|The Library Book
The fire that gutted the Los Angeles library in 1986 was shocking to staff, patrons and the community at large. This was a library that housed research collections, the largest record of patents in the U.S., a history of the entertainment industry in L.A., a huge collection of maps, as well as popular reading and children’s material. The L.A. library was very well used at the time, creating a hub of humanity in an otherwise impersonal downtown L.A. To have a building, or rather an institution like this destroyed by fire was devastating for many.
But how did the fire start? Susan Orlean delves into the investigation, the witnesses, and the prime suspect to an arson, Harry Peak. Orlean is clearly fascinated by the idea that someone could burn down a library, and she has extensively researched Harry Peak’s background. Harry is an enigma, a man who changes his story at every turn, and who is somewhat down on his luck. He’s a good-looking wannabe actor like so many others. But how does this translate into becoming an arsonist?
Chapters on the fire and subsequent investigation are interspersed with a history of the L.A. Library, including its eclectic list of City Librarians. These include Charles Lummis, a man who walked from Ohio to California and whose favourite accessories included a sombrero and moccasins, and women like Tessa Kelso and Mary Jones who abolished membership fees and began to make the library accessible for children. Readers learn about the lives of many of the librarians as well, as Orlean asks what drew them to libraries in the first place.
Maybe it’s because I’m a librarian, but I loved this book. (Actually, my son’s basketball coach recommended it, so I think it appeals to many.) It’s not just a dry history of a particular library. Rather, it’s a celebration of the institution we call the library. It details its evolution from book depository to community gathering place. It revels in the library’s role in education, democracy and equality. And it underscores the idea that rather than become obsolete, libraries have matured, and continue to meet their communities’ ever-changing needs. If you love the library for any reason, I highly recommend this book!