A Tale of Two Libraries: One Weeps, One Rejoices : Morale at Central Shows the Strain

Times Staff Writer

Librarian Pat Zeidler was momentarily furious last month when she discovered this quote from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” scrawled on a wall of her Central Library office:

If seven maids with seven mops

Swept for half a year

Do you suppose, the walrus said,


That they could get it clean?

I doubt it, said the carpenter,

And shed a bitter tear .”

In ordinary times, Zeidler would have remained angry at the staff member who wrote the message, she said. But these are not ordinary times for Zeidler and the nearly 200 other library employees who are coping with the aftermath of the April 29 fire, which destroyed 370,000 books and left thousands more waterlogged and smoke-damaged.


“At first I was angry that someone defaced my wall,” Zeidler said “But then I looked around and realized that’s ridiculous because it’s such a mess in here. Besides, whoever wrote it has a point.”

Instead of spending their days serving library patrons, many are having to adjust to a mind-numbing work routine and a filthy workplace.

Zeidler’s office is in the Science and Technology Department, the area that sustained the most fire damage. A thick layer of gray soot coats the old-fashioned black telephones. The floor is littered with paint chips that flaked from the ceiling when the tiles fell down.

The graffiti, complete with a drawing of a broom and a face dripping tears, adds an oddly decorative touch to the room, which looks more like a charred tenement than an office.


It is in this atmosphere, heavy with the stench of smoke, that library staffers are cleaning, inventorying and boxing about 600,000 books left undamaged by the blaze, a process that could continue into 1987.

Temporary Site

Eventually, the books will be housed at a temporary site, which is still being sought by the city. About 20,000 soaked books have already been vacuum-dried, with 700,000 more waiting in two freezer locations to be dried.

Joe Punongbayan who has worked part time at the library for 2 1/2 years as a messenger clerk, finds the process of matching card catalogue entries with books monotonous.


“I don’t want to work here anymore,” said Punongbayan, 20. “It gets really boring doing the same task every day.” He has given notice, though he said he will miss the senior citizens who were regular patrons of the Social Sciences Department.

Although the majority of library employees have remained on the job, the strain on morale is apparent, said 30-year veteran Evelyn Greenwald, director of the library’s staff of research specialists.

“There’s been a letdown, no question about it,” Greenwald said. “The first week, we were operating on adrenaline--there was no time to think because we had to get the wet books out of the library. After the volunteers left, we were left to look at all that has to be done.”

Misses Public Contact


Librarian Glenda Prosser-Cohen, 46, is one of many who fears her research skills will get rusty if she doesn’t use them to help library patrons.

“We don’t have to wear hard hats anymore,” as they did after the fire, she said, “but things still aren’t back to normal. I very much miss the public contact.”

For Prosser-Cohen, one of the hardest parts about the fire is having to enter the building daily and be reminded of the loss.

Like other librarians, Selma Benjamin, 66, said she still feels deprived because of the loss of “irreplaceable” materials.


“I don’t think I’ll ever see the day when Los Angeles has a beautiful library again,” Benjamin said. She broke into tears. “I’m sorry, it’s the end of the day, and some of what we lost, like in the history of science, was just irreplaceable.”

Few appear untouched by the fire, although some are less devastated than others. Even Greenwald, who said she is feeling positive about the ultimate outcome of the fire, said it is not uncommon for her to imagine she is smelling smoke. Another librarian said she frequently visualizes herself engulfed in flames.

Meetings With Psychologist

Sheldon Ksionzky, staff psychologist for the Los Angeles Personnel Department, has met with front-line library supervisors and with small groups of staffers.


“It is possible, consequent to a traumatic experience, for individuals to re-experience the event in a vivid manner,” Ksionzky said. “However, this has not been a typical experience of the library personnel.”

In some cases, such as the graffiti in Zeidler’s office, library staffers have taken morale-building into their own hands. Other attempts at humor include putting a hard hat on the head of a bust of Admiral Byrd.

“Humor is a way for people to express anxiety in a less threatening manner than talking directly about what’s bothering them,” Ksionzky said.

Aside from offering counseling services, the library administration has tried to keep morale up by placing vases of flowers in some of the rooms and holding tea parties and other events.


Staff Lounge

The General Reading Services Department has converted its reading room into a staff lounge by cleaning and polishing the wood tables and scrubbing the floor. It is one of the few rooms that looks untouched by the fire.

Sylva Manoogian, manager of the Foreign Languages Department, said that while those services have helped improve her morale, her happiest moment came when she was shown a book from her collection that had been successfully vacuum-dried.

“It was a German book called “God Doesn’t Have Any Saturdays Off,” one from the wettest bunch in the library,” Manoogian said. “Seeing it, I felt like recovery has a good chance--like we saved one of my kids.”