Friday, September 21, 2012

A Conversation with 'La Angelena'

      When you think of Los Angeles, what comes to mind? Palm trees and a cool breeze? Traffic? Sure, but what about history? Or should I say "H-E-R-story" because after all, we are living in the City of Angels, "El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula" to be exact. 

Norman Klein's book, "The History of Forgetting", talks about how fast our city changes and how easy it is to forget what used to be. While we're busy "THINKing BLUE", the powers that be are constantly thinking "new".  

Now, there's nothing wrong with change. We all know it's gonna come but just as important as knowing where you're going is knowing where we've been. 

That's where 'La Angelena' comes in. She delivers L.A.'s history 140 characters at a time. Like Leo Politi, she educates and illustrates our city. Except she's using Twitter and Instagram to do it. I'm a big fan of what she does and have so many questions for her. I was so excited when she agreed to answer them for me and even more when I got the answers. Keep reading and check them out for yourself.

Your knowledge of Los Angeles history is incredible. You know I'm a HUGE fan of both of The City of Angels and of yours for all the info you share. Angelenos share the city but few share your passion for it's history. At what age did the interest to learn as much as you could hit you and how long have you been sharing it? 

 Thank you so much! And, for the record, I'm a big fan of all your work at the Cypress Park Library!

I should first say that @LAhistory is a mother-daughter project and mom has been sharing stories (directly and indirectly) since the 1960s. Mom wrote about Los Angeles for Sunset Magazine from 1960s-1980s and then worked for the Huntington Library for the next 25 years.

Ever since I can remember, mom dragged me along on her assignments for Sunset and then I spent many summer vacations as a very young volunteer at the Huntington Library.  I may not have appreciated it at the time but learning about Los Angeles was always in the background of my life...either through mom's work or through family stories. We have about 120 years of family history here so it's easy for a family story to turn into an LA one.

I love telling people that I'm into LA history as they usually begin sharing these interesting stories about their parents or grandparents.  And that's when I get passionate as I want people to document their own histories in Los Angeles -- to scan their family's old photos and record the stories of their grandparents. I notice our Twitter feed tends towards individuals' stories (as say, compared to LA's architecture). We tweet names, and try to repeat those names in hopes that the memory of these people seep into the city's collective memory. Even when Angelenos have plaques dedicated in their honor, we still forget who they are. For instance, I recently came across the Eleanor Chambers Memorial Fountain located in City Hall East. I'd never even heard of Eleanor Chambers.And when my mom and I research these stories of Angelenos who came before us, I think perhaps we feel closer to our own loved ones who have passed

Eleanor Chambers Memorial Fountain. Photo courtesy of

Our goal in starting @LAhistory was to share our knowledge, enthusiasm and learning of LA history as well as to share the expertise of LA's amazing history community. It was never to be a definitive source on the subject, which would be impossible. Historian (and LA native) Abe Hoffman mentioned that even after 40 years of researching Los Angeles history, he was still learning. That's what's so great about researching Los Angeles as there is always something new to learn.

When my kids ask me a question and I don't know the answer I immediately think "Let me google it.". What is your favorite way to conduct your research? Has that always been your favorite? 

 We do love to research!  I could easily spend a day just clicking through the Los Angeles Public LIbrary's online photo archive. But our favorite way to research is spending the day in an actual archive - wearing the white gloves and paging through musty folders.

It's amazing to touch the same photos or letters of the city's early Angelenos. I have a full-time job but I take vacation days to spend the day with mom in a local archive. So far, we've researched in the LA City Archives, Seaver Center for Western History Research at the Natural History Museum, Scripps Special Collections, Loyola's Department of Archives and Special Collections, UCLA's Charles E. Young Research Library and the Californiana Room that once was at the Rosemead Library. Mom is a reader at the Huntington Library, so she is there every week and I've spent many Tuesday and Thursday evenings at the LA Public Library researching old Los Angeles Times through the ProQuest database (available for free).

