The Central Branch at the Los Angeles Public Library caught fire on April 29, 1986. Before it was extinguished seven hours later, 400,000 books were completely destroyed and 700,000 more significantly damaged. The city was devastated to lose these and other treasures the historic library contained. And pressure mounted to discover what or who caused the fire. The fire department investigation led to a handsome, young actor-wanna-be with an unfortunate habit of lying named Harry Peake. But was Peake responsible?
Susan Orlean turns the horrific fire and its frustrating investigation into a tribute to the library, and by extension, to libraries everywhere. First, she reminisces fondly about childhood visits to a public library with her mother and her wonder at all the things she could explore and borrow for free. From there, she explores the Los Angeles library system in particular. She covers its history, the colorful individuals who ran it, and the people who continue to run it today.
If you currently work in a public library, her information will reassure you that your situation is not unique and that your service is valuable. Working in a public library is, by turns, aggravating and enchanting. Anyone wishing to help others can find unlimited opportunities to do so, but the work can be heartbreaking and frustrating.
Orlean, a former writer at the New Yorker, is a fabulous wordsmith. The book is a joy to read. She does capture what is great about these public institutions. Near the end of the book, she states, “All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here I am, please tell me your story; here is my story, please listen.” By the end of the book, my chest felt tight with emotion. She had managed to capture what I find so spectacular about libraries, and she reassured me they will always be needed.
The mystery of whether or not Harry Peake set the fire was never settled. If he was even at the library that day, he was just one of many individuals the library serves. The building was already a fire hazard before the first spark was lit. This book would be an excellent read for anyone who loves libraries. But I also think it should be required reading for anyone who makes decisions for them. Most people are unaware of the breadth of work and good they do for the communities they serve. This book will help anyone who reads it understand.