Volume 8, Number 3, Sept. 1986, pp.12-13

In the News

Various authors

L.A. Public Library Burns

(Reprinted from "The Abbey Newsletter," v.10, n.3, Ellen McCrady, editor.)

On April 29, an arsonist entered the closed stacks of the Los Angeles Public Library, the nation's third largest municipal library, and set a fire that burned with intense heat for seven hours, destroying about 20% of the two-million-volume collection, including a complete collection on U.S. patents and inventions, and much of the science and technology collection. The rare book vault and audiovisual collection were spared, and the building itself sustained relatively little damage. Almost half a million books were lost in the fire and half a million more were badly damaged (charring, heat embrittlement and smoke). Well over half a million wet books were frozen to protect them against mold. Thanks to good weather, only 1-2% of the wet books became moldy, although the rescue work was not finished until four days after the fire. The number of wet books would have been greater if the fire department had not taken care to cover stack ranges with plastic sheeting to protect them from water cascading from upper floors. Document Reprocessors of San Francisco had the contract for removal of the books. The contract for subsequent operations (drying, cleaning, binding and so on) has not yet been awarded. Drying and cleaning alone is expected to cost at least two million dollars.

Total damage is estimated at $20 million. No one was killed, but 46 of the 300 firefighters who responded were injured. There were 60 pieces of firefighting equipment at the fire. The Los Angeles Fire Department has won praise for its control of this intensely hot fire, working under hazardous conditions, not least of which was the danger of getting lost in the maze-like stacks. They reported finding their way through dense smoke by the light of red-hot steel stairwells and book stacks.

Some 1,400 volunteers worked from 4:00 p.m. April 30 to midnight Saturday May 3, moving one million salvageable volumes out of the building in 100,000 cardboard boxes. (They did not use milk crates because of the pattern of indentations they sometimes leave on covers of drying books.) The wet books went to three commercial freezers initially, and were later consolidated in two of them. Dry books from damaged areas of the building were stored in the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Eric Lundquist, owner and founder of Document Reprocessors, called in consultants Sally Buchanan, Peter Waters, Don Etherington and John Morris (author of Managing the Library Fire Risk) to advise the library on drying procedures and other aspects of the mammoth restoration project that lies ahead. (Simply putting the surviving 1.7 million books back into call number order after restoration, for instance, will take five or six man-years even if they can be sorted with the aid of computers at the rate of three per minute, as they were in the Dalhousie recovery operation last year.)

The Atlantic Richfield Company has donated temporary office space, and the GSA volunteered trucks and dollies. The McDonnell Douglas Corporation offered to dry books free in its local space chamber, and has done 40,000 to date--their first experience with this kind of work at this particular facility.

Conservators and book people from Los Angeles and elsewhere in California came to help, among them Olivia Primanis-Cherin, Mary Chase (Getty Conservation Institute), Gretchen Carl, John Bidwell, Ron Tank, Lynn Jones, Victoria Blyth Hill, Griselda Warr and Nancy Purinton. Olivia Primanis-Cherin and a few others stayed with the job for two weeks.

Baker and Taylor will aid in replacing books, and the J. Paul Getty Trust gave $2 million to launch a drive to restore the library's collections. The mayor and local celebrities have donated money and started the fund-raising campaign. The city will continue with its plans for expanding and renovating the building, a historical structure of concrete in romantic Spanish style.

Despite all the help offered and given, it will be many years before the 115-year-old collection is rebuilt to its former value, and the economic drain on the city will be substantial. It is psychologically hard to accept the reality of this disaster, not only because of its magnitude, but because it was entirely preventable. It might have been avoided by the fire protection measures included in the library's plan for renovation, slated to start in September, depending on how adequate the planned measures are. They are not likely to include sprinklers if recent statements of at least four library and municipal officials are any indication. They told reporters that everyone knew sprinklers were bad for libraries, because they could be triggered by false alarms (not true; they cannot).

