Monday, July 15, 1996
Library books reek of arson, a sick mind

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Richard Pryor went up in smoke. Jack Benny's plastic hair melted. John Belushi did a slow burn. Jimmy Durante's spine was charred. Sam Kinison lost an ear and had his beret singed.

This is just a partial list of the injuries suffered by 269 books in a smoky blaze at the downtown library.

The fire was set.

And the sick mind that did it is still at large.

On the day after the Fourth of July, the firebug picked a curious way to celebrate America's independence. He held a book burning in a public place crawling with little kids.

For the scene of his crime, he chose an out-of-the-way place in the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County. He went to the second-last row of bookshelves, far from the librarians' desk, in the art and music department.

The department's librarians know the spot all too well. It's where high school students sneak kisses.

On this day, romance was not in bloom. Arson was lurking in the stacks.

Going to work, the arsonist poured a flammable liquid on the carpet - just below five shelves of theater books and comics' biographies - and lit it.

In seconds, 269 books were damaged.

In minutes, the fire was out.

Steve Barlage, a library guard, heard the alarm while dining on a lunch of vending machine food. ''I forgot to bring my lunch from home. So I was eating something from a machine.''

Since he was not working on a full stomach of real food, the guard was able to race up a flight of steps, grab a fire extinguisher and put out the fire.

He claims he's no hero. ''I just did 'what I've been trained to do,'' he says while guarding a library exit.

Believe me, Steve Barlage is a hero. He saved the library. No lives were lost. No one was injured. Only 35 books were burned beyond repair.

Smell of sadness

Nothing smells quite like a burned book. The first thing your nose picks up is a sour, sickening scent. That comes from fire-blackened paper and charred cardboard mingling with the stench of vaporized ink and melted plastic-covered dust jackets.

The smelly books sit atop carts on the library's underground loading dock. They've been exiled there because they stink. They would contaminate the books that did not go up in flames.

Handle the books, and covers fall off. Pages crumble to the touch. Dust jackets turn to dust. An oily, black soot sticks to the fingers.

The soot washes off. But the smell remains. As the day wears on, the scent turns into the smell of sadness over a pleasure lost - browsing a shelf of books in peace.

Out of circulation

Eight of the 35 books burned beyond repair are out of print. They're not old books. Five were published in the 1990s. But they're unavailable nonetheless.

One senseless act took Broadway Stories, Will Rogers & Wiley Post, Inka Dinka Doo: The Life of Jimmy Durante, Chautauqua Summer, Jack Benny: The Radio & Television Work, Hard Act to Follow, The World Famous Harrity Family and a 1973 biography of Will Rogers out of circulation forever. No one will be able to pore over these books again.

''You can't buy them in a store or order them from a publisher,'' says Anna Horton, head of the art and music department.

''So, unless some generous soul has them on a shelf at home and wants to give them to us, they are gone for good.''

Gone, too, is the sense that the library is a secure place, a peaceful spot, a safe zone where you can study the wildest ideas and read about the craziest people and not get hurt.

The public library in this town is one of the best places in America to do that. It has the nation's highest per-person circulation figures. In 1995, a record-setting 12.2 million items were checked out from the 8.8 million items in the collection.

This year, circulation is up 3 percent. Through June 30, 117,580 more items had been borrowed than for the same period in 1995.

The numbers are up. But I'm feeling down. I can't help it. I get that way any time someone burns a book.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax to 768-8340.