The Library Book, Susan Orlean. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.
Summary: Centered around the fire that destroyed much of the collection of the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986, chronicles the history of the library, and why libraries are such important parts of our communities.
I grew up going to the Reuben B. McMillan Library in Youngstown, Ohio, and later to the branch library near my home, losing myself in books. In the course of my life, I’ve lived in two cities with great library systems, Cleveland (where the author of this work grew up) and Columbus. I don’t allow political signs on my property–except for the library.
Susan B. Orlean’s book on the Los Angeles Public Library reads like a love letter to libraries. She describes her own childhood, going to the Bertram Woods Library in Shaker Heights, and the library near her Los Angeles home, followed by a tour of the Central Library where she learned about the fire of April 29, 1986. The fire began in the northeast stack of the fiction section and reached 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, so hot that the flames were pale blue in color. Over 400,000 books were lost, another 700,000 damaged. We learn about the laborious salvage operation that restored books soaked in water, books that would quickly have succumbed to mold and been rendered useless.
She describes what that day was like for library employees, who felt like they were witnessing a death. She describes the investigation of the fire, believed to be arson, and reveals how difficult in many cases arson is to prove, and how some of the assumptions investigators make can mislead them. The lead suspect is profiled, a sometime actor named Harry Peak, who told a different story of his whereabouts every time he was asked. Descriptions that fit him and the inconsistent stories led to his arrest as a suspect, but insufficient evidence existed to try, let alone convict him. It turns out Harry lied all the time. Conditions were such in the library that spontaneous combustion was a real possibility, and the stack designed created the ideal fire. Harry received a $35,000 settlement from the city for damage to his reputation that barely put a dent in medical expenses he incurred as he died of HIV/AIDS.
I found the Harry Peak part of the story the least engaging part of the book. He was a sad figure, especially compared to some of the early head librarians like Mary Foy, and Charles Lummis, a colorful journalist who succeeded her when it was decided that a woman couldn’t head up a library, even though she had capably done so. Actually, they both gave great leadership in developing the institution, its outreach to the community, and the growth of its collections.
Orlean traces the history of the building from its conception, the changes it underwent over the years and deteriorating condition prior to the fire, followed by its restoration and the modern addition to it afterwards. She takes us around to the different departments of the library and volunteered with The Source, a gathering of social agencies at the library allowing L.A. residents a one-stop way to connect with agencies that could address their particular set of needs.
This also served as an example of her description of the changing landscape of library services which range from homeless center to social services, to an adjunct to educational institutions, and a technology hub offering access to various forms and media of information, books and far more. Orlean summarized her conversation with Eva Mitnick, head of the Central Library:
Mitnick and I talked about the future of libraries. She is an idealist. She thinks libraries are adapting to the world as it is now, where knowledge streams around us as well as being captured in physical books. . . . Mitnick sees libraries as information and knowledge centers rather than simply as storehouses of material. She is one of a large cohort of library people who believe libraries will remain essential to their communities. By most measures, this optimistic cohort seems to be right. According to a 2010 study, almost three hundred million Americans used one of the country’s 17,078 public libraries and bookmobiles in the course of the year. In another study, over ninety percent of those surveyed said closing their local library would hurt their communities. Public libraries in the United States outnumber McDonald’s; they outnumber retail bookstores two to one. In many towns, the library is the only place you can browse through physical books.
Actually, Orlean has written far more than an account of a fire, or an account of an arson investigation, or a library history, or even a love letter to libraries. What she has done is articulate why libraries are vital cultural institutions worth preserving and supporting and patronizing, and the vital works librarians are engaged in as they both preserve and advance learning in service of the public good.