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Central Library Wages a Battle for Recovery : Job of Raising Funds to Replace Volumes Lost in Fires Is Aided by Corporate, Public Volunteers

November 20, 1986|MIKE WYMA

It is the gratis gold mine

Waiting for me to excavate.

It is the fantasy journey

Where I learn to fly with my

imagination.

These lines from a poem by Huntington Park High School senior James Hsu describe the Los Angeles Central Library--the one that existed before this year's two arson fires. The fires destroyed 20% of the Western United States' biggest public collection and closed the building to patrons.

The 60-year-old downtown landmark, a cream-colored structure with a distinctive pyramid-topped tower, is scheduled to reopen in 1991, expanded and improved.

In the meantime, operations are moving from the damaged 5th Street location into temporary quarters, due to open next spring, at Broadway and 7th Street.

Restricted Budget

While funds are available for both those projects, the Los Angeles Public Library has nothing in its budget to replace materials lost in the fires.

The job of raising money for that purpose has been taken on by Save the Books, a cooperative effort of library staff and corporate and public volunteers.

Mayor Tom Bradley and Arco Chairman Lodwrick M. Cook head the drive. Several Save-the-Books events are planned and others, including a writing contest in which James Hsu was one of 25 winners, have concluded.

The numbers describing the Central Library's problems are large ones. The first fire, on April 29, burned for nearly seven hours and was fought by more than 325 city Fire Department personnel. Both figures are the largest in memory for a structure fire in Los Angeles, according to firefighters.

The loss of reading materials in that blaze and the smaller Sept. 3 fire totaled 200,000 books and a like amount of periodicals. Those figures will rise if many of the 700,000 wet books stored in commercial freezers are damaged beyond repair.

Library officials estimate the worth of lost materials at $15 million. Save the Books set a goal of $10 million by year's end, an amount termed "very ambitious" by professional fund-raisers. The effort got off to a quick start, collecting $3.2 million within three weeks of the first fire.

Included were $2 million from the J. Paul Getty Trust and $500,000 gifts from Arco and the Times Mirror Foundation.

Fund raising sputtered through the summer and fall, and not until mid-November did Save the Books announce that it had hit the halfway point of $5 million.

Told in human terms, the library's problems are equally as severe. Arson investigators won't say whether they believe both fires were set by the same person, but it is an assumption commonly made by library personnel.

"It certainly appears so to us," said Betty Gay, director of Central Library. "The second fire was actually more difficult for many of the library staff, because the first one could be explained as someone going after a random target. But the second one seems to single us out."

Staff members have been looking over their shoulders while proceeding with a massive, dirty clean-up job.

"You can guess that people don't become librarians because they want to get rich," City Librarian Wyman Jones said. "They do it because of love. I can't tell you how incredibly down the whole library staff was after the fire. We work for an institution that was here long before we were, and will be here long after we're gone. To see it damaged so was a terrible thing."

Pres Blyler, library personnel director, said 24 of the Central Library's 250 staff members requested and were given transfers to branch assignments after the first fire, and that others received group counseling from a city psychologist.

"There was no heat and no air conditioning and the building was full of debris," he said. "It's very distressing when you've helped put together a collection and you see it partially destroyed."

Soon after the first fire, neighbor Arco loaned the Central Library an empty floor in its high-rise across Flower Street. About 80 library staff members work there, while the rest are divided between the damaged building and the old Bullock's store at Broadway and 7th Street, which is being readied for a spring opening as the temporary Central Library. That building, in an area known as St. Vincent's Square, was leased by the city for $6.5 million for 4 1/2 years.

A $141-million expansion and renovation of the damaged library will proceed under a complex deal that was struck between the city and private downtown interests before the first fire. Most of the money will come from developers who, in exchange, will receive city permission to build high-rises and also parking room in a subterranean garage to be built below the library.

East Wing Addition

The last work of architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, the Central Library is done in a Spanish-Byzantine style and will have an east wing added during renovation, roughly doubling its size. A great many people were unaware of the extent of its holdings, director Gay said.

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