Book review: ‘The Library Book’ by Susan Orlean


The Los Angeles Central Library was and is the epicenter of a vast array of branch libraries in Los Angeles. In April 1986, the “epicenter” was substantially damaged by a fire.

“In total four hundred thousand books were destroyed in the fire. An additional seven hundred thousand were badly damaged by either smoke or water, or in many cases, both … It was the greatest loss to any public library in the United States.”

It was not only the number of books lost, but what they were — many irreplaceable historical documents.

Central Library was a significant architectural building. Completed in 1926 and designed by New York architect Bertram Goodhue, the building had a large base broken up by ascending terraces, “making a cubist assemblage of crisp angled shapes with entrances on four sides.” There were ornamental windows throughout. Statues of ancient scholars and literary inscriptions were included, as was a well-designed garden. The project had been sold in part based on the claim that if Los Angeles wanted to be recognized as a major city, it had to have a library symbolic of that.

The smoke alarm was first thought to be false; no fire, or even smoke, could be found. But the second unit to arrive saw smoke. Patrons and staff, about 400 people, did leave the building when the initial alarm went off. There was a light trail of smoke coming from the east end of the building. With all the paper fuel of a library, the fire and smoke continued to grow into a fire that took over seven hours to control, and hot spots lasted five days after. At the time, Central was the hub of nearly 70 branches delivering thousands of books five days a week. Not only the books, but also the organizational structure had been destroyed.

When a logical physical cause of the fire couldn’t be determined, arson was assumed. It wouldn’t take much more than a match and intent to set a library on fire. Through a series of circumstances, a young man by the name of Harry Peak became a suspect. Harry, an aspiring actor, always liked to be the center of attention. He had begun telling his friends stories of his experiences around the fire. He was the age of the typical arsonist, and he admitted being there. Also, he fit the description given by some of the people who were in the library. After considerable investigation, however, evidence remained circumstantial.

The first task was to salvage what was salvageable. The librarians and many volunteers undertook that task as soon as they could get in the remaining building. Because of its construction, most of the structure remained, although with extensive smoke and water damage to the interior and collection. Immediately civic leaders began efforts to deal with the enormous fiscal loss. A “save the books” campaign was undertaken and garnered broad support. What to do about Central itself took years; many thought it should simply be replaced in another location, the most economical route. In the end, civic leadership saved and expanded the historically significant Central.

A key part of ‘The Library Book” is what is discussed in addition to the Central Library story. How do you define a library? Why are libraries important? What is the future of libraries? Susan Orlean explains why she was motivated to write the book and ruminates about “being a part of a larger story.” “In Senegal the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned.”

♦ ♦ ♦

I just finished the book, “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese. It was reviewed in the “County Line” in the Oct. 17, 2019 issue, by Toni Landis. If you haven’t read it, you should. The review is available here:

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