Andrea Nelson, Library Assistant, recommends The Library Book by Susan Orlean.
Ahh, Los Angeles in the eighties! Such a study in contrasts. At once glittering, decaying, innovative, desperate, brilliant and dark. Shining stars, black holes, and all manner of people. In the twentieth century, dreamers from every corner of the planet flocked to L.A. By the mid-eighties, the City of Angels was both a cultural mecca and its own stylized cliché, but at its heart stood one true thing, steadfast and dependable: a wonderful public library. The Los Angeles Central Public Library was not just any library, mind you. It supplied the entire sprawling metropolis with books. Its complicated transportation network ensured that a steady stream of knowledge and literacy would flow in and out of the many satellite libraries that popped up to enrich its ever-expanding suburbs and boroughs.
Once considered an architectural masterpiece, time had not been kind to the Central Library. It needed costly renovation, expansion and safety upgrades. As always, such things were expensive, and the City Council had many budgetary demands. The fabled landmark that boasted some of the largest and most important collections in the Western United States began to decay. One day in 1986, a charismatic storyteller and aspiring actor with a memorable mop of bright blonde hair may– or may not– have visited the library. On that day, a fire started.
Over the next seven days, firefighters battled the worst library fire in American history. Once the flames took hold in the stacks, the fire quickly grew. Unchecked, it tore through the old shelves, staircases, and airducts. Pages glowed, curled and crumbled, reducing irreplaceable collections to ash. Sticky, black smoke decimated print stock. At one point, the temperature inside the library reached two thousand degrees, blowing out windows, melting book covers, and snapping spines. Some charred pages survived, floating down to the streets below, into the hands of crying patrons and traumatized librarians. Ironically, the very swords that killed the beast—the firefighter’s hoses—caused the most damage to the library’s precious contents. In the end, more than a million books, maps, transcripts, films, and other unique items were lost. Many artifacts were one of a kind—many books long out of print. On that terrible day, countless stories were forever erased from recorded history.
Although the fire of 1986 remains an important page in Los Angeles history, the tragedy never made headlines, because a more pressing event dominated the news cycles that week. A nuclear meltdown at a major Russian plant in Chernobyl threatened to send a deadly cloud of radiation across Eastern Europe, becoming the humanitarian disaster of the decade.
In 2018, brilliant researcher and award-winning journalist Susan Orlean finally gave the library fire it’s proper place in history. The Library Book tells the captivating story of the Los Angeles Central Public Library through time, illuminating it’s fascinating origin and quirky, colorful staff through the ages. In true Orlean style, the fire is only the splash at the center of many rippling rings, from the bizarre statements of the sole arson suspect, Harry Peak, to the mesmerizing behavior of the fire, to the complex and multifaceted character of the city itself.
Orlean has a gift for turning years of painstaking research into a riveting read. Of her many books, The Library Book is her Opus. Chances are, if you’ve read this blog to the end, you share my love of libraries. This one’s for you.