A Sign of the Times

When asked to "Improve Upon this Page," painter William Henry Drake returned the card stock to then-city librarian Charles Lummis with an image of Shere Khan, the 'wicked tiger" from the Jungle Book. It is just one of the thousands of autographs used as inspiration for the recently released Autograph Book of Los Angeles.

It’s safe to say that most people don’t put too much thought into their signatures. But if you ask author and USC Annenberg School of Communications professor Josh Kun, there is something deeper behind the scribbles than just a name.  

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“We are all hardwired to leave our name in history” Kun said during an interview with Los Angeles Downtown News. “There is something instinctually human to want to be remembered.”

Kun and his team have worked extensively to mine the Central Library’s collection of autographs, pondering the nature and meaning behind the cursive scribbles.

Those findings will be revealed on Thursday, Sept. 26 with the release of “The Autograph Book of L.A.: Improvements on the Page of the City,” a 224-page book that examines the use of autographs as not just a signature, but also a cultural artifact.

The book, a collaboration between Kun and the Los Angeles Public Library and published by Angel City Press, will be released in tandem with the opening of a Central Library (650 W. Fifth St.) exhibit curated by Kun and City Librarian John F. Szabo. The exhibit is on display through Jan. 1.

Palm Trees, Rome and Nixon at Hauser & Wirth

The Autograph Book of L.A. project is the MacArthur Fellow’s third exploration of the Library’s special collections.  Kun was first invited in 2013 to examine the library’s collection of sheet music. That process would lead to the creation of “Songs in the Key of L.A.,” which traced the city’s musical legacy through the work of local musicians. That book was followed by 2015’s “To Live and Dine in L.A.,” which utilized the Central Library’s pile of menu’s to document the city’s changing culinary attractions.

The Library Foundation of Los Angeles approached Kun again in 2018 to conclude the trilogy. That’s when the library’s collection of close to 1,700 autographs grabbed his eye.

A Sign of the Times

A autograph from geographer and professor Richard Elwood Dodge was returned to the Los Angeles Public Library in 1907.

“This one jumped out to me, in part because of its oddness.” Kun said. “The idea that someone wanted to collect autographs seemed really rich to me.”

People Who Matter

The library first started collecting signatures in 1906 after City Librarian Charles Lummis began soliciting hundreds of notable national figures for autographs. Lummis sent cardstock to the individuals with the only instructions being to “improve upon the enclosed page.”

The vagueness of the instructions generated a variety of responses. Cardstock was returned with poems, paintings, speeches and music from the likes of “America the Beautiful” songwriter Katherine Lee Bates, naturalist John Muir and poet Walt Whitman.

Szabo said that one of Lummis’ original goals for the collection was to help “put the city and the library on the map,” by creating a collection that held a piece from the famous or notable people of the day, or as Lummis put it, “people who matter.”

In subsequent years, the autograph collection would grow, adding signatures from the likes of Langston Hughes, Helen Keller and others. However, Szabo noted that what the collection lacked was input from everyday Angelenos.

The public library sought to rectify that oversight in 2018 when the Los Angeles Public Library invited the city to add their autographs to the collection at Autograph Day.

A Photographic Grand Slam

Nearly 500 new submissions were collected from the city’s 19 branches, everyone from daily library patrons and community groups, to celebrities like comedian Cheech Marin and local restaurateur Roy Choi.  

“As proud as we are of the collection, how we think of ‘people who matter’ today and how we interpret that, is perhaps different from Lummis,” Szabo said.  “It was important to think about how we might rethink this collection and rethink this idea of ‘people who matter.’”

That new philosophy resonated with Kun. While Kun could have oriented the book in a way that examines the structural evolution of an autograph, he said he was more interested in using the collection as a way to trace the city’s collective memory and the changing history, culture and politics of the autograph.

A Sign of the Times

In the book, Kun takes some of the newer signatures from Autograph Day, as well as some of the older ones, to explore who’s stories get to be remembered, especially as the city goes though periods of rapid redevelopment and change.   

“While we think of the autograph as a signature, what we’re talking about is: what does it mean to leave a mark of ones self?” Kun said.

Everything from kids scribbling their names with chalk on concrete sidewalks to couples carving their initials into trees are placed under the microscope. A particular focus was placed on graffiti and street art.  

Susan Phillips, graffiti expert and professor of cultural anthropology at Pitzer College, alongside graffiti artist Chaz Bojórquez contribute to the book and artist Shepard Fairey who gained international notoriety for his 2008 “Hope” poster for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama provides the book’s introduction.

“What is the underlying reason behind graffiti?” Kun asked. “I want you to know that I’m here, I’m not going to be erased. The impulse behind graffiti is not separate from the impulse to leave a signature or an autograph, or tag someone on Instagram or Facebook.”  

Some of those signatures will be on display at the companion exhibit. Located on the library’s First Floor Galleries, the exhibit features pieces from Lummis’ original collection, as well as selections from the contemporary autographs, images of graffiti abatement, photographs of celebrities leaving their autographs and handprints at TCL Chinese Theatre (formerly Grauman’s Chinese Theatre) and a book of autographs from the Apollo 11 astronaut team.

There is also a slideshow projection that depicts other pieces from the autograph project that were not placed on display. An animated Disney short of Donald Duck as an autograph collector is also played on a loop at the exhibit.

A Sign of the times

Charlotte Gilman, best known for penning the short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," returned her cardstock with a short, inspirational message in 1910.

A slate of public programming around the exhibit, including lectures and walkthroughs at the Mark Taper Auditorium, are still in the works as of Friday.

Szabo said the exhibit is just another way to explore the collection.

“I hope that it will give people a taste of this collection and give individuals an idea of how they might be able to use the collection,” Szabo said. “That’s certainly what library collections are about, discovering.”

Kun said he hopes that the book and the complementing exhibit help people be more engaged with how they leave their mark.

“The Autograph Book of L.A.” can be pre-ordered online today at shop.lfla.org. and will be on shelves on Sept. 26. The exhibit opens at the Central Library’s First Floor Galleries on the same day, 650 W. Fifth St., (213) 228-7000 or lapl.org.

sthomas@timespublications.com.

©Los Angeles Downtown News 2019