Like many of Eisenhower’s patrons, Susan Orlean’s early reading years were inspired by her local public library. Visiting the Bertram Woods Branch of the Shaker Heights Public Library in Ohio with her mother was a mainstay of her childhood. Of course she, again like a lot of patrons, drifted away from the library during her adolescence, not to return until she had her own child. Together they became regular visitors to the Central Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library where her childhood infatuation rekindled itself.
It was there that she first heard about the fire.
In 1986, the staff at the Central Library had become complacent to the threat of fire. False alarms had become common and the list of code violations directed at the overstuffed library continued to grow. So on April 29th, when the fire alarm rang out again, no one was too concerned. Library staff corralled up patrons and everyone made their way out of the building. Fire department personnel responding to the alarm weren’t too worried either. This wasn’t their first trip to the library and they’d never had a real emergency to deal with. But the sighting of a waft of smoke rising above the building was the first indication of a problem that would eventually become the largest library fire in U.S. history. Over one million books were lost or damaged.
In The Library Book, Susan Orlean uses the disaster of the Central Library fire to tell a number of stories: the history of the Los Angeles Public Library and it’s series of idiosyncratic directors; her own history with books and libraries, the struggle to resurrect and expand the Central Branch; an inside look at the operations and social services of today’s library, and the search for the eccentric young man who may (or may not) have set the fire.
Although the Eisenhower Library is modest in comparison to the Los Angeles Public Library and its 73 branches, Susan Orlean’s look at the L.A. Central Library feels remarkable familiar. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to work at Eisenhower, passages in The Library Book will tell you everything you need to know. And if there’s a lesson to take from the book it’s this: you don’t have to be a child, or have one, to benefit from visiting the library. There’s a lot here for everyone.