In retrospect, it is ironic that the fire took place when it did: April 29, 1986. On that day, progress was quietly continuing with plans for a renovation of the original Central Library and a new multi-level addition. Betty Gay, Director of Central Library, and Norman Pfeiffer, architect, were looking over plans, and the future for Central Library never looked brighter. For about twenty years, plans and proposals had dead-ended, and dire predictions about a major conflagration made by the Los Angeles Fire Department had done nothing to hasten a resolution that would satisfy various community groups. It is no exaggeration that many Angelenos had a lack of interest, even cynicism, about the future of the old building. Feelings, attitudes and community involvement were about to change—overnight.
On April 29 1986, Carlton Norris looked down from the 32nd floor of the ARCO Tower, and saw the Los Angeles Fire Department, in full force, battling a fire coming from the west side of the Central Library and thought, “Something has to be done to help the library.” Even though he was an executive with ARCO, he had an extraordinary love and appreciation for libraries and librarians. With the approval from Lodwrick “Lod” Cook, ARCO’s Chairman and CEO, phone banks immediately were set up on an empty floor of the building. The next day, April 30, 1986, ARCO invited Library Administration to occupy the 35th floor of the ARCO Tower. This would be the genesis for a major private and public effort to reach out and engage Angelenos in restoring what had been lost, and would prove to be a phenomenal success. However, on April 30, 1986 library staff and the public were in shock and could not think or feel anything but overwhelmed and devastated.
Very quickly Lod Cook asked Carlton Norris to head a campaign and devote a major amount of time to raising money for books. Norris had never done fundraising, so he hired a professional fundraiser, Jim Glass, but also wanted librarians to be involved and turned to library administration for help. Betty Gay, Director of Central Library assigned Judy Ostrander, Librarian in Business and Economics, and Sheila Nash, Librarian in General Library Services to work at ARCO. The two librarians started working immediately with Carlton Norris. Later both of them were required by ARCO to go through a formal interview process to continue working on the project.
In asking librarians to be part of the project, Norris recognized and appreciated the expertise and knowledge that is involved in librarianship, and he knew how special Central Library was. In 1986, the library’s collection was hard copy books and periodicals. There was a film collection, a vinyl collection known as LPs, but there was no automated catalog, only drawers of card catalogs. There was no internet.
Norris also knew that the Los Angeles Public Library’s collection was the largest public library west of the Mississippi River, and resources not found anywhere else in the United States, which is still true today, and according to Kevin Starr, former State Librarian of California, the Central Library has a collection unsurpassed, “... especially in its depth of materials” and therefore… manages to be distinguished, simultaneously, as a collection and a public service agency.” Starr recognized the unique characteristics of the Los Angeles Public Library system and stated, “A municipal library—even in Los Angeles, the original mega-horizontal city!—needs centrality, focus, institutional depth, if it is properly to serve its branches. Each and every branch, in other words, takes its strength, not from its own limited resources, but from the Central Library which backs it up.”
Judy and Sheila worked on Save the Books from 1986 - 1988. During that time, these two librarians quickly established a very active routine, working closely on a daily basis with Carlton Norris and his staff. They created a plan to engage the people of Los Angeles in a giant fundraising campaign. Every day they worked on developing how to achieve certain goals, and at the end of the day would set new goals to be worked on the next day. Two Administrative Assistants, Ed Desjardins, and Iva Adams quickly typed up all the proposals and ideas, including lists of individuals, companies and key contact people, social and cultural groups and organizations and their key people. As a working duo, the librarians were dedicated to the project and backed by the ARCO people.
The goal was “to raise $10 million in gifts and pledges to replace and enhance the collections burned or damaged in the original fire; to increase public awareness of Central Library; to build a constituency for future philanthropic support of Central Library.” In order to do this a “two-prong campaign” was to be enacted: major donor solicitation and general public appeal. The campaign definitely needed the expertise of the two reference librarians–Judy Ostrander’s knowledge of businesses and directory resources, and Sheila Nash’s knowledge of arts resources, both books and people. According to Judy, “Sheila Nash really knew the entertainment industry and the arts community; theatre, music, visual artists. She knew specific individuals who would be asked to participate.”
The following campaigns and strategies were developed and implemented:
- Tom Yerxa, a staff artist, helped create a logo; press kits; bookmarks and bumper stickers; brochures; and slide/video presentations.
- A speakers’ bureau of twelve librarians trained by ARCO, and armed with professionally designed packets of information and slide presentations, were sent out to speak to the public.
- A Save the Books gift shop was created with the first one in the lobby of the ARCO tower, and later another in the temporary library facility on Spring Street. Kiosks, built by the ARCO staff, were placed in other parts of downtown. A color catalog of items was published.
- December 1986, J. W. Robinson Department Store on 7th St. and Grand had all of its ground floor display windows decorated with “Save the Books” displays. Mrs. Tarlton and Mrs. Nash, mothers respectively of Judy Ostrander and Sheila Nash, helped with the displays.
- There was a telethon, a radiothon, and a walkathon.
- By way of the Los Angeles Times, columnist Jack Smith helped to promote an essay contest, sponsored by KABC Talkradio and PAN AM which had an astounding response.
- Loderick Cook and Mayor Tom Bradley helped form a Save the Books Blue Ribbon Committee.
- A joint United Kingdom/Los Angeles Gala pushed funding over the top, with an appearance by Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson.
- A holiday card was created. It was an elegant simple line drawing the silhouette of the proposed building. A donation form was included in with the card, and money was sent from all over the country and the world.
- A Collection Endowment Fund (for contributions of $25,000 or more) was established with benefactors’ names on bookplates, many of which can still be found in books at Central Library.
- A Library Foundation was established to support Central Library collections after Save the Books concluded.
What was lost at the great library in Alexandria, Egypt is gone. What was lost at the Central Library, for the most part, has been replaced, due to the diligence and dedication of numerous library staff who worked on the documentation and organization of destroyed and damaged books; the initial and immediate response of people who came out in the hundreds to help sort, label and box books; and to the rapid response of a large private foundation that became the very model of a good neighbor to a large public institution.
The Los Angeles Fire Department stopped the fire. Carlton Norris and Lodwrick Cook quickly stepped forward. These two leaders helped initiate a professional and well-organized campaign to raise money that would be directly aimed at the purchase of lost materials; books, journals, newspapers. Through their professional planning, they revived community interest in a major public library and its unique collection. Carlton Norris stated, “ARCO can easily give the library a check for 10 million dollars, but we want the people of this city to be part of this great endeavor”. Save the Books came about in a time of great need. What felt like an ending on that ordinary day, April 29, 1986, turned into a community’s renewed interest in a major informational and educational treasured resource, which continues to this day. The people of Los Angeles were awakened. Strategies and procedures were in place for what would follow, but that is a story for another time.
Please join us the weekend of October 13 - 14 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Central Library's reopening!
An extended version of this piece appears in the book, Feels Like Home: Reflections on Central Library.