THE LIBRARY BOOK by Susan Orlean would have been a great read when it was first published back in 2018, but possibly it’s an even better read today. This feel-good true story is about books and libraries—one in particular, the Los Angeles Central Library. It’s about a tragic fire and an unsolved mystery, but it’s also the story of Americans from all walks of life uniting around a common cause to restore something precious that was lost.
Susan Orlean was living in New York City when the Los Angeles Central Library caught fire on April, 29, 1986. Burning for 7 hours 38 minutes, it was the single biggest library fire in the history of the U.S., destroying or damaging more than one million books. When Ms. Orlean relocated to L.A. in 2011 and learned of the famous fire, she wondered how she could have missed such big news. She was and is a writer of magazine articles and books, and her specialty is long stories about interesting subjects. But on that day in April 1986 and the days that followed, the front page of The New York Times was dominated by news of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The library fire was reported the following day on page A14.
The Los Angeles Central Library opened its doors in 1926, back when downtown Los Angeles was still a mismatch of hills, orange groves, and some office buildings. The famous architect who designed the library, Bertram Goodhue, dropped dead of a heart attack before construction began, but his long-time associate finished the job. The new public library was a grand structure, a mix of modern and classic and ancient styles. Outside, people gazed at its tiled pyramid tower or wandered through its classical garden. Four concrete silos stored the majority of its books. Inside, a rotunda showcased a massive chandelier depicting earth and the solar system, and sculptures, inscriptions, and murals decorated rooms throughout. Not bad for a library that began in 1844 as a reading room inside a dance hall and had never before inhabited its own building.
Over the decades that followed, the Central Library became a major hub for residents of Los Angeles. When the stock market crashed in 1929, just three years after the library opened, book circulation increased 60 percent and the number of patrons almost doubled. During WWII, the library and its branches offered first-aid classes and sold war bonds. At the time, the head of Central Library took a four-month leave of absence to run the Victory Book Campaign, a nationwide drive that amassed six million+ books that were sent to troops, army reading rooms, military hospitals, and training camps. For many years, movie studios ‘borrowed’ books for research. Instead of checking them out, which would involve a due date, they’d sometimes dispatch two assistants, one who pitched the books out the window to the other one standing outside. Eventually the library got wise to this trick and regularly sent an employee to the studios to get the books back. New departments were added to address the public’s needs, such as a free Career Online High School, a Reference Dept. to answer all sorts of questions (six million annually), and a Teen Dept., separate from the Children’s Dept., that had its own books and hosted its own events and programs.
When the library fire in 1986 was finally extinguished, the residents of L.A. rallied. Insurance would cover the cost of the damage to the building, but it wouldn’t cover the books. Fourteen million dollars to replace the burned books plus the unknown cost of storing and repairing 700,000 others. The CEO of ARCO, the oil company across the street, stepped up to co-chair the “Save the Books” campaign and kicked it off with a $500,000 donation. He also offered space in his offices to the library’s administrative staff. His goal was to raise $10 million from Hollywood, and letters were sent to every studio head and movie producer. Outdoor ad companies donated billboards around the city to spread the word. Neighborhoods held “Save the Books” yard sales. School kids held bottle and aluminum can drives. Dr. Seuss donated $10,000. An essay contest “What the Library Means to Me” drew entries from 20,000 school kids and 2,000 adults. A live, 24-hour telethon that featured celebrities reading from their favorite books raised over $2 million.
On October 3, 1993, the library reopened, bigger and better equipped for a new century.
The Los Angeles Fire Department began investigating the cause of the fire as soon as it was extinguished. They suspected arson. A prime suspect soon emerged, and he’s another interesting part of the book. As Ms. Orlean points out, most arsons are done for money, but there’s no money to be made by burning libraries. “Libraries are usually burned because they contain ideas that someone finds problematic.” Woven into her book is a brief history of the burning of books. From a Chinese emperor in 213 B.C. who incinerated any history books he disagreed with, to the Nazis, who destroyed an estimated 100 million books, to Mao Tse-Tung, an assistant librarian in his youth and a book burner once in power, to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, to the Iraqis burning most of Kuwait’s libraries after the 1990 invasion, to the libraries burned during the Bosnian War, to the Taliban closing most of the libraries in Kabul and burning the books.
In the U.S. we don’t really talk about burning books, but some people are once again talking about banning books. Many books that were required reading for me in high school—and I grew up in a more conservative era. In response, I’ll point to this anecdote from The Library Book. One of the librarians at Central Library began her library career as a teenager in Mount Vernon, N.Y. (not far, as it happens, from where I grew up) She told Susan that the head librarian shelved “dangerous” books (i.e. sexual) in a locked metal cage in the basement. The girl figured out where the key was stored, and during her breaks she read these books—read them all by the time she graduated from high school.