As a student in a graduate program of library science, I felt weirdly called to pick up this book. I’d heard a lot of chatter about it, so I downloaded the audiobook and started off on my adventure into the Los Angeles Central Library. There are two main strains of this book: the Central Library Fire of 1986 and the general history of the library leading up to and beyond that fire, including what was going on at the library in the current day. Orlean is not a librarian but looks at librarianship and what it means to be a library and a Los Angeles public library at that. Though this book meanders a bit and it can be hard to keep up with where you are in the history of the overlapping history, this book is ultimately a fascinating and mostly comprehensive look at how the Central Library came to be and why it was so devastating when it burst into flames.
This isn’t a true crime book. Yes, there is arson at the heart of this book, and Orlean looks at the man largely believed to be guilty for the fire, but she’s not trying to decide if he did it or not. Frankly, she can’t. It’s a really difficult situation, for a lot of reasons she gets into as she follows the fire and its aftermath, including the investigation and the legal proceedings that followed.
It’s also not entirely a history book. Yes, she explores the history of the Los Angeles Public Library and the men and women who have led it, but it’s more of a character study and a look at the politics of librarianship than a set-in-stone history book. These characters are really fascinating though, and as my coursework has highlighted the perception of librarians as female, the history of the LAPL’s eccentric male librarians (who often ousted women) was fascinating. However, I think I’m now of the thinking that, like with being a journalist, a librarian should never be more discussed than the work of the library. Don’t become the story.
This book also features forays into the 21st century as Orlean (and her son) explore the Central Library as new residents in town, learn its history and its beauty, and even volunteer at The Source, an event that brings together a lot of service providers (healthcare, veterans affairs, housing, SNAP, etc) into the library, which we all know often serves as a gathering place for people experiencing homelessness.
Overall, this was a great read. I didn’t fly through it like I sometimes do with books and I did often struggle to balance the two strains of narrative, but I learned a lot and I liked hearing the history of a library branch I’ve never visited.