We illustrate @LAhistory tweets with images from online archives (which are available online) or with quote from books (made easier with Google Books preview). Hopefully by illustrating our tweets with photos from these archives, people will save, scan and share their family's old photos. Some of the online archives we use include LA Public Library, CSUN's Oviatt Library (which has a great Latino Cutural Heritage Archives), USC Libraries, UCLA Digital Library, Santa Monica Public Library, Long Beach Library.  But so much information remains tucked away deep in LA's archives as it's very expensive to digitize collections. Often, the only way to know what is an archive, is to view the finding aid. But frankly, finding aids don't excite (most) people about LA history. Stories do.

Long Beach Public Library

Oviatt Library Cal State University Northridge

 Your twitter feed, @LAhistory, is a great way to share historic facts of the city. I like that you send out "this day in L.A. history" tweets.  How do you keep track of all the facts? You must have a gigantic book collection. 

 How did you know we had a huge book collection (though it doesn't stop us from buying more used and new books  :)  My favorite used book of the moment is the 1888 "California of the South," written by Walter Lindly and Joseph Widney (it's available online:  I bought the book at the Oviatt Library's used bookstore for $2. The book is tattered and the binding loose, but it's full of 1930s handwritten comments in the margins (the same handwriting that names the owner and gives the date is the same throughout the book). Reading the book feels like a conversation that spans time.

"California of the South" Walter Lindley and Joseph Widney

We keep track of our dates with a calendar in which we set the events to re-occur yearly. This helps us find what we tweeted in 2011, 2010 and 2009 (most of the time). There are so many ways to slice LA history. We chose a "this day in LA history" because it creates a daily opportunity to access LA's wonderful archives. I should note, the Studio for Southern California History created an app [link:] that also features this day in LA history. We're fans of the Studio for Southern California History and friends with its founder Sharon Sekhon so always happy to promote her free tours (

I feel like class is in session everytime you tweet. Have you ever considered teaching a class or writing a book about everything you know about our great city? 

 Again, you are too kind. You know, there are so many people knowledgeable about this city and its history and they lead wonderful tours and publish thought-provoking articles and books...that I'd worry about repeating efforts.  That said, we do have some book ideas that we're developing. We've been asked several times why we don't have a blog but it's so much more fun to connect the dots among all the great resources on a given subject.

For now, Twitter is our medium for sharing the city's history. For some organizations, Twitter is an afterthought but we are very mindful about how we tweet. For instance, to avoid overwhelming a user's Twitter feed, we leave about 20-30 minutes between tweets. We tweet assuming most won't click on the link so we provide as much information as possible under 140 characters (the date, location, time and price). Comprehensive stories are trickier but we do enjoy the challenge of Twitter as a storytelling medium. 


You've recently created an Instagram account in addition to your Twitter and Tumblr accounts. I personally think Instagram's an awesome way for followers to see what they're learning about. How do you feel Instagram is working for what you're doing and is there one platform in particular that you prefer?

 Though Twitter is our main medium, we have branched out to Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram. And frankly, we scaled back on Tumblr and Pinterest as we felt we were spreading ourselves to thin. It's also why we don't have a Facebook page. Coordinating a Facebook page, and monitoring the conversations, can be a huge time commitment. Mom is a fan of Tumblr, though she wishes more of her 70-something peers knew about Tumblr. I personally enjoy Instagram as I'm a photographer (by nature, not by training) and love finding ways to illustrate a story we've told with text on Twitter.  I have a new media background, so I can spend hours dissecting the nuances between the social networks.  

Here are a few picture from @LAhistory's Instagram feed. 

 Wow! I can't thank you enough for your time. This was amazing. Please feel free to do your research here anytime.

Thanks for this opportunity. And I hope you're documenting all the great history you're making at Cypress Park Library

  Well, there you have it. I hope you all check out and follow @LAhistory (if you aren't already). I'm sure it'll be one of your favorite Twitter feeds. Thanks for reading.

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