I love libraries and I loved this book.
The event that ties it all together is the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Central Library, which didn’t destroy the building but caused an enormous loss through fire and water damage. Chapters scattered throughout the book tell the story of the day the alarm went off and the aftermath, from the viewpoints of staff, patrons, firefighters, and the guy who was accused of setting the fire.
Mostly, though, it’s the story of the library itself. Ocean tells the history of the library, in the context of the history of LA and the history of libraries, and the stories of the people involved in it, like the newspaperman who walked across the country to take the head librarian job. Part of the context is the history of women in the workplace: the colorful character who crossed the country on foot took that job from a professional librarian who had the misfortune of being female.
There’s so much in here. Architecture: the Goodhue building was designed to tell a story through the building design, murals, sculptures, and even lighting fixtures. Forensic science: some of the techniques used by arson investigators are not much more reliable than old wives’ tales. Social issues: libraries nationwide are havens for homeless people because libraries welcome everyone for free, so many libraries work with other agencies to help people sign up for needed services. The present and future of libraries: the 19th-century librarian who wanted to loan tennis racquets and board games, right up to present-day language and citizenship classes, computer labs, and maker spaces. The questions people still call the library with, some of which could easily be answered with Google – and then there’s the patron who wanted to know which is more evil, grasshoppers or crickets. The branch libraries and the shipping department that handles 32,000 books a day, 5 days a week.
Orleans starts by telling her own story, how she used to go to the library regularly with her mother, but stopped when she left home. Researching and writing this book rekindled her own love of libraries. “All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here I am, please tell me your story; here is my story, please listen.”
This is my first book by this author. After I finished it, I went to the library and checked out two more.