Posted: October 17th, 2013






History of the Los Angeles Library

There have been other central libraries within Los Angeles but the Los Angeles Central Library has had the longest staying power. Between 1875 and 1930, the building was at the center of several transformations from different locations, but the excellent architecture and planning ensure that the structure could tolerate floods, earthquakes and several arson attempts. Currently, its neighboring skyscrapers have eaten away at most of the library’s pools, lawns and other public spaces, they were unable swallow its miniature form out of downtown Los Angeles. These newly developed skyscrapers were erected thanks to the bought air rights above the library with the intention of exceeding height limitations and construct colossal buildings. The architect based his design of the Central Library on the design of the Nebraska State Capitol.

The library was initially built in 1844 when the population of Los Angeles was fewer than 1,490 people, with a collection of donated volumes and some prized newspapers that were about 6 months old (Anthony 45). For many years, the city’s library remained a mobile achievement that migrated from donors’ location to a floor in City Hall. Some of the pioneer librarians that set the ground for the present state of the library include Mary Emily Foy, Mary Jones and Tessa Kelso who were all learned women that strengthened the role of education in the American society (Anthony 48).

Initially, the Central Library was constructed in 1926 as a downtown Los Angeles tourist attraction site. It was constructed as the third largest communal library in the North America according to the volume of books and periodicals it contained. At first, simply called the Central Library, the structure was renamed the Los Angeles Central Library to commemorate the president of the Board of Library Commissioners, Rufus B. von KleinSmid. The main architect who was in charge of constructing the building, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue intended the initial Los Angeles Central Library to imitate the structural fashion of prehistoric Egypt. The central tower was covered in a mosaic pyramid as well as other foreign aspects including snakes, extraterrestrial mosaics and sphinxes (Anthony 235).

The Los Angeles Central Library is massive containing over 46,020 titles that are categorized exclusively as genealogy (Butler 19). The history and genealogy divisions are located in one wing for ease of research and access. Apart from this, the Central library also contains telephone directories, indexes and maps, newspapers on microfilm, city directories and census records. The library invested in a massive on-line database and specific items in the Electronic Neighborhood system that were accessible from members’ home computer for instance city directories. A large amount of the historical publications related to the San Fernando Valley that was under the Los Angeles Public Library system was delivered to the Central Library.

The 1986 Central Library fire was one of the biggest library disasters that cost the stakeholders over $23 million in repairs and restocking of books (Isner 117). The fire was initially caused by an arsonist at around 10:50 am and the alarm bell was immediately triggered. This was followed by a quick evacuation of the staff and patrons within the building (Coates 38). When the first two fire companies showed up to the scene of the catastrophe, they assessed the situation and requested for more personnel and equipment. After seven hours of tough fire fighting, the flames were finally subdued by a combination of Los Angeles County Department and the city’s fire department.

The hardworking members of the fire department were highly praised for their courage, valor, resolve and outstanding exertion in containing the fire that attacked the Los Angeles Central Library. No deaths or serious injuries were reported originating from the fire. Later, analysts estimated a loss of about $2.3 million to the building and about $21 million to its reading materials and equipment (Isner 26). More significantly, 83% of the entire worth of the building and publications were salvaged (Butler 67). There was a similar fire tragedy on September 3 within the same year that damaged the materials in the Music Department Reading Room (Butler 49).

Reasons for the cause of the fire

Various theories pointed toward a failed heroism act involving an arsonist who lit the fire and then failed to contain it. Instead, the flammable nature of the overwhelmed sixty-year-old building acted in a manner similar to a chimney starter. In a few moments, the ignited pages from the books became a moving barricade of flames that consumed very old books, newspapers and magazines. The fire was so scorching that it melted most of the steel ladders used to access books (Butler 15). The reasons for the fire disaster were numerous and interrelated in a way. First, the library had undergone a number of renovations. Therefore, the firefighters considered it a very cumbersome and precarious building.

John Morris commented that despite the high risk of a fire occurring in most libraries, these structures were not installed with basic sprinklers tat would have stopped any fire immediately (Morris 78). This sprinkler technology had already been developed in the 1970s but it was not installed in the Los Angeles Central Library. Any fire outbreaks within the library would have to be dealt with using heavy hose stream that would obviously destroy most of the books. Sprinkler systems have the same ability to extinguish fires but their magnitude is negligible when compared to the destructive force of a fire hose (Morris 172).

