On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, “Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?
In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.
Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present—from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as “The Human Encyclopedia” who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.
What is The Library Book about?
Susan Orlean investigates the burning of the Los Angeles library in the 1980’s alongside experiencing the modern Los Angeles Public Library. Time is spent inspecting the evidence against the man accused of arson, stories are unspun about the founding of the library and how it ended up where it was in 1986. There’s a little bit of intrigue–after all, the case technically remains unsolved–as well as speculation about what it means to be a library, and what it will mean in the future. There’s a little bit of the history of libraries in general, and a little bit of personal narrative about Orlean’s relationship with libraries in her own life.
Going into this, I somehow had it in my mind this was some kind of thriller novel but no. It’s a journalistic account of the burning of the Los Angeles library, with additional investigation into its modern existence and libraries as a whole. Susan Orlean immersed herself in the world of library sciences as well, going to conferences and meeting with many different employees at all levels within the library system.
This book is a beautifully written ode to libraries. What starts out as a seeming investigation quickly blossoms into a history of how one of the largest libraries in the country grew, including brief forays into general library history. Susan Orlean states early on in the book that she had a childhood love of libraries that she hopes to pass onto her son, and that love leaps from the page in every chapter. I also really enjoyed the use of title cards at the beginning of each chapter to convey what the content would be like. Orlean also does her due diligence in investigating Harry Peak’s alleged role in the arson case around the library, as well as following up on several employees from that time and explaining the new social programs going on in the library today.
The chapters are ordered in a way that I don’t completely understand. I was along for the ride, so I never really sat there questioning why we cut off from a discussion of Harry Peak’s background and started reading about a modern branch of the Los Angeles library system. But there are some strange leaps like that throughout, as Orlean meanders through a muddle of history and modernity.
I don’t really have any firm criticisms of this book, I really enjoyed it!
I really liked this book. It got me early on when Orlean lists out just a few of the notable works that were lost in the fire. The emotion that’s used to describe the burning of the library really sets the tone for the whole book. Though this is largely a journalistic investigation into the history of the library, as well as looking into Harry Peak and figuring out if he really committed arson, there’s so much emotion packed in. Orlean reflects on her childhood love of libraries, and shares that love with the reader. She uses care and consideration to discuss how the library has grown and moved on from its humble origins and become a massively important system that provides many needed services to the public. I was not expecting Orlean to spend so much time reflecting on how libraries exist in the modern world, but I was pleasantly surprised by the addition. It’s easy to think of libraries as exclusively book related but in reality, libraries are havens for the public. If you have a love of libraries, this book should stir those feelings and help you appreciate them even more.