Reading The Library Book a year into the pandemic is a bittersweet experience, to say the least. Libraries aren’t at the top of what I most missed this past year—seeing friends and family in person has to take that spot—but losing the hustle and bustle of a fully functioning, stimulating, creative gathering place for book lovers is not far behind.
Susan Orlean’s remarkable ode to libraries is a potent reminder of what we’ve lost and what we hope to get back soon. While Covid restrictions vary by region, many library doors have been shut tight for more than a year. The wonderful staff in my county is doing what it can to keep things going—hosting Zoom sessions in place of in-person programs and allowing books to be borrowed through a pickup system—but it’s hardly the same. The teen writing group I led for many years, an effort by the Maryland Writers’ Association in partnership with the libraries to encourage creative writing, is limping along online, but much of the fun and peer feedback is gone. With kids in virtual school all day, the last thing they want is still another Zoom session at night.
Orlean’s book reminds us that libraries have long been far more than places to borrow books, beginning decades ago with story hours for children and job-hunting help for adults and expanding exponentially in the digital age to provide everything from computers for the disconnected, English conversation practice for immigrants, book discussion groups, author talks, and so much more, including a warm spot for the homeless in winter.
The Library Book, a huge success when it came out in 2018, has a genuine plot—telling the story of the fire that destroyed or damaged more than a million books at the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library on April 29, 1986. Until Orlean’s book, we didn’t hear that much about the fire here on the East Coast. As she notes, a near apocalypse at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor the same week drove the fire to the back pages of American newspapers. “The books burned,” she writes, “while most of us were waiting to see if we were about to witness the end of the world.”
Orlean recounts the day of the fire in a vivid moment-by-moment account, but that is just the start of the story. In fascinating detail, livened by interviews with staff and city officials, Orlean recounts the painstaking efforts to restore the books that could be saved, to provide services to the city in the interim, and to build a new central library a few blocks away.
Key to the effort were hundreds of volunteers who recognized what the library meant to the city. For weeks after the fire, volunteers drove downtown to help the staff pack up the water-soaked books before mold could set in. Experts advised freezing the books as an interim step, and fish processing plants and other commercial facilities opened their freezers to make space next to shrimp and vegetables, while corporations nearby pitched in with office space so the displaced library staff could keep working.
As word gradually spread, readers and writers throughout the country pitched in with financial help, often enclosing letters explaining what libraries have meant to their lives, usually with personal anecdotes. Who among us doesn’t have a library story to tell?
Orlean’s research and interviews with library staff provide plenty of new anecdotes, and I found it somewhat surprising to learn that even in the age of the internet, people still rely on the library to answer hundreds of questions every day, many routine and many far from it. The library staff often goes to great length to find answers. Consider these entries in the telephone log:
“Patron called. Wanted to know how to say ‘The necktie is in the bathtub’ in Swedish. He was writing a script.”
“Patron inquiring whether Perry Mason’s secretary Della Street is named after a street and/or whether there is a real street named Della Street.”
“Patron is an actor who has to impersonate Hungarian secret police. Wanted words pronounced. Found a Hungarian-speaking librarian who spoke to him.”
There are lots of detail about how a building and the books in it burn and how a damaged book (more were hurt by water than fire) can be nursed back to use. And then there’s the great mystery of whether the fire was an accident or the result of arson, and whether the man suspected was really guilty.
Along the way, Orlean explores the history of libraries in Los Angeles and elsewhere, the changes (some gradual, some sudden) in moving into the digital age and becoming community centers that reflect the heart and soul of their surroundings. Orlean sums it up nicely. “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.”