"It happened in New York, April 10th, nineteen years ago. Even my hand balks at the date. I had to push to write it down, just to keep the pen moving on the paper. It used to be a perfectly ordinary day, but now it sticks up on the calendar like a rusty nail." —Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
Each year, for the past thirty-one, I pass the rusty nail of April 29 with every emotion an old librarian can still have under a hide that has been toughened by decades in the reference trenches. In the many moments of tranquility today there is still the ubiquitous dull ache of memory and nagging unanswered questions about the fire that turned our world upside down. There is also the relief that I made it through to this mostly pleasant other side. There are just a half-dozen of us slightly singed forever from that terrible day in 1986 when smoke stained, water soaked, and flames ate many precious parts of the cultural treasure house of Los Angeles. People saved most of it—from the courageous fire department heroes, the good volunteers from all over the city to the not-ready-for-arson-time staff who worked like they never thought possible.
For almost forty years I have heard the false prophets tell us that libraries will soon be obsolete ad nauseam but they have always been wrong. Central Library’s resurrection disproves that end of the physical library hogwash and demonstrates the deep inspiration of our system in no uncertain terms. I see young people enter the profession now full of hope with new ideas and energy that ensure my beloved institution will continue through the twenty-first century as something I can be very proud of with few reservations.
I was not always so confident, especially in the days after April 29, 1986. The story of the terrible fire and the battle to save the books will be told by a writer vastly more talented than I when Susan Orleans’ greatly anticipated, The Library Book, comes out in October, but these few words are just a humble love letter to the place I loved before this cataclysm.
Libraries are unique places to work because the surrounding cultural inspiration and the important task of educating the “common” people creates a bond among staff that is strong and often life-long. For the most part, the people I knew who comprised the staff in 1986 were not there to reach grand ambitions or acquire wealth but to be close to what they loved and cherished: books and learning. “Knowledge is currency here.” Central Library was a village with all the drama, romance, sadness and joy experienced by any such small town on earth. Much more so than now, the staff celebrated together their good fortune to be part of the noble library in gatherings that ranged from subject departments to the entire LAPL system. There were Halloween haunted houses, Christmas fetes, exhibit openings complete with rock bands and libations. Retirements were emotional partings, promotions were celebrated, alongside baby showers and birthdays. I remember them all with great fondness. Roselynn made fine chow fun noodles, Gloria’s mac and cheese required an early appearance at the groaning table and the Literature Department always threw in a bottle, or four, old-timers still talk about after a cup of joe.
When the fire burned the building and the books it also wiped out this village. I don’t miss doing donkey work like checking card catalogs and layers of microfiche for books requested by patrons (called postals) that were not on the system. I don’t miss temperatures over 100 degrees inside the History Department or 50 finger-numbing degrees in the old library. I don’t exactly cherish the memory of knocking myself unconscious (twice) in the dimly-lit and low-ceilinged stacks. Despite the coziness, the workrooms were absurdly overcrowded as were the shelves but the collections were world-class. I don’t miss the lunch room with one microwave for an entire building but there was an upright piano a guy from circulation would occasionally play like Pinetop Smith. Security was four men and 90% of our collection had to be retrieved from one of eight tiers of stacks. I don’t miss eating in the same three restaurants within short walking distance from Central Library because downtown kind of rolled up the sidewalks around 6 p.m. I do miss Joe, the waiter at Hamburger Hamlet on Flower. I don’t miss my car being burglarized ten times in our parking lot or the system of handing over cash money to a humorless guy in the accounting department to keep from losing my parking spot (number 8!). I do miss shifts that were so busy with reference calls that you sweat like you had played a 3 on 3 basketball game. I do miss hearing the tolling bells from the Church of the Open Door around dusk and knowing everyone in the building by their first name. I sort of miss being banned from three department workrooms because of excessive socializing and most of all the free access to the closed stacks of this truly great old library. You really should have seen that cookbook collection in Science that got turned to ash. Most of all I miss old Central friends who were scattered on the LAPL wind and many never made it back to “Goodhue’s masterpiece.” Some are gone to places I may find sooner rather than later.
To have known people like Helene, Billie, Frank, Leah, Donna, Dr. Muffy, Biff (Ken Jones), Rusty, Arthur Jean Lowe, Scott Ross, Nancy, Michael, Bettye, Romaine, MJ, Quimby, Tom Harris, Dan, Dan, Kris, Helen, Roy, Sheila, Carrie, Lee, and yes Betty Gay was wonderfully stimulating and edifying. The collection and dear old walls of Central are in my bloodstream, part of a rich tapestry made of brilliant colors and a few unsightly but inevitable stains. Lastly, I am grateful that the City of Los Angeles never gave up on us and administration battled hard to allow Central Library to rise from the ashes on the same spot our dreams were once crushed. Most of the credit, however, I give to my coworkers who slogged out to dank warehouses and knocked around sad Central in the remainder of 86 just to keep the flame burning. Please give them a plaque somewhere in the library to celebrate this great dedication. I am so glad that on April 29, 2018, I can sit in air-conditioned comfort typing away at my own computer with the greatness of humanity resting above me, just a sometimes working elevator ride up the grand canyon of books.
Dedicated to Bob Anderson, Maria Novoa, Tom Gesinski, Robin Myers, and Keith Dasalla.