SCOTT SIMON, host:
Most of the damage done at the Georgetown Public Library in Washington, D.C. can probably be repaired. The 72-year-old building was being renovated room by room when a worker apparently misused the heat gun that set off a fire that burned much of the roof and incinerated the second floor - the children's section with big bright bean bag chairs.
The two hydrants closer to the public library didn't work. Instead the investigation is trying to find out why, but in any case when firefighters could hook up their hoses, water drenched valuable old books, rare maps of civil war fortifications and copies of newspapers that reported the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The loss is not incalculable. It's estimated at about $20 million. This week I found myself trying to calculate another loss. I did a little work in the Georgetown Library last winter. It was dim, dingy and notably rundown. Half-full old bookshelves creaked and sagged. Most of the books looked old, worn and weary. But the place was warm and bright.
People looked as if they had no other place to go, sat with their backs against the radiators and napped in corners, while steam hissed in the quiet. I remember one man in the timeworn old black pinstripe suit with huge lapels - a silver tie was spotted, but carefully knotted. He snapped out the broad white sheets of the Wall Street Journal like some mogul unfolding a large menu in a French restaurant, drinking in the words through cracked reading glasses.
I found myself wondering. Was he a former ambassador, a retired headwaiter, the next CIA station chief or law professor who drank himself out of a job and marriage and had nowhere else to go to read and stay warm?
There was a woman with a raw, red face in matted gray hair, who sat with the green-plastered garbage sack of possessions in her lap and read a romance novel called "The Raven Prince."
There were dozen of others wearing frayed flopping shoes tightly wrapped in two large coats from a church basement or a Salvation Army bin, who were reading John Grisham, Scott Turow, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell.
Georgetown students have a fine school library. Many Georgetown children whom you can see skipping along the cobblestone streets in their private school blazers and plaids will be welcomed to the local bookstores. But for people, who've been battered around by life, the Georgetown Public Library has been a warm safe place in a cold world where they could refresh themselves in books.
Until a financially strapped city can raised $20 million to rebuild that library, where will they go? How will they find and afford something to read? To them, the loss is incalculable.
Unidentified Woman: Let me tell you. You've never seen anything like that library - so many books, so much marble, so quiet.
SIMON: This is NPR News.
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