There is a lot to like about The Library Book. Author Susan Orlean chronicles the 1986 fire that devastated the Los Angeles Central Library, at the same time using it as a vehicle to explore the history of the library, the mission and future of libraries in general, and share her own poignant history and relationship with libraries.
The fire destroyed nearly half a million books and damaged another 700,000. Let that sink in a minute. Some of those books were irreplaceable. Part of history was wiped out in a fire that took 7 1/2 hours and 3 million gallons of water to extinguish. Books are awfully good fuel and some of the firefighters reported that the fire burned so hot that the flames were colorless. If you’re old enough to remember it and you don’t, it’s because it happened pretty much at the exact time Chernobyl was melting down. News cycles were understandably focused on the nuclear disaster.
Investigators ruled that it was arson. Tips eventually led them to a Peter Pan-like man-child named Harry Peak. Harry was prone to making up stories, like one in which he was good friends with Burt Reynolds or another in which he had drinks with Cher. Soon after the fire, he was telling friends stories ranging from he was at the fire and rescued by a handsome firefighter to he actually started the fire. Every story was different. When investigators questioned him, he told them at least 7 different versions of the story, which I have decided will be my strategy if I’m ever suspected of a crime. No one could sort through all of those lies and figure out what really happened. In the end, the District Attorney decided there wasn’t enough evidence to try Peak, so he was freed. To this day, investigators don’t know who or what caused the fire.
Recovering from the fire was, of course, a huge effort. The Central Library building was built during the 1920s. It had fallen into disrepair and through the years some called for its demolition. Now, however, the city decided to renovate it and add a wing, a multi-year project. They also had to solve the problem of the 700k water logged books. Immediately after the fire, local businesses offered their facilities to freeze all the books in order to prevent mold growth. When it was time to restore them, they used a complex process to thaw them and extract the water. I didn’t completely understand the process, but I’m pretty sure magic was involved. (Julia, my preservationist friend, I think you’d like this part!) A third thing that had to be dealt with was the toll this took on the librarians, many of whom were extremely traumatized by the damage done to something they cared so much about.
But as I alluded to in my introduction, there’s much more to this book than the story of the fire. The author also covers a lot of the history of the library, including profiles of previous head librarians, some of whom were quite colorful. The building also has an interesting story and its design was groundbreaking for the time. The author also discusses current trends and issues libraries are contending with, including carving their place in the internet world, attracting young patrons and dealing with homeless patrons. Libraries are continuously redesigning themselves in creative and interesting ways. Ms. Orlean even presents information about OverDrive, my favorite library app and the one that allows me to easily search for, check out and read so many books using nothing but my eyes. By the end of 2017, OverDrive had loaned out one billion books. Can you tell I like statistics? And OverDrive!
The Library Book is packed with statistics and facts, but also anecdotes that really humanize the people who work at and patronize libraries. Susan Orlean has done a ton of research and personal observation and packages it beautifully to create a book that is both a historical account and a tribute to libraries everywhere. Her writing style is beautiful and reminds me more of the style of fine literature authors than nonfiction writers. She made me cry a couple of times. While reading a book about libraries. Now that’s talent!
It goes without saying that I really enjoyed and admire this book. I give it an enthusiastic thumbs up!
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