August Book Review: The Library Book

Aug 13, 2019

Whether you visit the library weekly, with toddlers in tow for story time, or you haven’t set foot in a library in who knows how long, Susan Orlean’s The Library Book will captivate and enthrall you. Set against the backdrop of the devastating Los Angeles Central Library fire in 1986, Orlean’s non-fiction narrative explores all kinds of things from the essential role of libraries in today’s world to the cultural history of Los Angeles.  Summit County Library’s Youth Services Librarian, Kirsten Nilsson has this month’s book review.

Fire alarms blared at the Los Angeles Central Library on the morning of April 29, 1986. Accustomed to false alarms, patrons and employees shuffled out and waited impatiently on the sidewalk. But this time, they weren’t going back inside. Instead, they stood in stunned silence to witness what would become the largest library fire in American history. It raged for seven and a half hours, with temperatures reaching 2000 degrees, consuming 400,000 books. Leaving almost twice that many more books water-soaked and badly damaged. In the end, the fire involved 60 firefighter companies, 350 firefighters--that’s more than half the fire department resources for the entire city of Los Angeles. As you may well imagine, fire, water, smoke and library books are a devastating combination.

Like a library itself, Orlean’s book allows readers to meander and muse over just about everything. It’s a riveting mashup of Southern California history, architectural trends in Los Angeles, the meticulous art of book restoration, the forensic science of arson investigation, and a peculiar blond-haired (and, well, frankly, suspicious) so-called actor named Harry Peak--who seems to show up in all the wrong places at all the wrong times. Or does he?

The Library Book is also a splendid tribute to libraries and the work of librarians past, present and future. As the Youth Services librarian for the Summit County Libraries, I know for myself that the severe finger-shushing, hair in a bun librarian no longer exists. Orlean dives deep into the evolution of libraries—from the first “members only” elitist libraries of the 19th century to today’s libraries as essential community gathering spaces offering story times, maker spaces, e-books, computer access, and 3-D printers as well as coffee shops, GED completion programs, free legal services and English language classes. Orlean confirms that libraries today grapple with contemporary issues like homelessness, drug addiction, mental illness and immigration head-on and with an eye to the future. Today’s libraries are bustling, busy, and open to everyone. And, they’re definitely not as quiet as they used to be.

Of course, you can find The Library Book at both the Park City Library and the Summit County Libraries in every possible format--book, audio-book, e-book, e-audio, even as a book group kit.

Part true-crime, part historical analysis, part personal memoir, Susan Orlean’s The Library Book illuminates the Los Angeles Central Library fire and so much more. It is a love letter to libraries. I loved it. You should definitely check it out.