The volunteer effort that brought an estimated 1,500 book lovers to the Los Angeles Central Library over the weekend began with a hurried conference under the library's rotunda, where the lingering smell of smoke was a bitter reminder of destruction.
It was a conference about a race with time, a frantic marathon to salvage often irreplaceable, priceless books and periodical collections from the landmark building, ravaged by a fire Tuesday that destroyed about 20% of the library's more than 2 million volumes.
That race was won ahead of schedule. By Sunday morning the last boxes of books were being loaded aboard trucks for warehouses or cold storage facilities. A few volunteers still were trickling in despite the fact that nearly all of the salvage operation was completed by late Saturday, well ahead of projections.
In that spot under the rotunda, a seemingly incompatible group of librarians and TreePeople--better known for their work outdoors on behalf of the raw material from which books are made--set the ground rules for bringing in and organizing the flood of volunteers needed to box and remove books, especially those damaged by water.
While the mix of librarians and conservationists may have appeared unlikely to some, the presence of the TreePeople was no mystery to Andy Lipkis, the group's executive director. For Lipkis, the aftermath of the library fire had the familiar shape of disaster, one that he recognized from previous work following brush fires and winter floods.
Lipkis pronounced the rescue effort "a wrap" on Sunday morning, adding that "the incredible energy of the volunteers had enabled the library to be cleared of books nearly a day ahead of schedule.
"They weren't expecting to have it done until Monday."
As in the past, the challenge was screening and organizing a host of disparate people drawn to the scene of a headline-grabbing event.
"People of all sorts show up who want to help, but the challenge, as always, is keeping it sane and keeping it effective," Lipkis said.
The TreePeople were called in to help organize the volunteers by the Community Redevelopment Agency; the organization, which is overseeing plans to preserve the historic library, also supplied workers for the salvage effort. And the TreePeople, in turn, called on such groups as the newly formed Los Angeles Conservation Corps to supplement the individuals who were turning up at a quickening pace as the weekend began.
Lipkis' immediate concerns included the operation of a phone bank donated by Arco that would handle calls from potential volunteers.
After the librarians had stressed the need to get people working as quickly as possible on removing books, Lipkis met with phone bank workers in the shade of a tree on the library's grounds. The workers would staff a special number, (213) 486-BOOK, set up to handle volunteers and donations to the library.
Lipkis emphasized that overly excited would-be volunteers should be discouraged--or given time to calm down.
"Tell them you'll call back," he advised. "Yeah, it does create a little bit more work. But one of the things we've found is that it immediately clears out a level of overemotional volunteers . . . and that's really vital."
In fact, Lipkis cautioned, phone bank workers themselves can become overexcited or have a difficult time dealing with callers. If that happened, the phones should be unplugged and workers should either role-play or take a breather.
Time Off From Jobs
While Lipkis, who is the founder of TreePeople, is a full-time employee of the organization, two other workers he brought with him were not. Both Pat Ryan and Mike Kahlenberg had taken time off from their jobs to help gear up the rescue effort.
"My heart broke when I heard what happened," Ryan said, explaining why she was using vacation time to come to the library as a TreePeople worker. "The culture there is so important and so crucial."
Lipkis' no-nonsense approach seemed to be a welcome addition to a chaotic scene.
Inside the library, city workers were nailing together ramps and chutes to slide boxes downstairs and hauling in materials needed for the salvage, making conversation difficult. Meanwhile, library staffers, in their rush to save photo collections and magazines and all the other things a library contains in addition to books, seemed to be trying to do two or more jobs at once.
The sense of disorganization continued as the weekend began. For instance, hard hats were in short supply Friday, preventing many volunteers from entering the fire-blackened building until they had borrowed a hat from workers whose shifts were ending. Sandwiches and drinks ran out, too, but were quickly replenished. However, in less than 24 hours the volunteer effort was clearly beginning to make headway. Trucks were being loaded with boxed books while volunteers folded, carried and stacked an uncounted number of boxes which disappeared temporarily into the depths of the library.