Reading: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The Library Book
Author: Susan Orlean
Type: Non-Fiction
Date Finished: January 23, 2019
Rating: ★★★★

On April 29, 1986 the main branch of the Los Angeles City Library suffered a huge fire that destroyed or damaged tens of thousands of book. The fire may have been arson and suspicion fell on Harry Omer Peak, want-to-be actor, whose story constantly changed. This excellent book threads the fire and its aftermath, the investigation of the enigmatic Harry Peak with a history of the Los Angeles library system in particular and the place of libraries in the modern age.

The challenge to save the books from the fire was enormous:

“Approximately 700,000 books – 75,000 cubic feet of material – were wet or smoky or, in many cases, both. Up until the library, the largest book drying project involved just 100,000 books.” [p 263]

They citizens and companies in Los Angeles pitched in to help the restoration and repairing the library.

The most extravagant character in the library’s history was Charles Lummis who, when he accepted a staff position with the Los Angeles Times in 1885, walked to Los Angeles  from his Ohio home. After living in Los Angeles for a few years, Lummis became the city Librarian. He was a great example of the influential man of the Gilded Age. “He lived on bullheadedness, self-involvement, and a daredevil’s willful obliviousness.”[p 150]

For all of his eccentricities,

“he was passionate about the job, and much of what he did for the library made it the institution it is today.”  [p 145]

“He made it more substantial, more accessible, more celebrated.” [p 152]

My favorite story about Lummis was his approach to questionable books. Rather than banning the books,

“He established what he called the ‘Literary Pure Food Act to warn readers about them… He also created warning cards to insert in the questionable books. He wanted the cards to say, ‘This book is of the worst class that we can possibly keep in the library. We are sorry that you have not any better sense than to read it,…”[p 145]

In 1979 I graduated from the University of Oregon with a Master’s Degree in Library Science. This was at the very dawn of computers and automation in the library. Due to my love affair with computer systems, I ended up in another career – Information Technology – and came to regard libraries as quaint and old-fashioned. This book completely changed my thinking. Libraries today “do more and more while still being places of books.” [p 294] Libraries are one of the salad bowls of society bringing people of different walks of life together. As such, “being a librarian is an opportunity to be a social activist championing frees speech and immigrant rights and homelessness concerns while working with the Dewey decimal system.” [p 110] John Szabo, the current Los Angeles city Librarian remarked:

“‘The most beautiful thing about public libraries is that they’re open and free to everyone.’ … ‘With that promise, there are unquestionably tough challenges that our library and public libraries across the nation face every day. Of course they’re not unique to libraries – they’re big, complicated community-wide issues. And we’re actually making a difference with programs serving the homeless and addressing health disparities.'” [p 244]

Time and again Orlean tells stories of passionate, committed librarians who reach out to provide information and services to everyone. For example:

“The [teen] librarians in the department view themselves as a hybrid of unofficial advice-givers, part-time disciplinarians, and homework coaches. They act in loco parentis for many kids who get scant parenting at home.” [p 206]

After finishing the book, I immediately went to my local branch of the Washington County Cooperative Library Service to renew my library card. I also checked out a book or two e-books. This fascinating and engaging book was a quick read; I heartily recommend it. And, if you don’t have a library card to your local library, get one.

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