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The Library Book

Editor’s note: celebrating the freedom to read with The Library Book on Banned Books Week 2022. Held September 18 – 24, this year’s theme is “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.” Read more about the initiative from the American Library Association, including the most frequently challended books of 2021.

We at Books We Read are committed to intellectual freedom. Browse all our related posts.

My love for libraries started early – seeing all those books in one place was always comforting for the avid reader in me. I used to play librarian as a child, arranging and classifying my own collection of books, and even those of my siblings, friends and cousins if they let me. To me, it felt good and right for books to be categorized and displayed. Heading to library school to study this profession was a natural fit in my career path.

So, when I first heard of The Library Book by Susan Orlean, I added it to my “to-read” list right away, before even knowing what it was really about. The title called out to me, and as a librarian, was frankly a no-brainer. Needless to say, I was thrilled to see the title while browsing the Carr Recreational Reading Collection bookshelves one day. Its bright red cover with gold embossed lettering was striking, inviting and intriguing.

As I eagerly began reading, I quickly realized it’s a tough book to classify. Contrary to what the title suggests, it’s not about one library book or even libraries in general. Essentially it tells the story of the fire that engulfed the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986, consuming 400,000 books and damaging an additional 700,000 volumes. The cause and possible arsonist were never determined, and although a suspect was named (a drifter-type named Harry Peak), he could not be positively linked to the fire. The resulting tale is a page-turner with elements of true crime, history, biography and local/regional interest that unfolds in fascinating detail through Orlean’s prose.

Through the process of deconstructing the fire and its possible causes, Orlean also goes back in time to the early days of libraries, especially in California when it was still a collection of wild frontier towns. She talks about the library profession in general and how women had to often muscle their way in, eventually working up to higher and higher level positions. She discusses the various roles librarians fill within the larger institution and community. She interviews librarians past and present to gain perspective on how the job keeps evolving. This is something I have experienced first-hand in my twenty-five years as a librarian. I have seen the internet swoop in and take over the card catalog, e-books replace physical books and databases wrangle humongous amounts of information.

I love that Orlean takes the time to speak with actual librarians. The only thing I would have wanted to see was some kind of mention about the various types of libraries. Her focus is mainly on public libraries, which to be fair, is the type of library at the heart of the story. But, there are many other types of libraries (just as there are many types of books). Law libraries, music libraries, archival libraries, corporate libraries and academic libraries, just to name a few. It made me think – when we read a book about our profession or a topic of interest/expertise, do we critique it a different way? What do you think? Drop me a line – I’d love to hear your opinion!

Other books about libraries and librarians, both fiction and non-fiction: