That Time Los Angeles Lost Over 400,000 Books

In 1986 there was a fire that lost 400,000 books and damaged 750,000 more, and few people heard about it outside of the Library world and Los Angeles because it happened the same day as Chernobyl. Where the event would have been shocking for a country on any other day, it was relegated to a back page of the newspaper, an event of little note. The Library Book is more than just a look at this fire, it's an ode to where libraries started and what they've become in your communities. Where they started as fairly exclusive places for people with means to borrow books, libraries are now one of the only places that anyone can come and sit without being disturbed as long as they follow a few basic rules of decorum.

While the impetus of the book was hearing about the fire and investigating the cause, Orlean comes to no satisfactory conclusion about it. Where many blame it on the enigmatic Harry Peak, who alternately claims to have set the fire and to have been having lunch when the fire started, Orlean comes to the conclusion that there is no satisfactory conclusion to be made.

Where fire investigators at the time felt they had strong circumstantial evidence that Peak was to blame, modern fire science lays most of their claims to the side as unsupported. As a reader I was certainly led to believe that Peak did start the fire, but enough questions remain that it's hard to say with any certainty that he should bear the brunt of any punishment for the blaze.

Woven through this narrative on what started the fire, is an ode to books and the places that libraries hold in society. Orlean talks about the book containing a living soul1 and her youthful experience on library visits with her mother. Her words bring the emotion into the soul of the reader.

She also eloquently talks about what a library has become from it roots as a fairly exclusive club where you could borrow books. Today a library is a place for books, but it's also a place for the homeless to sit out of the rain and not be disturbed if they can follow a few rules of decorum. It's a place where you can get some computer skills, and free access to a computer for a time in your day. In my library, and many, it's a place where you can't cross the road to avoid some of the problems that society has today.

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. often, at the library, societies problems are magnified. Homelessness and drug use and mental illness are problems you see in every public place in Los Angeles. One difference is that if you see a mentally ill person on the street, you can cross to the other side. In a library, you share a smaller and more intimate space. The communal nature of a library is the very essence of the library, in the shared desks and shared books and shared restrooms.2.

While addressing the problems that libraries face, she also shows the hearts of the librarians and staff she encountered. From the newest librarian in the children's department to the person managing the deep catalogue of history to the head of security, every single person saw the problems and tried to help people with problems get access to the public space as often as possible.

She also sees a future for the library[^Which is in contrast to the conclusions you'd draw after reading [iGen](https://curtismchale.ca/2020/02/28/igen-why-are-they-acting-they-way-they-do) and the thoughts on books there], not only as a repository for books and knowledge that can't be found online[^289], but as a place of work for a generation that is less likely to have an office job. I know I find myself working in my local library regularly because it is free and the wifi is acceptable3.

Should You Read The Library Book?

All in all, The Library Book is a book worth your time. From the investigation of the fire for those that like some history, to the love of libraries reading and books, many will enjoy the story told by Susan Orlean. Her writing is deep and at some points profound in a way that will make you stop and think about the meaning of books in your life.

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  1. Page 56 ↩︎

  2. Page 244 ↩︎

  3. If only barely ↩︎