Phoenix in Los Angeles

Sherbrooke Record - - FRONT PAGE - Good Reads Len­noxville Li­brary

it hap­pened im­me­di­ately af­ter a ma­jor fire and ex­plo­sion at a nu­clear power plant near Ch­er­nobyl in the Ukraine which had re­leased a large amount of ra­di­a­tion. News about a li­brary fire in LA got shifted to the back pages.

Or­lean weaves three ma­jor threads to­gether: the story of the fire it­self, the ef­forts to sal­vage the col­lec­tion and the strug­gle to find a new home for what re­mained of the col­lec­tion; the his­tory of the li­brary, mostly as told through the sto­ries of the dif­fer­ent direc­tors of the li­brary; and the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the cause of the fire and the at­tempts to have some­one charged with ar­son.

Or­lean’s de­scrip­tion of the fire is so vivid, that I felt on the verge of sweat­ing and gasp­ing for breath as the heat in­ten­si­fied and the flames sucked the oxy­gen out of the room. (I would ad­vise against read­ing this pas­sage in a cramped space!) This chap­ter is all the more re­mark­able since Olean was thou­sands of kilo­me­tres away from the event she is de­scrib­ing.

Af­ter seven hours and thirty-eight min­utes, the fire was fully ex­tin­guished. 300,000 books had been de­stroyed and an­other 700,000 had been soaked in the fire­men’s ef­forts to douse the flames. Mold spores be­gin to bloom within 48 hours of be­ing ac­ti­vated by wa­ter. The only way to get books off the shelves, es­pe­cially when they are soak­ing wet, is to re­move them by hand. The call for vol­un­teers went out. Next day two thou­sand peo­ple showed up to take the books off the shelves and pack them in ship­ping cases. There was no chance of dry­ing that many books in only two days. For­tu­nately, Los Angeles has a large fruit and veg­etable pack­ing in­dus­try and a large seafood pack­ing in­dus­try, both of which fea­ture huge freez­ers. That is where the wet books were stored for the next two years.

When it came time to thaw the books, it wasn’t any use just to warm them up. That would have pro­duced a moun­tain of cold, soggy books. This was the turn of the aerospace in­dus­try to come to the res­cue. Th­ese com­pa­nies have vac­uum fa­cil­i­ties that are used to test satel­lites in outer space con­di­tions. The vac­u­ums could suck the wa­ter out of the pages of the books. This process took three years to com­plete.

Or­lean in­cludes a chill­ing dis­cus­sion of the sig­nif­i­cance of burn­ing books. It is one thing to burn them by ac­ci­dent, or at ran­dom. But when the burn­ing is tar­geted at a cer­tain group, it be­comes an in­stru­ment of cul­tural geno­cide – an ef­fort to de­stroy the his­tory and her­itage of the tar­geted group. This is the fi­nal stage be­fore ac­tu­ally burn­ing the writ­ers and read­ers of th­ese books.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the source of the fire re­volved around one man: Harry Peak. Harry, like many young peo­ple in LA, was an as­pir­ing film star. He was from Santa Fe Springs, a small town about 65 kilo­me­tres east of the city. He was fre­quently able to make the short jour­ney home to see his high school chums. On the day of the fire, he bragged to some of them that he had not only been at the li­brary that morn­ing, but that he was the one who set it ablaze. Given Harry’s well-earned rep­u­ta­tion as a BS artist, no one took him se­ri­ously. The po­lice even­tu­ally caught up with him. But they could never get him to main­tain a con­sis­tent story about his ac­tions that day. Even­tu­ally, crim­i­nal charges were dropped. Harry sued the city for ha­rass­ment and abuse. The city coun­ter­sued for dam­ages and the cost of the fire depart­ment ex­penses that day. In the end, the suits were set­tled out of court when it be­came ob­vi­ous that Harry was dy­ing of AIDS.

The Li­brary Book is avail­able at the Len­noxville Li­brary. The last of our used book sales will be held to­mor­row at Square Queen next to the farmer’s mar­ket be­tween 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.

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