Besides the lack of sprinkler systems, the design of the building was vital in increasing the rate at which the fire spread (Coates 18). Inside the building held even more risks as only about 18% was visible and safe for the public. For any other materials that were not visible, a client had to issue a request slip and a clerk would recover the preferred material from the internal stacks. The internal stacks were tightly packed providing very slight headroom because of the internal stack design that was made up of several shelves that were six feet tall. Taking into consideration that the public area was roughly two floors together with the Science and Technology niche, the internal stacks were roughly six floors (Butler 423). The interior structural design of the library was a major cause of the prolonged fire. The multi-tiered stacks designed with vent openings between them were already assessed by fire protection experts as being precarious and risky elements. The efforts at tracing the origin of the fire revealed that the gases and smoke from the fire rose up through the vents to the upper tiers. The extremely hot steel ladders and metal shelves made it even more difficult for firefighters to maneuver within the building (Coates 107).

These flaws were noticed earlier in the usage of the building but obstacles such as the adoption of Proposition 13 policy and other minor issues created a common disinterest among the Los Angeles city officials who refused to finance the renovation. All these factors combined to create the perfect scenario for a major combustion to occur, as the library was filled to the maximum with flammable substances. However, in summary, the three major causes were narrowed down to ventilation complications, the over stacking of flammable material and absence of fire access points. The lack of ventilation created an oven-like environment that greatly increased the temperatures to about 2500 degrees Fahrenheit that stopped any firefighters from accessing the building (Isner 56).

When questioned on the reason why there were no fire management equipment within their premises, the library administration responded by saying that false alarms would have activated sprinklers that would destroy the books. Despite this reason, the Fire Chief Donald Manning openly blamed the City Council and the library administration for paying no attention to twenty years of warnings that the ancient building was a fire risk (Mc Donald 45). The two major design errors that were mentioned as being responsible for the magnitude and destructiveness of the fire were the absence of sprinkler systems and outdated library stacks that rose through the building floors, setting the stage for increased burning in the event of a fire. On could not blame the failure of the alarm as the system worked accurately and summoned the firefighters immediately. With the amount f valuable material inside the library, it was difficult to understand why the city council and the library management failed to take training and gather more information on fire fighting, structural requirements and other safety measures. At least, the library management would have taken an assessment of the safety measures in other libraries such as Harvard that mounted barriers between floors.

Damages caused

About 18% of the total library’s holdings that could roughly translate into about 400,000 volumes were damaged with noteworthy smoke and water destruction done to the remaining works (Simmons 17). The library staff estimated a loss from the damage caused by water to about 700,000 copies while smoke damaged the rest of the remaining collection (Morris 22). The only section that was safely evacuated was the rare book collection besides a few significant collections that were destroyed. The biggest loss was awarded to the seismology collection that was destroyed by the flames.  In the periodical section, the history, business and literature sections were destroyed. The fiction and non-fictional areas underwent minimum damage. Other collections that were destroyed include automobile repair manuals, cookbooks and art journals.

Reports by various media houses indicated that the library faced a possible $150 million loss from the emergency fire, but the staff placed the loss to about $20million in building and volumes damage (Simmons 21). One contributory factor that greatly limited the losses from being larger was the acknowledgment and execution of salvage operations before the fire became uncontrollable. From the 1.4 million books that were kept in the library when the fire started, only about 352,000 were seriously damaged by fire and water (Morris 28). Some of the material that was destroyed included patents that were non-renewable such as the business community documents for innovations. Surprisingly, neither the building nor the books in it were covered by insurance.

Changes caused by the fire

By the late 1960s, it was apparent that the library was inadequate and insecure (Anthony 35). By that time, the book collections had doubled in number and the administration was facing possible environmental and electrical problems. It was evident that the library required a critical expansion, or relocation to a different location. In 1983, a plan was put into motion to enlarge and refurbish the library on its initial site because the city considered it a significant part of their history that would be preserved in the central part of the city. By 1985, an agreement and partnership among private and public stakeholders for financing had been developed.

