I just finished reading Susan Orlean's The Library Book (Simon & Schuster, 2018), which follows the story of the 1986 fire at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles, the largest library fire ever in the United States. Was it arson or not? More than one million books were damaged or lost. Interestingly, not many people heard about this fire as it was happening or afterward because the fire started on the same day as the news broke about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The book is about more than the story of that fire, however. The book expands to include the story of libraries. Libraries! What they mean, or have meant to us, personally. What they mean to society.
Orlean wrote of often going as a young girl with her mother to the library in her Cleveland suburb and the deep childhood memories those visits instilled in her. Her memories reminded me of all the times in grade school when I rode my bike along with my best friend who lived next door to our neighborhood library and then returned with bike baskets full of books, which we'd read on the grass under shade trees. Orlean wrote next of a long span as an adult during which she never went to libraries, forgetting the joy and magic they held, until her young son wanted to interview a librarian for a school project. When she entered the LA Central Library with her son, all her childhood library memories came back and the library "spell" was again cast on her. I remember spending years as a young mother going only to the library's children's room with my sons and coming home with stacks of their books. Then one day I let myself walk out of the children's room and pick a book of my choosing. Like Orlean, I was again hooked. There's probably not been a time since then when I haven't had at least one library book checked out.
What was most fascinating to me in Orlean's book is finding out the nearly unbelievable scope of action librarians practice. They do more than order and keep track of books. They do more than books. Librarians are our historians, our social workers, our public health spokespeople, our childhood educators, our teen counselors, our _________ —fill in the blank and librarians are probably busy doing it. The role of the library has increasingly expanded to take a frontline position to care for people in its community.
In the book's conclusion, Orlean underscores that libraries—through the work of librarians and all those who help fund and source the libraries—hold our stories. Think of that "our" in the biggest possible way. All of our stories. Orlean writes:
"The library is a whispering post. You don't need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage—the writer's belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that all these stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past and to what is still to come."
[Photo: taken in the Cadillac Center Station of the Detroit People Mover]