The lights were off yesterday at the Randallstown public library -- one of the most popular in the county -- where stacks of books reeking of smoke from a fire Saturday were illuminated by sunlight streaming through holes in the roof.
Outside, yellow plastic tape barred entry to the building, the book return slot was covered with electrical tape and librarians turned away patrons trying to return books, assuring them they would not be fined.
Library Director James H. Fish said he was told by longtime library workers that Saturday's fire "is the worst disaster we've encountered in the system."
Darcy Hill, the library manager, said she was called at 6:05 a.m. Saturday with the news that a fire had broken out in the circulation room in the back of the building, at 8604 Liberty Road.
She and other library staff members spent the weekend shoveling debris and pumping out water to prevent undamaged books from becoming mildewed. "It is a terrible loss to the community," she said, adding, "We were darn lucky the fire did not spread" farther into the library stacks or injure anyone.
The library, built in 1967, holds a collection of 162,084 books with a monthly circulation of 55,128. Between 800 and 2,300 people visit the library daily, said Assistant Manager Judy Kaplan.
Saturday, as Cahill cleared out debris, library patrons left phone numbers under her windshield wipers offering help and donations to rebuild, she said.
The worst damage occurred in the circulation workroom, where the blaze began. Yesterday, computers melted by the flames were fused to desks. They were surrounded by mangled cables and reference books, the titles of which were no longer identifiable. New books that had been catalogued Friday, but not put on shelves, were a total loss.
A fire department spokesman said the cause of the fire is under investigation.
Ed Cook, facilities manager for the library system, estimated losses at more than $250,000 because of fire damage to the roof, heating and air-conditioning systems and computers. Water damaged books, shelves and carpeting.
Damage to books in the main room was minimal, but some of the books in the Russian language section were splattered with water and ash.
Library officials gave credit to firefighters for quickly throwing plastic tarpaulins on stacks to protect them from water. "I can't say enough about the firefighters," Fish said. "There were several hundred items that were affected, but not thousands."
Cahill urged Randallstown customers to return items to other branches and promised to be lenient on fines. Library officials said the library would not be open for at least a month. Patrons are asked to use the Pikesville branch at 1301 Reisterstown Road or the Reisterstown library at 21 Cockeys Mill Road.
County spokesman Alonza Williams said the county will find money to repair the damage in the capital or operating budgets.
Anyone wanting to contribute to the library can send donations to Baltimore County Public Library Foundation, 320 York Road, Towson 21204