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A fire in a library has all the makings of a real-life horror story, but Susan Orlean's book reminds us of why libraries are important to communities.
This book has been promoted as being about the fire that destroyed much of the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986 but it encompasses much more. Susan Orlean is preaching to the converted with me, but she fired me up again with her enthusiasm and affection for libraries which is so apparent throughout the book.
The actual story of how the LA Public Library began is equally as fascinating, and some of the early personalities who were in charge of the library really come to life from the page. The history also includes discussion of how the city as a whole grew, especially the influence of the movie industry, all of which adds to the narrative about the presence of the library.
The most enthralling parts of the book are her descriptions of the actual fire itself and her observations of the day to day business. I could hear the roar of the fire and feel the distress of the staff standing on the sidewalk watching. It is an intense passage that describes one of the worst disasters that can befall a library collection.
As someone who works day to day in a library, I found it quite intriguing to see what we do through the eyes of an observer. But these are elements which I think have a wide appeal to all users of libraries. As individuals we only know what we ask, it is interesting to see what we ask in all our collective diversity.
“The library’s commitment to being open to all is an overwhelming challenge…a library can’t be the institution we hope for it to be unless it is open to everyone…every problem society has, the library has, too, because the boundary between society and the library is porous.”
Her writing on how the library is trying to meet all the needs is sensitive and open, and sometimes funny, as she recounts little anecdotes. These cover some of the issues all libraries around the world deal with the best we can.
I admire the staff who work in the computer centre at LA Public and who now have their own security guard to assist them. But my favourite staff anecdote is from Russell, who has worked in the teen area for 17 years: “Well, my hero is Albert Schweitzer. He said ‘all true living takes place face to face’. I think about that a lot when I’m here.”
The mystery of how the fire started and the early suspect/bragger/liar extraordinaire of Harry Peak is also a key strand throughout. She invited readers to make up their own minds about what happened at her appearance in the Sydney Writers Festival this year even as she indicated that she had been hoping to solve the crime herself. It takes a few turns and twists throughout and keeps that analytical part of one’s mind ticking over as we take a variety of detours on the way.
The rabbit holes and unexpected detours are what make this book thoroughly enjoyable. You never really know what the next chapter is going to focus on even as you try and puzzle the book references (including the Dewey numbers!) she gives at the start. Overall an eclectic and fascinating read.
Reviewer: Philippa Stevens, Librarian, Information & Access
“This excellent book is an unashamed love letter to the public library system.” - The Guardian
“Her latest book is a wide-ranging, deeply personal and terrifically engaging investigation of humanity’s bulwark against oblivion: the library.” - The Washington Post
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Orlean has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992. She is the author of seven books, including Rin Tin Tin, Saturday Night and The Orchid Thief which was a Sunday Times bestseller and was made into the Academy award-winning film adaptation. She lives with her family and her animals in upstate New York and Los Angeles.