According to a story in the Los Angeles Times on May 2, Fire Chief Donald Manning has publicly criticized the City Council for ignoring nearly two decades of warnings that the 60-year-old building was a fire hazard. The two design flaws that seem to be responsible for the size and destructiveness of this fire are 1) lack of a sprinkler system and 2) old-fashioned stacks that extend through building levels, setting the stage for a flue-like draft. (Little blame can be assigned to the timeliness of the alarm and the response: the alarm system worked properly and the fire department was there soon after receiving notification. It is true that they could have responded sooner if the alarm had been wired to the fire department switchboard when it was installed in 1981.)

In view of what was at stake, it is hard to understand why library administrators and council members did not take the trouble in all that time to inform themselves adequately about modern fire protection, or at least to install barriers over the openings between floors, a relatively inexpensive and noncontroversial step that has been taken by other libraries, notably LC and the Widener at Harvard.

The belief of Los Angeles library officials that sprinklers were a greater hazard than fire is one that used to be widespread. It was reflected and reinforced by the American Library Association's 1963 book on library fire protection, which advised against sprinklers. Since then, largely because of the efforts of John Morris among others, sprinklers have gained greater acceptance. It is now recognized, at least among people active in preservation, that water damage can be entirely avoided by freezing the books; that fire damage is largely irreversible; and that sprinklers offer very close to 100% protection against fire. The ALA has reversed its position and will be publishing The Library Disaster Preparedness Handbook, which advises sprinklers, in July 1986. In this handbook there will be good descriptions, by John Morris, of recent developments that make sprinkler systems even cheaper, more efficient and more effective than before.

Another helpful publication, containing guidelines and case histories, is Protection of Libraries and Library Collection (NFPA 910), 1985. National Fire Protection Association, Batterymarch Park, Quincy, MA 02269 (800/344-3555). $10.50.

Document Reprocessors has just published a 103-page book entitled Salvage of Water Damaged Books, Documents, Micrographic and Magnetic Media, which can be ordered from them at 41 Sutter St., Suite 1120, San Francisco, CA 94104, for $5.

"Library Fire Update" (Reprinted from The Los Angeles Conservancy Newsletter, v.8, n.4)

Months after a disastrous fire, the full extent of the damage to the Los Angeles Central Library is still not known.

Art conservators took their first detailed look at the famous murals that adorn the walls of the Central Library just a few weeks ago, and a final assessment was not available at the time this newsletter went to the press. "Artwork is damaged," said Community Redevelopment Agency planner Robert Chattel, who has worked extensively on the library renovation project. "We don't know the extent of the damage or whether it is repairable. We don't know whether the damage was stopped, or is continuing."

The fire that gutted the landmark 1927 structure by architect Bertram Goodhue April 29 destroyed hundreds of thousands of books, but many more were saved. The building itself suffered no major structural damage that would impede reuse, and officials report there is no reason the planned rehabilitation and expansion of the library cannot go on as planned. Initial fears that the interior of the building has been completely gutted proved groundless, in large part due to the efforts of city firefighters to protect books and artwork from water and smoke damage.

The patents room, near the stacks where the fire started, was completely destroyed, and the stenciled ceiling of the nearby science and technology room is covered with soot. Chattel said that most of the damage to the interior was not from fire, but from heat, steam and smoke.

The most visible damage in the rotunda, the library's centerpiece, was to the mural on the west side of the room depicting the founding of Los Angeles. Heat, water and smoke have left a large white line bisecting the mural, with a spiderweb of smaller white lines further marring the artwork.

Myrna Saxe, art conservator for the Central Library, was concerned that delays in inspecting and protecting the murals could have serious consequences. Conservators from the Getty Museum and Getty Conservation Institute, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Huntington Library have been called in to inspect the library. The Community Redevelopment Agency and the Library Commission have voted to appropriate $300,000 for testing and treatment of library artwork.

Library officials plan to go forward, and possibly accelerate, plans for the renovation and expansion of the library. Some demolition work may begin by next spring, with heavy construction work beginning in late 1987. Completion of the renovated library is now tentatively scheduled for 1991, rather than 1992 as originally planned. Librarians are still in the process of reviewing and cataloging the surviving inventory of books and drying out water-damaged books.

Four sites have been considered as an interim home for the Central Library, with the former Broadway department store downtown and a warehouse on East Soto Street near the County-USC Medical Center considered the leading candidates.

Jim Timmerman, Editor
Los Angeles Conservancy

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