Staff Book Review: The Library Book
By Susan Orlean

Editor’s note: The Library Book has double the appeal of a typical staff book review. Lauren Webster, Mobile Services, and Sue Hess, Middlefield Branch, wrote inspired reviews of Susan Orlean’s page-turner. Their praise for the book is well founded. It was also given high accolades by The New York Times, Booklist, The Washington Post and others. In fact, it is GCPL’s featured ebook selection in “Lines & Links – Lite” as we kick off Library Lover’s Month, February 2019.

Staff book review by Sue Hess

The title of the book doesn’t really give the potential reader much of an idea of what they will be learning, really, but I was hooked after reading the first few pages. I discovered more about the history of libraries as I read the stories of many interesting characters doing unexpected things all due to their passion for books and the desire to share them with as many readers as possible. 

The author was raised in Shaker Heights, OH and fondly remembers visiting the local library with her mother on a regular basis. She readily admits to not frequenting the library after she went off to college and later on as young mother and wife. It wasn’t until she was living in Los Angeles and her son wanted to interview a librarian for a school project that she set foot in a library again. Together she and her son visited LAPL (Los Angeles Public Library), and they were reminded of the wonderment she felt each time she visited her neighborhood library as a child. Orlean never shares how her son’s interview went but it seems that her return to the library that day started her journey that brought about her book. 

Orlean begins by telling of the Los Angeles Library fire that took place in 1986. The fire was disastrous and consumed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. It took seven years for the library to return home to its original building. The investigation into who may have started the fire continued for years and to this day is still a mystery.  

The LAPL is featured throughout the book as she takes the reader back in history to the first libraries and the heroic people who ran them. Present day librarians and managers were interviewed and the stories they share are heartwarming and passionate and sometimes comical. Orlean spent time at a reference desk, attended library conferences and shared the number of services provided by libraries and the people behind the desks, the workshops, the phones, and in the stacks. 

Public libraries outnumber McDonald’s and they outnumber retail bookstores two to one. Even though some may see libraries as old-fashioned, they are growing more popular with people under thirty. They are finding out that libraries are society’s original coworking spaces and have the distinct advantage of being free. I must quote the author when she states, “Humankind persists in having the desire to create public places where books and ideas are shared.’  In 1949, UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) published a Public Library Manifesto to establish the importance of libraries on the United Nations agenda. The manifesto states, “The library is a prerequisite to let citizens make use of the right to information and freedom of speech. Free access to information is necessary in a democratic society, for open debate and creation of public opinions.”

I truly enjoyed reading this book and have purchased a few copies of the book for friends. 

Staff book review by Lauren Webster

Susan Orlean’s The Library Book is a true telling of the 1986 Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) Central Library fire. The extensive fire burned over seven hours and reached temperatures over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  By the time the flames were extinguished, nearly one million books were either damaged or destroyed.  Orlean vividly captured not only the fire and subsequent arson investigation, but also the impact felt by the Los Angeles community and library employees. Scattered throughout the narrative, Orlean also provided insight into the history of the LAPL, the fascinating characters who left their marks on the institution, and the evolution of American libraries over the last century.    

I always enjoy a good true crime story, but this book spoke to me in a way that a typical true crime story never could.  Libraries are so much more than books and buildings.  Libraries are places that capture the spirit of their communities, the memories, and hopes of those communities and provide assistance and opportunity to all those who pass through their doors.   As a library worker, I could identify with the anguish and loss felt by the LAPL patrons and staff as they watched the water from fire hoses destroy what the flames did not, and I was inspired to read how the LAPL and its community pulled together to salvage and rebuild from what was left. 

As I read the book, I thought of a question often asked about libraries:  Why do we still need libraries? Orlean eloquently described the ever-changing role of the public library and the immense impact that libraries have on their communities. The next time I hear someone question the need for libraries, I will be sure to hand them a copy of this book.    

Recommended for:  True crime readers, History buffs, Library lovers 

The Library Book is available in several formats.