Friday, November 23, 2018

Check Out The Library Book

I saw no fewer than three major stories or reviews in just a few short days about a book that sounded like a welcome edition to anyone who collects books about books.  So I grabbed a copy of The Library Book by Susan Orlean (Simon & Schuster).

The book’s about a fire that devastated the Los Angeles Public Library, destroying 400,000 books and damaging another 700,000.  More than three decades since the arson-induced fire engulfed a treasure, the 1986 fire remains a mystery.  Orlean’s book serves as a tribute to librarians, libraries, and books, with her thorough, heartfelt exploration.

The Washington Post calls it a “dazzling love letter to a beloved institution.”  Indeed, her book is a welcome addition to anyone’s library.  Orlean, whose earlier book won an Academy Award as a movie, uses wit, insight and compassion to show us how beloved institutions like libraries provide us not just access to books, but a home to a neighborhood’s soul.

The book says this of itself:  “Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives, delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings to a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity, and brings each department of the library to vivid life.”

Just read this part of a paragraph that she wrote to describe her childhood moments spent at a suburban Cleveland library, Shaker Heights Public Library:  “Our visits to the library were never long enough for me.  The place was so beautiful.  I loved wandering around the bookshelves, scanning the spines until something happened to catch my eye.  Those visits were dreamy, frictionless interludes that promised I could leave richer than I arrived.”

I was around 19 when the LAPL fire occurred, but I don’t recall reading anything about it at the time – or since.  Orlean classifies this as “the biggest library fire in American history.”  Maybe her book will shed light on why the fire went virtually ignored by mass media.

The fire took over seven and a half hours to be extinguished, required the majority of LA’s firefighting personnel to battle it.  Amazingly, the building stayed hot for five days, with temperatures lingering close to 100 degrees.  Water damage, smoke damage, and burned debris threatened both fire fighters and the buildings integrity.  Fifth thousand boxes of books got packed up by volunteers seeking to salvage the remains.

In Orlean’s well-researched book, readers learn there are about 200 library fires every year in the United States, though many are minor and usually caused by accidents from overheated fans, short circuits, and lightning strikes.  But some are caused as the result of casual vandalism.  Ironically, the number of fires in libraries has increased since smoking was banned from them.

Even though libraries seem like the pillar or backbone of a community, you have to realize how vulnerable they are to suffering damage from weather, vandalism, arson, accident or theft.  They are not well guarded nor are libraries always given the latest equipment.  Some libraries are in disrepair or falling victim to an aging infrastructure.

Libraries, not so long ago “had become an essential feature of the American landscape, a civic junction, a station in ordinary life.   Everyone traveled through the library.”

Today, the library continues to be a stable environment for the world.  Olean estimates there are 320,000 public libraries servicing hundreds of millions of people each year, worldwide, from vending machine libraries in Beijing to Bangkok’s Library Train for Young People to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Here are some selected excerpts from the book:

Library Defined
It seems simple to define what a library is – namely, it is a storeroom of books.  But the more time I spent at Central, the more I realized that a library is an intricate machine, a contraption of whirring gears.  There were days when I came to the library and planted myself near the center of the main corridor and simply watched the whirl and throb of the place.  Sometimes people ambled by with no apparent destination.  Some people marched crisply, full of purpose.  Many were alone, some were in pairs; occasionally, they traveled in a gaggle.  People think that libraries are quiet, but they really aren’t.  they rumble with voices and footsteps and a whole orchestral range of book-related noises – the snap of covers clapping shut; the breathy whisk of pages fanning open; the distinctive thunk of one book being stacked on another; the grumble of book carts in the corridors.

Lost Libraries
You could fill a book with the list of lost libraries of the world, and in fact, there have been many books written about them, including one with the haunting title Libricide, written by a professor of library science.  Early in history, when there were fewer books, and printing copies was expensive and time-consuming, the loss of a library could be terminal.  UNESCO released studies in 1949 and in the 1996 listing all the libraries that have been demolished throughout modern history.  The number of books destroyed, by UNESCO’s count, is so enormous –in the billions---that I sometimes find it hard to believe there are any books left in the world.

World War II
The grinding destruction of the war crushed the libraries of Europe.  Some were merely unlucky and got caught in fire bombings and aerial attacks meant for more strategic targets.  But the German army singled out books for destruction. Special book-burning squads known as “Brenn-Kommandos” were sent out to burn libraries and synagogues.  The squads were effective.  Enumerating the losses of libraries in the war, both incidental and purposeful is dizzying.  Twenty major libraries containing two million books were destroyed in Italy.  France lost millions more, including 300,000 in Strasbourg, 42,000 in Beauvais, 23,000 in Chartres, and 110,000 in Douai.  The Library of the National Assembly in Paris burned down, taking with it countless historic arts and science books. In Metz, officials hid the library’s most valuable books in an unmarked warehouse for safekeeping.  A German soldier found the warehouse and threw an incendiary device into it.  Most of the books, including rare eleventh and thirteenth-century manuscripts, were destroyed.

Burning Books
Burning books is an inefficient way to conduct a war, since books and libraries have no military value, but it is a devastating act.  Destroying a library is a kind of terrorism.  People think of libraries as the safest and most open places in society.  Setting them on fire is like announcing that nothing, and nowhere, is safe.

The Depression
Libraries were a solace in the Depression.  They were warm and dry and useful and free; they provided a place for people to be together in a desolate time.  You could feel prosperous at the library.  There was so much there, such an abundance, when everything else felt scant and ravaged, and you could take any of it home with you for free.  Or you could just sit at a reading table and take it all in.

Every problem that society has, the library has, too, because the boundary between society and the library is porous; nothing good is kept out of the library, and nothing bad.  Often, at the library, society’s problems are magnified.  Homelessness and drug use and mental illness are problems you see in every public place in Los Angeles.  One difference is that if you see a mentally ill person on the street, you can cross to the other side.  In a library, you share a smaller and more intimate space. The communal nature of a library is the very essence of the library, in he shared desks and shared books and shared restrooms.

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.

Discovering Libraries
Libraries are old-fashioned, but they are growing more popular with people under thirty.  This younger generation uses libraries in greater numbers than older Americans do, and even though they grew up in a streaming, digital world, almost two thirds of them believe that there is important material in libraries that is not available on the Internet.  Unlike older generations, people under thirty are also less likely to have office jobs.  Consequently, they are always looking for pleasant places to work outside their homes.  Many end up in coffee shops and hotel lobbies or join the booming business of co-working spaces.  Some of them are also discovering that libraries are society’s original co-working spaces and have the distinct advantage of being free.


Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America and participated in a PR panel at the Sarah Lawrence College Writers Institute Conference.

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