On Monday morning, April 28, 1986 a librarian at the Los Angeles Central Library noticed smoke coming from a distant section of the stacks, smoke from a fire that would take the entire Los Angeles Fire Department more than seven hours to bring under control.
The aftermath was catastrophic; more than 400,000 books were destroyed and another 700,000 suffered damage from smoke, water or both. In addition, tens of thousands of historical documents and artifacts, many of them irreplaceable, were lost.
Susan Orlean, a staff writer at “The New Yorker”, became aware of the fire only after she moved to Los Angeles in 2011 and visited the Central Library with her son for a school assignment where, as she writes, “the spell libraries once cast on me was renewed.”
The story of the fire piqued her interest, and as she researched its history she uncovered previously unpublished details, not only of the fire and the person many believed to have started it, but also of the history of the library and of many of the fascinating people, both past and present, who have made it what it is.
The result of this research is Orlean’s latest work, “The Library Book.” In it she intersperses a narrative of the fire, its progress and the attempts to bring it under control, with a portrait of the elusive Harry Peak, a would-be actor who was accused of setting the fire, but who was never brought to trial.
But Orlean moves beyond the Los Angeles fire to an examination of the history of public libraries in general, and to the role they play as non-judgmental central gathering places in many communities. She uses the Los Angeles library as an example of the changing roles and natures of libraries in a world where the nature of information, its dissemination and retrieval, are changing rapidly.
And in portraits of the staff, both past and present, of the Los Angeles Library, Orlean erases the stereotypic image of a librarian—that of a prim and dour spinster commanding silence with a single finger to her lips. The professionals who staff the library come alive as diverse and dedicated purveyors and promoters of information for the public good.
The well-told history of the Los Angeles fire and the search for its cause is enough to recommend “The Library Book” to a general audience. But on a deeper level it will appeal to readers who, like the author, feel the influence of books and reading as central to their personal and intellectual development.
Even for those whose experience with libraries did not begin at the author’s early age, the book will renew an appreciation of the importance of the library as a vital resource to the community and the people it serves.