This one should be a big ole duh! I’m a librarian. I love libraries. I love reading. I love finding information, making it easily accessible, and sharing it. I’ve spent only about 90 days of my working life as a librarian in a public library, but no matter.
My other interest was my resolve to read more books selected by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Book Club. This book was one of the Club’s picks.
I wondered how I did not know of the LA Public Library fire of 1986 until the author mentioned the name of a place in Ukraine–Chernobyl. The two events happened at the same time. So, I missed it when it happened as I was glued to the tv describing Chernobyl.[Ironically, that is about when I applied to library school as well.] As you may have worked out, the fire that destroyed the Central Library of the Los Angeles Public Library is the main subject of this book. The fire alternates chapters with profiles of the library’s directors, the history of the library, and tales of its special collections–restaurant menus, play programs from LA theater productions, and much more. The fire chapters include the story of the fire’s main suspect, Harry Peak, as well as a review of the science of arson investigation (and a lesson on the now-discredited theory of shaken baby syndrome [that I did not know had been discredited]).
This is a very well-told story. Orleans writing keeps the reader’s interest easily. The way she wove the pieces of the story together was imaginative and entertaining. This is the sort of book that hooks readers on nonfiction. I honestly found the discussion of arson investigation to be almost more interesting than the rest of this very interesting book–probably because I know a lot about libraries, library fire code violations, etc. And, having spent years in and out of the downtown Indianapolis Marion County Public Library’s main library, the homeless are not a shock to me.
My only complaint was her belief (by now probably too often corrected) that librarians are “well-paid” because she gaged this assumption on the salaries of the huge LA Public library system and its collective bargaining agreement. Few librarians enjoy the benefit of a union outside of the biggest public library systems or at some of the union-represented universities where librarians are accorded faculty status. Most public librarians do not even dream of this status. Too many public libraries are lucky to pay even a minimum salary to a degreed professional.
Sadly, like too many others, she brought in just about every library/librarian cliche out there–even granting the check-out clerk the title librarian. Just as everyone who works in a hospital isn’t a doctor, so too in the library everyone is not a librarian. Why is this hard for some people to grasp? It is not that a librarian won’t “stoop” to drudge jobs like the check-out desk (we do what has to be done) but that people equate this as the primary duty of a librarian. It gets very tiresome. So, too, do jokes about stupid cardigans or various hairstyles. There is a generation of librarians now who think it is chic to “look like a librarian” in cardigans, cats-eye glasses, and all the rest of it. Those of us who fought to ditch that image are not thrilled. Today’s librarians are more likely to study coding than cataloging, but no matter, Orleans heart was in the right place. She told the story beautifully.
A note on the audio version: It got VERY tedious reading out all of those call numbers. I understand that to leave them out would damn the audio version with an “abridged” label, but oh were they tedious.
The Library Book by Susan Orleans
You can read more about the Central Library building here.