It’s not terribly novel to argue that libraries, far from being fading relics of the print age, are more important than ever as free, welcoming community and information centers. There’s a tweet that has circulated for a few years (apologies for not attributing it) that essentially states that, were libraries invented today, they would be labeled a communist plot. And it’s true, as Susan Orleans writes in The Library Book: “The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity. It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace. The commitment to inclusion is so powerful that many decisions about the library hinge on whether or not a particular choice would cause a subset of the public to feel uninvited.” The radical nature of libraries can go unnoticed because libraries are so interwoven into civic life, as Orleans book documents.
The Library Book tracks the history of libraries in America by focusing on Los Angeles’ Central Library, specifically by investigating the still-unsolved 1986 arson that destroyed much of the building and its books. (Although, fair warning–the publisher’s blurb and many summaries suggest that the book is mostly about the fire, but I would describe it more as a framing device, with the Los Angeles Public Library and its history as the primary topic of the book. Bibliophile-true-crime this is not.) The book does its best work when it balances the lofty philosophical mission of public libraries with the realities of running such a space. For example, Central Library’s decline into disrepair coincides with the Watts riots and Manson murders and the sense that libraries do not hold all the answers and the world is instead “juddering and inexplicable, beyond the reach of what we could ever know or understand.” Modern libraries are of course beset by the logistics of serving people who are homeless. As Orleans writes, “The library’s commitment to being open to all is an overwhelming challenge. For many people, the library may be the only place they have to be in close quarters with disturbed or profoundly dirty people, and that can be uncomfortable. But a library can’t be the institution we hope for it to be unless it is open to everyone.”
While I was drawn in by the promise of an arson investigation at a library, that element of the book ultimately interested me the least. Rather, it was Orleans’ writing about librarians and others who work at the library that has stuck with me. These are people who are passionate about the role of libraries, even though their pay and prestige are low and “their jobs include handling difficult and sometimes violent people nearly every day.” They are frequently idiosyncratic, usually entertaining, and always thoughtful, at least in what Orleans includes.
As her writing about libraries and the people in them is the strongest element of this book, I’ll leave you with my favorite quotation: “A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage–the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that these stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past and to what is still to come.”