My passion for libraries, good writing, great storytelling and history all come together in Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book”. The Library Book tells the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, beginning in 1986, when the main branch burned to the ground, back to the establishment of the Los Angeles Public Library in 1844, then forward through the current day.
The book starts with the story of Harry Peak, who was briefly accused of having set the fire that caused the downtown and main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library to burn down, “destroying almost half a million books and damaging seven hundred thousand more. It was … the single biggest library fire in the history of the United States.” Harry’s story is interspersed throughout the book, as are the efforts to repair and preserve some of the damaged books.
More than anything, however, The Library Book is a great synopsis of the ever changing role of libraries, focusing on the history of libraries and of the Los Angeles library system and detailing operations, leadership changes, financial challenges and community needs. Susan Orlean’s descriptions of our needs for libraries, and the constructive and life changing impact of libraries, is beautifully articulated in a way I can feel but have not been able to express, acknowledging the library’s role as a mirror of our communities. “Every problem that society has, the library has too, because the boundary between society and the library is porous; nothing good is kept out of the library and nothing bad.” This truism is exactly the reason why libraries strive to expand programs to improve the lives of others while staying true to the mission of reading, lifelong learning and civic engagement.
Susan Orlean details the roles that libraries play in helping patrons learn computer skills, deal with challenges of homelessness, address needs of teens and children, assist with job and social service needs and provide meaningful access to books and other materials. The book describes the historic sexism and misogyny faced by women initially entering the profession, and the changing face of the librarian and the role of the librarian. “There is…a sense that being a librarian is an opportunity to be a social activist championing free speech and immigrant rights and homelessness concerns while working within the Dewey Decimal System.” She also notes libraries’ never ending need for financial resources.
Susan Orlean is spot on when she observes that “All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here is my story, please listen: here I am, please tell me your story.” This is exactly how I feel about libraries and if you read this book, which I truly hope you will, even in these dark times, maybe you will find cause for hope and renewal. And maybe you will pay your local library a visit. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.