I was the Community Redevelopment Agency’s deputy administrator for downtown L.A. when I managed the outside volunteer effort to get the books out of the library after the fire. It was the most extraordinary and inspiring thing I’ve ever been involved in.
We had been told we had 96 hours to get the books out before they were irreparably damaged. It took us 2 1/2 days to remove 3 million books.
“Someone handed me a bullhorn and we were off to the races.”
First I made phone calls to the three TV networks asking for volunteers. When I got to the Central Library on April 29, 1986, outside the west entrance, there were already about 100 people milling around. Someone handed me a bullhorn and we were off to the races.
The TreePeople organization came in to train volunteers of all ages on how to pack boxes. Entire families, many of whom didn’t speak English, showed up and stayed for hours, assembling boxes and working hellish hours inside the stacks. They came from all over the city, including Little Tokyo, Chinatown and the San Fernando Valley. I had to keep warning people to stay away from the forklifts, but volunteers rushed them every time one came in with a stack of boxes.
Redevelopment staff members went around downtown handing out leaflets asking for more volunteers. ARCO set up a phone bank. The Biltmore sent down huge coffee urns. But it was the residents of Los Angeles who saved the books.
Nobody asked for lunch. Nobody asked for a break. Nobody asked for anything. They just showed up and stayed until it was done.
Patricia Sterne Evans previously worked for the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency and is now a grant writer in Los Angeles.
Join the conversation: The L.A. Times Book Club welcomes Susan Orlean
When: Book talk at 7:30 p.m. June 25. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles.