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Did you know that the Los Angeles Central Library suffered a devastating fire in 1986?  Me neither! I learned all about the largest library fire in the United States and so much more about the history and workings of a large city library from Susan Orlean’s book, The Library Book.

(You may remember when I read a different book titled The Library Book.  This time I got the one I was originally looking for!)

An article in LA Magazine about the book and the author states, “Orlean’s rare talent is her ability to make her curiosity contagious, to replenish in readers their capacity to wonder about stuff that they’ve never heard of before or that they always walked past but never really saw.” 

That’s perfect because I love to wonder about stuff too!

The Library Book by Susan Orlean is displayed with red cover facing out on a shelf full of library books.
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The Library Book at the library with other library books. Haha!

What is The Library Book About?

The Library Book is a combination of true crime investigation, personal memoir, and history. It tells the true story of that devastating day in 1986 when the Los Angeles Central Library was engulfed in flames but it does so much more than that.

  • If you’ve ever wondered about a day in the life of the library director of a large city library system, you can read about it here. 
  • If you’re curious about how libraries grew through American history, you can read about it here.
  • Have librarians always been primarily women? Read this book to find out. 
  • If you want to read about the devastation of a large fire in a library, this book is for you.
  • If you wonder how they rehabilitate and recover fire and water damaged books, this book can give you some ideas.
  • Did they ever figure out how the fire started? You’ll know that too after you read this book.
  • If you are interested in a little history of downtown Los Angeles, take a peek.

An Interview with the Author, Susan Orlean

This segment of PBS NewsHour does an excellent job of introducing all the subjects covered in The Library Book and digging in to why Orlean wrote it.

“A library is an intricate machine, a contraption of whirring gears.”

-Susan Orlean, The Library Book


The Fire That Burned the LA Central Library

The Library Book tells of the massive fire that burned the Los Angeles Central Library on April 29, 1986. Investigators suspected arson and their chief suspect was actor Harry Peak. Peak was arrested but never formally charged.

Was it arson or was it old faulty wires? We may never know how the fire started.

Employees Remember the Day of the Library Fire

Los Angeles Firefighters Remember Fighting the Library Fire

Why Burn Books?

It’s not clear why the fire was started at the Los Angeles library but the damage was done.  Despite the best efforts of fire-fighters and book restoration experts afterward, over 400,000 books were lost including irreplaceable hard copy periodicals, patent drawings, historic maps, fine art prints, photographic negatives, and newspaper archives. 

Sadly, libraries worldwide are often a target of destruction, now and throughout history. They are burned because of the ideas they hold inside.  Wars especially are “great slayers of books.”  History, art, culture, and ideas in opposition to the views of the enemy must be destroyed.  It causes great mental distress to the people to have their libraries destroyed, the repository of their beliefs erased.

“People have been burning libraries for nearly as long as they have been building libraries.”

-Susan Orlean, The Library Book

In an attempt to minimize the losses caused by war, in 1954 an international treaty called The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was adopted and signed by 127 countries.  Unfortunately, the destruction of cultural resources continues throughout the world even today despite this resolution. 

Library Fires Throughout History

This is just a small handful of the many, many times libraries have been willfully (or accidentally – but usually willfully) destroyed over the years. You can go to Wikipedia to see a full list of destroyed libraries.

  • Library of Alexandria in Ancient Egypt
  • Nalanda University Complex in India, 1193
  • Monastic Libraries in England, 1530s
  • Library of Congress in Washington, DC, 1814
  • University of Alabama, 1865
  • Library of the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, burned by the Germans in WWI and WWII
  • National Library of Cambodia, 1976
  • Norwich Library in England, 1994
  • Several Iraqi libraries, 2003
  • National Museum of Brazil, 2018

It just hurts my heart to think of all those pieces of history lost.

Sometimes Heroes Can Save Some of the Books

Instead of waiting for the government to help, sometimes people take matters into their own hands. For example, the librarian of Basra was able to save 30,000 books during the invasion of Iraq (and subsequent burning of the library) in 2003.

librarian of basra saved many books from burning
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Alia Muhammed Baker, known as The Librarian of Basra, saved many books from the Iraq National Library before it was burned in the war in 2003.

History and Architecture of the Los Angeles Library

Susan Orlean writes not only about the historic fire, but also the history of the Los Angeles library system. As a library lover, I enjoyed peeking behind the desk of the library to see how it runs and how libraries have evolved through the years.

Epic Architecture

In 1923 Los Angeles passed a bond to raise money to build a library fit for a large city.  The architect chosen for the job was Bertram Goodhue.  His extensive world travels influenced his design.  When it came time to design the Los Angeles Central Library he planned for it to be an immersive experience where the design – the form, art, ornamental surfaces, even the lawn –  was part of the function.  He brought together a team to plan the building and all the elements.  Goodhue wanted to people coming to the library to “feel like they were part of a three-dimensional meditation on the power of human intellect and the potency of story-telling.”

A close-up showing the detail on the pyramid roof of the Los Angeles Central Library designed by Bertram Goodhue.
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A close-up showing the detail on the pyramid roof of the Los Angeles Central Library designed by Bertram Goodhue.
[Photo by Ellen Forsyth on Flikr]

Peek Inside the LA Central Library

Want to see some of that epic architecture? I love that people post videos so that we can visit a place virtually too. (Feel free to watch on mute if the background noise is distracting.)

Susan Orlean Is an Author Dedicated to Curiosity and Research

As I was reading this in-depth book I began to wonder how long it must have taken for Ms. Orlean to do all the research for this book.  She interviews and shadows multiple people throughout the book.  She presents extensive history about various events in the history of the library and its many directors through the years.  My question is answered at the very end, in the resources section of the book. 

Susan Orlean writes, “The story of the Los Angeles Public Library and the 1986 fire required years of research and scores of interviews with current and past library staff, deep dives into the Fire Department’s archives and the City of Los Angeles’s court records, and a lot of digging through the musty boxes of material stashed in the library’s Rare Books room.  There I found a trove of information, including newspaper clippings about the library from the twenties, book lists from the thirties, paraphernalia from every decade, and countless, fascinating odds and ends left behind by the hundreds of librarians who passed through Central Library at some point in their careers.”

Wow!  I’ve done what I felt were a couple deep dives in the past year.  Specifically my research about the Packhorse Librarians (and the three related articles I wrote after that) and Grandma Gatewood.  But Susan Orlean has got me beat by a long shot! 

All I can say is thanks.  Thanks for taking the time to spend years digging through old musty boxes and following the story then sharing it in a book for all of us to enjoy.

“The history of the library is fascinating, and reminding people that libraries are kind of cool and interesting is exciting,”

-Susan Orlean

The Pressures of Writing Engaging Non-Fiction in the Age of Google

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, she talks about being a story-teller and the pressures of writing non-fiction, especially in this age of Google.  Anybody can easily look it up.  The challenge for the writer then is to be “elevating the narrative so it tells us something about ourselves or the world, making it something worth noticing.”

This very idea is a challenge facing me in my writing here.  I wonder about things and then write about them.  Many times, these are subjects that have been written about before.  Why is my story different?  What would make someone consider my take on the subject?  I don’t have the answer to that but I am enjoying the process and since I believe that we are all unique I will just take comfort in knowing that my perspective comes from my own life experience and might be valuable to someone someday.  In the meantime, the experience of wondering and writing is valuable to me and that’ll have to be enough.

A Podcast Interview with Susan Orlean about How She Wrote The Library Book

I enjoyed this short podcast episode where Susan breaks down how she went about writing a description of the fire. So interesting to get a peak into her process!

Personal Connections to The Library Book

Water and Smoke Damage Everywhere!

I can relate to the parts of the story that talked about the fire and water damaged books.  At the Los Angeles Central Library today you can still see the smoke and water stains in books that were rehabilitated and placed back on the shelf.  If you inhale deeply, you can still smell the smoke deep in the bindings of those books. 