During the restoration process, care was taken to consider the compliance demands that were dictated by the Secretary of the interior department and those proposed by the domestic historic preservation interest groups. The other partners in the renovation process, Hardy Holzman Pieffer Associates duplicated design concepts from the ancient library for the modern wing, resulting in a consistent environment that amalgamated and considered does the old and the new generations. The Library was redesigned to reflect Los Angeles’ history and culture, as well as its prospects. The designers had the idea of incorporating technological innovations into the library making it easier for people to research for information.

After the library fire of 1986, over 723,000 books were delivered to the freezer warehouse and were stored there for about two and a half years (Morris 16). This was the first step in the drying process that set new benchmarks, using a new procedure that took lesser time and produced better outcomes. In January, the last set of restored books was transported to the Los Angeles processing center indicating the end of the biggest book-drying project ever completed. Within four months, about 564,000 books that were damaged by water and smoke in the fire were processed in a complicated freeze-drying operation at California (Morris 17). Starting in September 1988, every week a consignment of books were delivered from the freezer warehouses to California, and then sent to the library. The drying process was running night and day and the project was completed before the 6-month deadline had reached (Morris 26).

Measures installed to prevent future emergencies

Since the emergency fire in 1986, the library established a sophisticated and financed “Save the Books” promotion, a system of dedicated volunteers, transformed corporate contribution for educational outreach, and a new comprehension of the importance of the physical surroundings. The most important change however was the increased relationship with other people’s experiences. The emergency fire attracted disaster and conservation experts from the Getty Conservation Institute and the Library of Congress to assist during the emergency. Their professional recommendations helped the library to maximize on the facilities in the new building to instill a different custom of operation. The Los Angeles Library sold its air rights to contractors in a bid to raise funds within their rehabilitation program. The money received from the sale of the rights was used to construct the U.S. Bank Tower (Library Tower) skyscraper. These efforts were made possible through the combined efforts of the mayor, Tom Bradley as well as personal and corporate contributions (Morris 66).

The library was fitted with sprinklers and other disaster equipment and mitigation preparedness. The internal environment was also set up to maintain an appropriate temperature and humidity standards. The original building was renovated and refurbished to incorporate services needed to facilitate easier research demands by the patrons. The modern wing is the site of an impressive eight-story foyer that gives access to several separate departments that are rather welcoming and personal simultaneously. The improvements also included outdoor backyards having over foreign 160 trees of different specimens (Mc Donald 176). The public art program within Los Angeles allowed the library to commission art within the building and around the garden. The outdoor landscapers attempted to recreate a natural, spiritual and perhaps artistic setting that would contribute significantly toward improved intellectual activity and introspection in the middle of busy Los Angeles. Concerning security of the volumes and building, the management installed sophisticated book detection systems, video coverage and security officials to control the security standards within the library (Isner 187).



Current state of the library

The new renovated building was expanded to have a seating capacity of over 6 million people and could be accessed by over 21 million people within Los Angels and its surroundings. Currently, the library has changed its name from The Los Angeles Central Library to The Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) but it is still being used by the city’s residents. Currently, the library is stocked with over six million copies making it is one of the largest publicly funded libraries globally. The system is administered by a Board of Library Commissioners that is directly chosen by the Los Angeles mayor. The new improved library had more advanced features and benefits for its members such as issuing free library cards to all interested California residents. Circulating books, periodicals, computer access and audiovisual materials are available to patrons.

The Library’s Rare Books Department is located in its downtown Los Angeles location. There is an extensive selection of databases available to remote users who hold an LAPL library card. Examples include full-text databases of periodicals, business directories, and language learning tools. The library also revised their collections to include a stronger focus on regional content than most main city libraries. For instance, the library has a wide Californian collection and publications concerned with the history of western American. The rare book collection was reorganized to concentrate on expeditions and exploration, performing arts, costumes, natural history, patents, cooking and other important subjects to the Pacific countries.

According to the New York Times (1989), the Los Angeles Central Library had resumed normal operations after three years of rigorous renovations and repairs to expand and make the library safer and more efficient in delivering services. The reopening will make available more books to the Los Angeles’ sixty-three branch libraries all of which depended on the Central Library to supply them with books. In the first floor lobby, renowned city artist, Rebee Petropoulos adorned the ceiling with an abundance of imagery, text and color. His creativity was to paint the ceiling with intertwined names of all Los Angeles novelists. The Thomas Bradley Wing was also extended and remodeled to increase it to eight stories. The reading rooms and stacks were aligned on either side of the walls. Enormous glazed terra cotta columns were designed toward one side.

