From its humble beginnings in 1929 as one of the four original buildings on the UCLA campus, Powell Library, which was first known as “The Library,” has risen to a level of prestige that reflects the greatness of the university’s students, staff and faculty. Today, the UCLA Library system — of which Powell Library is a major part — stands as a vessel of knowledge and a sanctuary for study, consistently ranking among the top research libraries in North America. It is within Powell’s walls that Ray Bradbury, the acclaimed author and screenwriter, wrote an early draft of his novel Fahrenheit 451.
But behind the building’s history and grandeur is the legacy of a bookman who made the university library system what it is today.
Lawrence Clark Powell was a university librarian and the founding dean of library sciences at UCLA. Powell, who died in 2001, is cemented in the university’s history as a legendary librarian and prolific writer.
During Powell’s 28 years at UCLA, the library grew from 400,000 volumes to more than 1.5 million.
Born on Sept. 3, 1906, in Washington, D.C., Powell moved with his family to South Pasadena when he was 5 years old. Growing up, he was surrounded by books and music. “This was just a way of life my parents were [instilling],” he said in an interview in 1973 with James Mink, former director of the UCLA Oral History Program.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Occidental College and a doctorate from the University of Dijon in France (known today as the University of Burgundy), Powell worked at a bookstore in Los Angeles, surrounding himself with the very things that would become the focus of his life’s work. He then attended the library school at the University of California, Berkeley, graduating in 1937. The next year, he began his librarianship at UCLA.
Powell was a true bookman, with an admitted “blind faith” in his abilities as a librarian. It was his passion and confidence that spurred his greatness.
“Self-doubt is a terribly weakening thing, and an absence of self-doubt, of course, makes one often insufferable and overbearing and impossible, and that’s why people tend to take an extreme view toward me,” he once said. “They either like me very much or not at all, you see. And I’m reconciled to this, because this is my nature.”
In 1944, Powell was named the university’s chief librarian and the director of its William Andrews Clark Memorial Library. He served as chief librarian until his retirement in 1966.
During his tenure at UCLA, Powell often went book-hunting, scouring different places for volumes to bring back to Westwood. After winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1950, Powell spent a year in England, using much of his time there to search for books to add to “The Library.”
Powell’s book-hunting adventures were more than fruitful. During his 28 years at UCLA, the library grew from 400,000 volumes to more than 1.5 million, an exceptional feat that established him as a legendary librarian and earned his induction into the California Library Hall of Fame.
But his achievements did not end there. In 1959, Powell established UCLA’s School of Library Science and served as its dean until his retirement. After his time at UCLA, he moved to Arizona and became professor-in-residence at the University of Arizona’s library school in 1971.
Beyond his legacy of librarianship, Powell was also a writer. He wrote hundreds of books and articles on topics from librarianship to music. He even penned novels, including The Blue Train, published when he was 70 years old.
“I think writing has been a great therapeutic device that’s given me an outlet, when actual living itself of a total and a compulsive sort was not possible — that is, in an academic career you can’t live your entire life,” he said.
Read more from UCLA Magazine's April 2022 issue.