When I was in the Navy, there was a fire in my office one day.  It was a weekend with only a skeleton crew of duty officers on board when it happened.  It was discovered quickly and put out right away.  Unfortunately, our computers were damaged by the saltwater used to fight the fire.  And the smoky air infiltrated every square inch of the office.  Over a year later when I was getting ready to leave the ship for a new duty station, I found folders and papers in the backs of drawers that had smoke stains on them.  Even in the way back bottom of the drawer, the smoke found a way.

disburing officer holds money outside open safe onboard uss coronado AGF-11
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Good news – the fire did not burn any of the money!

Digging in Dark Storage Rooms

I can also relate to how it must have felt to go digging through the boxes in the archives.  When I first started at DFAS-Oakland, one of my jobs was to reconcile lost checks – government checks that had been issued but never cashed.  To find out information such as who the check was written to and what line of appropriation to credit (how’s that for government accounting terminology?!), I had to dig around in an old dusty file room filled with giant printer paper binders and boxes.

bound computer printout from 1978 on continuous form paper
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Imagine searching through piles and piles of these for the information you need…
From wikipedia… a bound computer printout from 1978
ArnoldReinhold [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Using “Ancient” Equipment

Early in the book, Ms. Orlean mentions the old book-binding machine she sees at the library.  It is no longer used but was once a big part of keeping the books in good repair, ready for more readers.  How interesting it must have been to get a glimpse of the past that way. 

I too have had a glimpse of the past, compliments of a once-common machine that is no longer used.  If you went to school prior to the early 80s you will remember the blue paper copies made by the mimeograph machine.  Freshly copied papers were cool and slightly damp with a distinct scent.  Fast forward to 2010… at the school where I currently teach, one of my jobs was to make copies on the mimeograph machine!!!  There I was, out in the shed, counting the pages as the barrel cranked around to make sure I had the right number of copies. 

We finally quit using the machine a couple of years ago when we couldn’t find a repairman or replacement parts anymore.

Sharing the Love for Libraries

Libraries are the cornerstones of society.  They are a combination of museum and community center.  A library holds history and culture in the written word, the dreams and imagination of authors and readers alike, and is the hub of the community even in this digital age.  This quote from the other Library Book sums it up nicely…

Alma Mater by Caitlin Moran, The Library Book
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“A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft, and a festival.” – Caitlin Moran, “Alma Mater”, The Library Book

Read The Library Book

This article you’re reading right now barely scratches the surface of all the amazing library greatness contained in The Library Book. You should get a copy of the book and read it for yourself!

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Want to know more?

Check out these articles.  They make good additional background information about the book.  They can tide you over while you wait in line for your turn at the library (I was #206 in the holds line when I first joined the queue!) or you can enjoy the extra insight after you’ve read the book.  If you’ve never been to the Los Angeles Central Library, it’s worth a look just to see pictures of the library.  I’m totally adding the library to my list of places I’d like to visit!

An excerpt from the book in The New Yorker (this is where I first discovered the book!)

LA Times article – an interview with the author and pictures of the library, including some from the fire

LA Magazine article – another interview with the author and more pictures

Book read

Orlean, Susan. The Library Book. Simon & Schuster, 2018.

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Library Book by Susan Orlean book cover with text below, True Story of the Largest Library Fire in America
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Share the love for libraries and the true story behind the fire.

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  1. “Libraries are the cornerstones of society. They are a combination of museum and community center. ” OMG this is so true!

    I didn’t know about this horrible fire, thank you for sharing the story.

    1. I couldn’t believe it either when I learned of the fire. How did I not know this?!? It’s such a nightmare to even imagine all those irreplaceable items lost in the fire. 🙁

  2. There was a massive library fire, many years ago, in Norwich (UK), I could see the smoke from my house two miles away. When they set up a temporary library and we took the library books back we’d borrowed, the librarians were genuinely so pleased, as it meant we’d saved some books from being destroyed. Books are precious x

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