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Landmark's Spirit Scarred but Unbowed

May 05, 1986|SUSAN PATRON | Susan Patron is assistant coordinator of Children's Services for the Los Angeles Public Library and writes a monthly column about children's books for the Children's Entertainment Guide. She has worked at the Central Library since 1980. and


It's impressive to work in a place where there's a Latin inscription carved into the wall over the employees' entrance. Especially when the inscription is couched above and behind bas-reliefs of Phospher and Hesper. Phospher stands for Wisdom of the East; Hesper for Wisdom of the West.

The first day I reported for work at the Central Library, I wrote down the Latin inscription, and asked the librarians in the Foreign Languages Department to translate it. It means, more or less, "And like runners, they carry the torches of life." What a wonderful description of librarians, I thought, grateful to be appreciated in large, bold letters that are clearly visible to all the people in the Arco Towers whose windows face east.

Authors, Not Librarians

Eventually I realized--a little foolishly--that the inscription refers to authors , not librarians, which is why the names of the great Eastern and Western thinkers are carved under Phospher and Hesper.

But I carried the inscription, proud of my association with a grand tradition, and curious as to what Phospher and Hesper would think of the writings of Roald Dahl and Judy Blume, of Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak.

New staff at Central underwent a kind of rite of passage known as "going through the woodwork," when they learned how to make their way through the maze of seven non-public tiers of book stacks. Thousands of linear feet of magazines on the seventh tier were retrieved by means of an antique pneumatic tube system; 80% of the book collection, shelved in closed stack areas, was retrieved by staff using tiny, unreliable, more-often-than-not-broken-down elevators or dark, narrow staircases. These constraints were a constant source of frustration to both patrons and librarians.

The contrast between the splendid public areas and the non-public section was vast. The second-floor rotunda, with its 64-foot dome, ceiling, marble floor, natural light from high windows, and gigantic solar-system chandelier (lit from within) is breathtaking, giving no hint of the crowded staff workrooms and miles of dingy stacks. The meticulously acquired collection of materials, covering a vast area of human knowledge in depth, was the heart of our work, which we carried out with the dedication of--well, runners--in spite of and because of that wonderful, terrible building.

When the alarm went off Tuesday morning, we grabbed our purses, muttering about the inconvenience of another fire drill, and exited by way of the stairs. Every worker knew the building was a firetrap, and we were well drilled in evacuation procedures. But, given foresight, what would I have carried out? An original Leo Politi watercolor hanging on the wall of our office? Or branch library annual reports going back to the 1920s? Or the history of public library service to children in Los Angeles? Standing in the parking lot, smelling the first hint of smoke, some of us began to wonder what we might have saved. When we saw the smoke, a palpable feeling of dread passed through the group.

Watched in Horror

Small flames began to lick the wall around the window behind Phospher and Hesper, and smoke billowed out as the fire spread like a dirty secret. The staff watched in horror, many feeling as if their life's work were burning, seeing in their minds a carefully nurtured collection and years of extensive indexing of the collection, balanced on the edge of catastrophe.

We watched it burn for hours, later learning of the extraordinary heroism of the firefighters as they crawled through the narrow stacks battling the inferno. Some staff returned that night, the rest the following morning, to begin the enormous task of separating wet books from dry ones and boxing all of them for removal to storage. All of us are immensely grateful for the 80% of the collection that can be salvaged.

Service to the public will be interrupted while we retrench and reorganize. But we won't ever let Phospher and Hesper down. We'll still carry the torches.

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