Los Angeles Central Library Fire of 1986

Happily, any personal experience I’ve had with records or archives or libraries has—thus far— been free and clear of disaster. So I did some research and found an instance of catastrophe at a library on my native West Coast of the United States.

On April 29, 1986, the Los Angeles Central Library, the third-largest public library in the U.S., caught fire on the fifth floor. (It was later determined to be arson—one librarian who worked there at the time theorized that the arsonist set the fire in order to impress people by putting it out. I’m not totally sure where this idea comes from, but it’s equal parts amusing and horrifying.) The library had a massive collection– only 20% of it was available to the public. There were endless shelves stacked all the way to the top with extremely flammable books, periodicals, maps, papers, the list goes on.

And so the fire quickly spread– and, because of the “dense design” of the building, became hotter and hotter, temperatures eventually going over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The surfaces were so hot that when water was doused into the building, it would boil. Again, the design of the building, tall and thick, meant there wasn’t proper ventilation to put out the fire, so firefighters had to use jackhammers to break through the concrete and create airflow. It took more than 350 firefighters and nearly eight hours to eventually put out the fire.

20% of the library’s materials were destroyed—400,000 volumes. 700,000 volumes were damaged by the water from the hoses, and all the remaining books suffered smoke damage. Completely lost were “the largest and oldest collection of patents in the American West and one of America’s largest collections of cook books.”

Putting the library and its collections back together was quite a task. Volunteers came in for two weeks to gather waterlogged books that were to be sent to Texas for freeze drying. They renovated and rebuilt the library, but, as librarian Glen Creason said, “The old idea of Central as a research library like the great New York Public Library sort of crumbled away… It is still very much a great library, just not as great as it could have been.”

Photos from the Los Angeles Public Library Collection

Information gathered from the following articles:





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