April 29, 1986 — the day the Central Library was torched by an arsonist. The building was closed until 1993. Some 200,000 books were destroyed. "Irreplaceable numbers of hard copy periodicals, drawings from patents, historic maps, fine art prints, photography negatives and newspaper archives were turned into ash or mush by the water," writes history department librarian and curator of maps Glen Creason, the author of the wonderful book, Los Angeles in Maps. He remembers the awful day and the aftermath in a piece for the Downtown News. Excerpt:
Sometime after the library opened at 10 a.m. on that sunny day, a fire was set somewhere between novels by Robert Coover and John Fowles. It quickly got out of control and began a terrible trip west, through the magazine pool, the map room, the Social Science stacks, the Science stacks and into the Patents Room. It finally belched obscenely out of the windows looking over the library parking lot where Maguire Gardens now sits.
Theories pointed toward a would-be hero/arsonist who set the fire and then hoped to put it out to impress people. Instead, the tinderbox qualities of the overburdened 60-year-old structure acted very much like the charcoal chimney starter you use to get coals ready for your barbecue. In a few heartbeats the ignited pages from a novel or two became a moving wall of flame eating up centuries-old books, magazines and newspapers. The fire was so hot that by the time it reached an area above the old History department, the steel ladders connecting the eight layers of stacks glowed cherry red. Water from fire hoses created steam that made visibility zero.
The first fire units arrived within five minutes of the requests for help that came in around 10:50. Firemen punched holes in the walls to let out heat, but the fire grew. Ultimately, 60 fire companies joined in the fight, with a total of 350 firefighters battling the blaze.
I was a reference librarian, and I reluctantly remember trudging through the hell-black magazine “pool” that night when they let us into the burned shell to assess the damage. At first it didn’t look so bad, since the walls were all where they were when we had left in a hurry that morning. Then, despite orders to the contrary, we climbed the twisted stairs in the Fiction stacks to see devastation that turned out to be the beginning of a very long journey of misery and despair as dark as the incinerated books.
Volunteers came by the thousands in the two weeks after the tragedy, hustling to get soggy books into boxes headed for freeze drying in Texas. It would be almost three years before we were to see the books again.
Los Angeles Public Library photographs