A report release by the American Library Association revealed that the general economic depression and high unemployment rates greatly affected the operation of major libraries including the Los Angels Public Library. For Los Angels Public Library, in 2011, there was a 10% increase in the library usage. The community within Los Angeles has also showed increased effort to provide financial support to maintain the library. For instance, they approved a $50 million budget specifically for the public library system (Mc Donald 126).

Lessons learnt by the community

An important lesson learnt was the importance of constant and adequate funding that was vital in keeping the library doors open. They realized that they should keep the library at the top of their priorities of public funding as well as public education. Community planners had been focusing on technology as the future of public education but this opinion was not shared by most of the community members. Even though all societies attempt to keep up with the technological changes, learners still needed an environment where they could access academic material and serene settings to understand their studies. A major allocation of the regional budget for the overhaul was awarded toward upgrading the technological systems, developing household delivery of library service and increasing the access points for the library patrons. These efforts have not driven away any patrons, and contrary to the predictions, even more people desire to access the library. However, even the Los Angeles Public Library took into consideration modern learning methods and systems such as the Internet.

The community also realized the importance of maintaining a network of like-minded people in as far as the conservation of the library was concerned. To that extent, the community created the Bibliophiles organization that was responsible for acknowledging the contribution of people and groups who supported the maintenance of Central Library. Within the Bibliophiles organizations, members share information on the changes and decisions that concern the library. They also have annual meetings where all stakeholders are briefed on the library reports. These charitable trusts have contributed greatly in maintaining the library up to the present day (Mc Donald 336).

Donations and current book stock

After the reconstruction, the Los Angeles Public Library received numerous donations from different companies, individuals and groups to assist in restocking the lost academic material. The Photo Collection that was newly established within the library was a classical example of effective contribution by the community. The donors include media houses such as Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and Security Pacific Bank (164).


The major emergency fire that burst out in April 1986 at the Los Angeles Central Library was so taxing that it took most of the safety and recovery staff in the city to quell it. The total number of officials and equipment used included more than 340 firefighters and nearly all other sectors of the city departments before it was slowed down. The difficult firefight used sixty fire fighting firms, one arson unit, nine paramedic ambulances, three aircraft, four salvaging businesses, two emergency air units and more than forty police squadrons and support staff. Concerning the future activities, the library is investing in coming up with new programming chances. The library premises have increased by over 32% but the human resource department has difficulties in employing new workers. One of the urgent issues affecting library operation is preservation of books and other tangible publications. The task of maintain the condition of over 2 million holdings from disasters and standard aging without employing the services of a conservation department is quite difficult.

The role of a library extends beyond issuing access to books to the public. It is also a secure storage facility for a large part of the nation’s history, heritage and culture. In order to achieve the latter task, a library must be fully equipped to handle all types of catastrophes. Granted, the Central Library during its time was not fully equipped with sophisticated systems to handle the fire. However, the library administration was negligent in the way that they managed the building to an extent that any small accident would have set off an uncontrollable fire. Previous citation on violation of fire codes were enough warning that such a catastrophe was waiting to happen. The experience was however important in stressing the need for disaster recovery plans that include training personnel, investment in storage and secure equipment as well as the best methods of mitigating destruction.


Work Cited

Anthony, Donald F. “Fire Strikes the Los Angeles Central Library.” Fire Command. 1986. Print.

Butler, Randall R. Disaster at the Los Angeles Central Library: Fire and Recovery. San Marino, CA: Society of California Archivists, 1991. Print.

Coates, Margaret. “Huge Loss in Library Fire: Central Library, Los Angeles, USA.” Fire Prevention. 1987. Print.

Isner, Michael S. Fire Investigation Report: Central Library Fire, Los Angeles, California, April 29, 1986. Quincy, Mass: National Fire Protection Association, 1986. Print.

Mc Donald, Patrick. Measure L Library Funding Election Results: Los Angeles Voters Approve Plan to Reopen 73 Shuttered Libraries. Law Weekly. 2011. Retrieved from

Morris, John. “Saving the Books.” Disaster Recovery Journal. 2 (4). 1989. Print.

Simmons, Alan. “L.A. Library Fire Threatens 150 Million in Books.” American Fire Journal. 1986. Print.


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