whisked the call slip to the appropriate stack level, where a waiting staff member would retrieve the volume and put it on an automatic conveyor. When the book arrived at the loan desk, a number on a board would light up to let the student know it was ready for checking out.

Until 1966 the stack levels were closed to all but graduate students and faculty. Today, the card catalog has been replaced by an online one and any student, faculty, or staff member can search for a book's call number using USC's online catalog, find the book in the stacks themselves and then check it out with their ID card.

Future Plans

Ninety years after its construction, Doheny Library is still evolving. The building is an intellectual and cultural destination on campus, hosting exhibitions, lectures, conferences, performances, readings, and the annual USC Scripter Award ceremony.