(April 28, 1986 Los Angeles Central Library City Fire)
“Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance.
It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.” (93)
People can acquire many types of addictions. Mine, happens to be books and libraries and it is a very difficult “affliction” to accommodate. Despite the digital age, there are books everywhere. New, old, they seem to proliferate mercilessly, the temptation seems to rise each day. When I came across Susan Orlean’s new book, THE LIBRARY BOOK I knew that I once again had to confront my disease. In the end, Orlean has written a wonderful ode to libraries and books. Her subject revolves around the April 28, 1986 fire that destroyed about 500,000 volumes and damaged another 700,000 books, in addition to microfilm, special collections, and an unsettling amount of other materials at the Los Angeles Central Library. Her narrative is a combination of historical fact, and a deeply personal emotional experience as she describes her own childhood visiting libraries with her mother and doing the same with her son. Orleans provides a concise history of the Central Library and how the city of Los Angeles responded to the crisis the day of the fire, and how it tried to cope and rebuild from the loss. As Billie Connor, a children’s librarian described after she and others entered the building immediately after the LAFD put the fire out; “they felt like they died and gone to see if Dante knew what he was writing about.” (34)
For Orlean the motivating factor in writing THE LIBRARY BOOK was emotive as she realized she was losing her mother to dementia. Her mother who had imbued her with the love of libraries is recognized as Orlean composes her narrative to try and preserve her memories of her mother from when she was a child.
Orlean’s approach is rather eclectic and comprehensive at the same time. She provides wonderful character portraits which add to our understanding of the role that libraries play in our communities. One individual stands out, that of John Szabol, the head of the Central Library system of Los Angeles who early in his career acquired the nickname, “Conan the Librarian.” Szabol views libraries as serving many functions in addition to the dissemination of books. During disasters they serve as a community center to assist displaced people. Libraries are one of the few places where the homeless are welcomed and given access to computers, the internet, and if they want “dally” all day. Szabol dispatch of mobile bookmobiles to homeless areas are among the many programs to assist the public that went beyond the traditional library.
Character portraits abound in the book. Apart from Szabol is Orlean’s description of Charles Fletcher Lumis who became the head of the Central Library in 1905 because the library board fired his predecessor because she was a woman. Lumis’ life is an amazing story in of itself. Traveler, poet, historian, journalist his talents and life are a fascinating story. Despite his unusual approach to administration he was responsible for many library components that exist today, i.e.; the photography and autograph collections; the California and Spanish history collections; among his many innovations. Another library character that stands out is Glen Creason who began taking courses in library science in 1979 and is currently the longest serving librarian in the history of the Central Library. He has become the library’s institutional memory and his career has spanned surviving the 1986 fire, the AIDS epidemic in which thirteen librarians died, the reopening of the building, and the adjustment to the internet. Orlean’s approach is to discuss these somewhat obscure figures in a deeply personal manner and she gives them an enthusiasm and zest for what they have done and continue to do that is unimaginable.
(The library today)
Focusing on a different aspect of her study of libraries, Orlean presents a history of book burning that appears to be the norm, rather than the exception throughout the centuries. Orlean begins her discourse with a discussion of the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria, carrying forth through the 20th century as the Nazis committed libricide with their Feurspruches and Brenn Kommandos designed to snuff out all Jewish learning. It seems that Heinrich Heine was correct, “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.” Hitler was not the only practitioner of libricide; Mao, the Khmer Rouge, Saddam, and the Taliban who continue the practice to this day. Further, Orlean even tries to replicate burning books by trying to ignite her copy of FARENEIHT 451, a task that was difficult and painful.
Before the fire the library contained over 2 million volumes. Orleans’ initial focus is how so many volunteers and businesses responded to try and salvage the 700,000 damaged books. She describes amazing people and procedures to save them. From freeze drying the books, to packing them up and transporting them to freezers at the fish market, hotel kitchens, and other food warehouses in order to stop the spread of mold. The city’s response was incredible. Human chains of hundreds of people were formed as strangers worked together to save “knowledge.” The fire itself was deemed as suspicious from the outset, and in a short time it became clear it was arson. Since Harry Peake, an actor wanna be, fit the profile of an arsonist; white male between seventeen and twenty-five; in addition to being present at the library at the time of the fire he was immediately considered a suspect. A month later, when someone identified him from a composite photo it reaffirmed that suspicion.
Orlean does a wonderful job integrating American history and its impact on the Central Library’s own progression. There are numerous examples to support that conclusion. Some of the most interesting is how the library administration responded to the demographic growth of Los Angeles, particularly after World War II. New programs were added to meet the needs of the people, i.e.; microfilm and microfiche, teen departments and other innovations. The library also tried to meet the concerns of the government as Sputnik and returning veterans created concerns for the public that needed to be met. Finally, Orlean’s history reflects the sexism that was dominant in all libraries. For decades only, men were allowed top administrative positions. That began to change with the appointment of Mary Jones, Mary Foy, Harriet Wadleigh, and Althea Warren over the years.
By the last third of the book, Orlean began to alternate chapters dealing with the library’s history and the case against Harry Peake. The investigation of Peake’s actions at the time of the fire was drawn out over a long period as Harry was a fabulist who could not keep his story straight. With seven different iterations of where he was the morning of the fire, investigators had a difficult time creating other than a circumstantial case against him. The bizarre case resulted in Peake’s law suit against the city, and the city’s counter suit against Peake. The result was inconclusive and to this day one wonders how the fire came to be.
If there is a theme that emerges from reading Orlean’s work, it is how the Central Library has maintained its relevance throughout the last hundred years or so. The ability to reinvent itself to meet the needs of their community and constituency whether rich or poor, or even homeless is truly amazing. Reading Orlean is to travel and immerse oneself in the problems faced by libraries, and how miraculously in the case of the central Library it has overcome disaster and continues to flourish to this day.
Perhaps the most wonderful aspect of Orlean’s narrative is how she navigates the Central library and its branches and explain how they operate. Along the way she imparts numerous pearls of information to acquaint the reader of the wonderful world of libraries. Her observations are priceless as she states that a library is the perfect place to become invisible. It also has its own rhythms and sounds that are unique. The Los Angeles system is best described “as if the city has a bloodstream flowing through it, oxygenated by books.” Orlean has written a wonderful book that should satisfy the interests for all who frequent libraries and wonder how they evolved, and how they are constantly working to meet our needs.
(Fire damage from April 28, 1986)