Ken Brecher: From Amazon jungle to Library Foundation

If Ken Brecher were a book, he’d be a hard one to set down.

The 67-year-old president of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles is a treasure-trove of exotic stories and insightful anecdotes. One need only step into his office inside downtown’s Central Library to find out.

“These are the arrows that I hunted with for two years [in the Amazon],” he said during a recent interview, pointing to a bundle of hand-made projectiles on his wall surrounded by dozens of other curiosities. “These are some of the masks that I wore and we danced with.”

Brecher, a former Rhodes Scholar, is a trained anthropologist. He spent his early career wandering the jungle with Brazilian tribesmen, the first outsider to have contact with the Amazon’s Wausha tribe. For two years, he ate, sang, suffered and laughed with the tribe, learning their language and customs.

Later, Brecher became executive director of the Sundance Institute for 13 years. He helped grow the renowned Sundance Film Festival and launched programs to support independent filmmakers and playwrights around the globe. His resume includes earlier stints heading the Boston Children’s Museum, leading a major foundation in Philadelphia and serving as associate artistic director at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum. There Brecher was staff producer for the play “Children of a Lesser God,” which went on to win numerous Tony Awards on Broadway. 

As head of the Library Foundation, a paid position he’s held since 2010, Brecher has turned his attention — and his anthropologist sensibilities — to bolstering one of Los Angeles’ most treasured institutions: the 73-location library system. The foundation is a private organization that supports the public library system through fundraising, advocacy, and the development of educational and cultural programs, such as the ALOUD series of conversations, readings and performances. 

Libraries, said Brecher, are more than places to borrow books or even find educational guidance and access to technology. They’re also places where disparate segments of American society come together, where the haves and the have-nots are treated equally, and where every culture and idea has a place. 

“Diversity is the key to a successful library. It’s a diversity of views. There’s no one here to tell you what to think,” Brecher said. “In the libraries, things can happen that don’t happen anywhere else. It’s not a classroom, but you can learn there. It’s not a church or a synagogue, but you can connect to something very deep. You can get a perspective. The greatest religions give us perspective on our own lives. Libraries can provide you with that perspective.” 

Brecher credits his fascination with different cultures and people to his upbringing in a small town in Illinois. Brecher says his parents — a stay-at-home mom and a Sears executive dad — were determined that he and his twin sister see beyond the confines of their own environment. Their instructional method of choice: food.

“My parents decided that every Sunday we would eat from a different culture. We would drive to Wisconsin, and we’d have Mongolian hotpots, or we’d have food from southern Mexico,” Brecher recalled. “We’d almost always be the only non-whatever-the-nationality-was there, and people would say: ‘What are these people doing?’ And we just loved that. It was so exciting.”

Brecher also learned to respect different religions through a program run by his Reform synagogue there. The program involved attending services at different religious places of worship, from Christian churches to mosques. 

Brecher remembered these immersive childhood experiences when living in the Amazon. The tribespeople advised him — when he could understand their language — that the only way to really get to know another tribe is to eat their food and learn their songs. And that’s exactly what he did, along with learning myriad other skills. His newfangled expertise included being able to pick things up with his toes and see in the dark. The Wausha, meanwhile, mesmerized him with their profound philosophical thinking, self-sufficiency and mastery of medicinal plants.

“They were just extraordinary. And I felt after two years I had very little to teach them. I’d say almost nothing,” Brecher said.

The Wausha taught Brecher that one can learn from the most unlikely people, he said. A more recent reminder occurred when he was volunteering at an L.A. library branch and a very bedraggled and likely homeless young man walked in to use a free computer. Brecher said he was concerned at first that the man might cause trouble, but the librarian told him the man had every right to be there. On peeking over the man’s shoulder, Brecher realized the man was e-mailing his mother to let her know where he was. 

“I walked over to the librarian and apologized to her. I said: ‘When he came in here, I thought of him as a problem, as a statistic. I didn’t think of him as somebody’s son.’ ” 

Josh Kun, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a former Sundance fellow, said Brecher’s appreciation for people from all walks of life makes him an inspiring and unusual leader.

“There are very few people in leadership positions like Ken who don’t look out at Los Angeles as a place of hierarchies,” Kun said. “He sees the same power and same passion in an unknown stranger riding the bus that comes to the library as he does a celebrity who comes to speak at the library. He really understands that knowledge lies in a multiplicity of places.”

In an age of eBooks and Wikipedia, some might see libraries as an idea of the past. But, Brecher says, with all of the programs and resources libraries offer, there’s a greater need for them than ever before, and use of them is growing. From summer reading clubs to adult literacy programs to use of job-search tools, the Los Angeles library system is seeing huge demand, he said. Almost 13 million people visit the library system annually; some 95 million access its Web site.

“People say to me all the time: ‘Oh, will there be libraries in 50 years?’ ” Brecher said. “I say, ‘Not only will there be libraries, there’ll be more libraries.’ ” 

Brecher acknowledged that steep cuts in government funding in recent years hurt the library system, leading to dramatically reduced operating hours and massive layoffs of librarians. But thanks to voter approval in 2011 of Measure L, which will double the share of city revenue going to libraries by 2014, many of the hours and staff positions are being restored. Further improvements to services, including the introduction of Sunday hours at nine libraries, will continue through next year.

Even with his storied and colorful career, Brecher insists heading the library foundation is the best job he’s ever had. It’s exciting, he said, because he’s learning the most and because technological change means the library system is evolving rapidly.

Among Brecher’s favorite programs funded by the foundation is Live Homework Help, an online tutoring system where students of all ages can receive free one-on-one help from experts. He’s also excited about a planned book release later this year showcasing several hundred pieces of sheet music, some of it not heard for more than 100 years, uncovered in the library’s archives. 

Foundation board member Jim Clark said Brecher has been deeply involved in expanding literacy programs and cultural initiatives, and enhancing the library’s digital collections since he took over. 

“Ken doesn’t think outside the box. He doesn’t even think there is a box. He just is a very innovative thinker and an innovative doer,” Clark said. “We’re delighted we were lucky enough to attract him, and we’re delighted with his work with us and his leadership.”