Los Angeles Library Tragedy: An Unsolved Mystery Ignored For Decades

There is a chapter in Susan Orlean’s new book (Cleveland, Ohio, 1955) that begins by saying: “What was lost”. She then gives a description as succinct as it is overwhelming of what disappeared under the flames in the Los Angeles Central Library fire on April 29, 1986. An 1860 Quixote illustrated by Doré, all the books on the Bible, all the biographies from H to K, all the history of the theatre, all Shakespeare, five and a half million patents registered since 1799 – with their drawings and descriptions, the labels of 20,000 photographs… In total, 400,000 books destroyed and 700,000 seriously damaged. It is the biggest library disaster in U.S. history.

Orlean has been writing for The New Yorker for almost three decades. Since then he has published a dozen books, including the one that inspired the film The Orchid Thief. This month he is premiering in Spanish La biblioteca en llamas (Temas de hoy) a book in which, starting from his research on that fire, he tells the story of Los Angeles and writes a love letter to libraries and librarians, a passion his mother instilled in him.

Orlean welcomed EL PAÍS to his home in the Hollywood Hills, where he moved from New York in 2011. It overlooks Universal Studios. When she arrived in town, she wanted to see the Central Library, a kind of art deco bunker on the corner of Fifth and Flower Streets. There he learned about the history of the fire. It happened when she was 30, a writer and reporter, and until she moved to Los Angeles she didn’t know about the story. She’s not the only one who missed that event, because it wasn’t big news outside of Los Angeles. The world was waiting for the Chernobyl catastrophe, which had happened three days before and whose scope was beginning to be known.

“The Chernobyl disaster was an important reason” for the fire to go unnoticed, he says. “If it had been on the front page of the New York Times, a lot of people would have thought about it. But it didn’t happen, and the moment of the event was lost. The biggest library disaster in the United States is less well known than, for example, the destruction of the Sarajevo library in the Bosnian war. “Unlike Sarajevo and other lost libraries, it was not a war action. There was no conflict. Finally, it is not remembered because no one relates this city to books, Orlean says. Los Angeles is not thought of as an intellectual and literary city. No one knew that Los Angeles had one of the largest libraries in the country, not even its inhabitants. It’s not our identity as a city.

Interestingly, Orlean is most impressed by what was lost – the seemingly more mundane, everyday reference collections. “Collections that had been accumulating for years can never be rebuilt. The collection of cookery books, for example, had been acquired since the library opened (in 1873). You can’t go and buy it again. Newspapers and magazines are totally unrecoverable. I am impressed by cookbooks, because they were books that normal people could consult on a daily basis.

A pyre ready to burn
The book is a tribute to libraries, as a place to know and to be, as a center where to observe the life of a city. “I’m optimistic,” says Orlean about the future in the Google era. “I think at a time when more and more people are working for themselves and what they want is a place to go, to be with people, libraries are ideal. They are the original coworking space. We don’t have many such places in this country, just to get out of the house and be in the world. I wrote part of the book in the library and it was fantastic. I think young people like to be with people. Libraries are going to thrive as a place to be.

Orlean also turns the history of the library into a history of Los Angeles and its unbridled expansion in the early 20th century. The library overflowed itself, grew out of control and space, and in the 1980s was a pyre ready to burn. Around 11 a.m. that day a fire alarm sounded. A thread of pale smoke began to emerge from the tower where the fiction was kept, between the A and the L. With the hours, the temperature on the crowded shelves reached 1,300 degrees. It was like “watching the bowels of hell,” says a firefighter in the book to Orlean.

Still today there is no judicial truth about what happened. A strange young man named Harry Peak was arrested. The police are convinced it was him. During the investigation, Peak gave all sorts of versions of what had happened that morning when he was in the library and someone saw him run away. But there was no way to gather evidence against him. Orlean, after years of research, confesses that he has no theory of his own.

“I feel the same ambivalence that I express in the book. It’s not that I have a secret opinion that I wouldn’t want to share. Depending on the day of the week, sometimes I think ‘maybe it wasn’t provoked, maybe it was a diagnostic error from the beginning’. Other times I think ‘no, Harry was there, he lit a match, he was playing and he got scared and left there’. What I don’t think is that he wanted to create that destruction. Then I think, ‘yes, he did, he knew too much,'” he says. “I think all theories are credible. Actually, as I was researching, I realized that it was a bit silly to think that I was going to solve a fire that happened so many years ago. There’s only one key character in the story who doesn’t speak in the book: Harry Peak. He died in 1993 and took with him the truth about the day Los Angeles lost a million books.

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