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Mystery Of A Massive Library Fire Remains Unsolved After More Than 30 Years

Smoke engulfs the Los Angeles Public Library on April 29, 1986. Susan Orlean tells the story of the fire in <em>The Library Book.</em>
Ben Martin
The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Smoke engulfs the Los Angeles Public Library on April 29, 1986. Susan Orlean tells the story of the fire in The Library Book.

Susan Orlean's new book is like exploring the stacks of a library, where something unexpected and interesting can be discovered on every page. The Library Book tells the story of the 1986 fire that damaged or destroyed more than one million books in Los Angeles' Central Library.

"The fire burned for seven hours," Orlean says. "It reached temperatures of 2,500 degrees. ... A lot of firefighters who I interviewed said it was by far the most challenging, frightening fire that they've ever confronted in their careers."

Orlean uses the loss and lore of that fire to tell the living, everyday story of a great civic institution that is becoming, in a digital age, perhaps even more vital. She says the fire reminded her of the proverb that when a person dies, it's as if a library has burned to the ground.

"A host of memories and stories and anecdotes that we store in our minds disappears when someone dies," she says. "It struck me as being a wonderful way of seeing why libraries feel like these big, collective brains — because they have the memories and stories of a whole culture inside them."

In addition to destroying and damaging books, the fire also claimed irreplaceable artifacts. The library was home to manuals for every make and model of car starting with the Ford Model T, Orlean says, and to puppets from a long-gone puppet theater. People see libraries as repositories for "the flotsam and jetsam of thinking and storytelling," she says.

The fire led to a seven-year closure of the Central Library which was devastating for the employees. "Many of them suffered terrible anxiety and depression over the idea that they were no longer serving their patrons," Orlean says. "The city hired a psychologist to meet with the librarians because they really were traumatized."

They were grieving not only the physical loss, but years and years of work. Librarians carefully curate the materials in their departments, Orlean says: "They build the collections from their own interests and knowledge. ... Many of them are books that can't be found anymore. So for these librarians it was absolutely devastating to see the books destroyed."

Investigators began to suspect arson, and focused their attention on a young man named Harry Peak. Tall and blond, he aspired to be an actor — stage fright aside — and, as Orlean says, "He really captured that desire and that questing for being noticed."

Peak gave no fewer than seven alibis for where he was the day of the fire. "He had an almost compulsive need to spin yarns," Orlean says. "Everything in his life became a story ... He had to somehow project himself into the middle of this dramatic event. ... He had many, many different versions of his whereabouts that day."

Peak was arrested but not indicted. "Many people in the city and many, many firefighters were absolutely convinced that he had started the fire," Orlean says, but nothing has ever been proven.

The Library Book isn't intended to solve the crime, but rather — to explore its story. Orlean isn't certain that this decades-old mystery will ever be resolved.

Monika Evstatieva and Viet Le produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.