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Volunteers Aid Library in Recovery From Fire

Times Staff Writer

When Chris Orozco was growing up, his mother hauled her brood of six children to the library regularly. Orozco devoured anything having to do with science, particularly the works of H.G. Wells.

Orozco’s bibliophilic tendencies remained with him all his life--to the mild consternation of his wife, who complains, he said, that their house contains too many books. “There’s no such thing as too many books,” Orozco said. “If my house caught fire, the first thing I’d grab would be my books.”

On Saturday, Orozco got a taste of the havoc that a fire can wreak on a library larger than his own: the Los Angeles Central Library. Orozco, an Internal Revenue Service employee, was among the first batch of volunteers helping in the effort to ready 700,000 water-damaged books for the Central Library’s opening in temporary headquarters in March.

Working Overtime

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Six days a week and Tuesday and Thursday nights, corporate and private volunteers clean up and inventory books damaged in the 1986 arson fire that caused $22 million in damage to the three-story, 60-year-old treasure house.

About 400,000 books of the library’s 2 million were lost; 700,000 others were water-damaged, and 10% are unsavable. The library is scheduled to reopen in 1992.

In the meantime, library officials are seeking all the help they can get from the public. The IRS has been the first government or corporate respondent. About a dozen volunteers showed up Saturday, and more are expected from several offices in the county. Orozco said it’s a way of “saying thank you” to the library for distributing tax forms.

Big Job

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The task is simple but enormous. Soon after the fire, all the books wetted by sprinklers and fire hoses were placed into freezers to halt mold and mildew spread. Vacuuming drying is under way, and books are arriving at the temporary library site at the rate of about 50,000 a week.

Stacks upon stacks of cardboard boxes, inscribed with such library esoterica as SO 364.942 fill the ninth floor of the old Design Center building at 433 S. Spring St.

Rubber-gloved volunteers wipe the soot from blackened volumes with damp sponges. Some books bear scant evidence of the blaze that took 350 firefighters 6 hours to put out. The grime is easily removed with a quick wipe. Others are water-strained and charred. Pages are warped, spines buckled. The faint odor of smoke is everywhere. Open a book and the odor is not so faint.

“It still brings tears when you walk into a room and smell the soot,” said librarian Laura Dwan.

The prospect of the nine floors of shelves to fill in the temporary location is a challenge that thrills Dwan and her colleagues.

“Even though this is dirty, nasty work and we hate it, there’s a real excitement about seeing the books on the shelf,” she said. “It’s been real hard on the staff. One of the reasons you become a librarian is because you love books, and we have been 3 years without a collection.”

Sylva Manoogian, head of the library’s foreign-language section, was likewise delighted.

“Look at this,” she waved at a stack of de-sooted books in languages as varied as Tagalog and German awaiting a shelf to rest on. “We’re building it up. It feels great.”

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Volunteers may phone the library at (213) 612-3261.


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