Susan Orlean’s account of the Los Angeles Public Library’s tragic fire, the history and the rebuilding, and innovation and the future at my own local library.

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My Review:

In April 1986 a suspicious fire started at the Los Angeles Public Library and destroyed over 400,000 books and countless irreplaceable historical materials, among them a cherished collection of maps, sheet music, plays and first editions of rare books. Hundreds of thousands of books were damaged by smoke and water and the people of the city were distraught over the tragedy. A suspect, Harry Peak was charged with arson, but the legal team had little definitive evidence and over time the case fizzled.

In The Library Book, Award winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author, Susan Orlean takes us through this horrific event that shocks the city and changes many of the employees and volunteers forever.  Based on extensive research, she also provides information leading up to the development of the LA library and its collection and departments as well as its rebuilding after the fire in a compelling, storytelling fashion.  From how a portion of the collection was salvaged after water damage by freezing the books for 2 years in frozen lockers owned by local merchants to prevent the growth of mold spores, to the ongoing and arduous investigation of Harry Peak, to the help desk that answered every question imaginable before google existed, to the importance of the education and support programs developed for immigrants, the homeless and all the people of the city, Susan Orlean enlightens us with facts, anecdotes and eye opening information that makes up the unique history of the Los Angeles Public Library and all libraries worldwide.  I learned quite a bit and thoroughly enjoyed!

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The Westport Library

As someone who is involved in my own local library as a consultant, a volunteer and a patron, the shock and dismay of a terrible tragedy like what the LA people experienced is unthinkable.  We know that today, libraries do not just house books, but they provide so much more to their community.  My local library, The Westport Library is exceptional.  They opened to the community in 1908 – beginning with a donation from Morris K. Jesup, a wealthy banker, who was the president of the American Museum of Natural History in NYC and and one of the men who started that museum along with JP Morgan and Theodore Roosevelt Sr. and other prominent businessmen and philanthropists.  He founded organizations that helped provide care for wounded soldiers, taught immigrants skills and was one of the founders of the YMCA.  He supported Arctic expeditions, hospitals, museums and educational institutions, including contributions to Yale and Williams College.   He made his money in the railroad business and ultimately in banking and was the president of the New York Chamber of Commerce.  Morris Jesup was born in Westport and  donated the land and $5000 for the Westport Public Library to be built. It was completed and opened to the public four months after his death.

To keep up with changes and growing needs of the community, there have been several renovations… one in 1986 (the same year as the LA fire), and another in 1998.  In 2012 the Westport Library opened a makerspace and acquired 3D printers, and in 2014 they became the first library in the country to use robots to teach computer programming.  The Westport Library programs have included some amazing people, like Tom Brokaw, E.L. Doctorow, Martin Scorsese, Jon Meacham, Nile Rodgers, Lois Lowry, Sheila Nevins and Lynsey Addario.  James Naughton, Alan Alda, Alisyn Camerota, Justin Paul, Clive Davis and hundreds of other local, aspiring and accomplished authors, actors, and public figures have participated in the innovative and extensive programming.  At the library, of course you can check out books, music, dvds and reference material, but you can also do unusual or unexpected things, like a crossword puzzle with Will Shortz once a year (creator of The New York Times puzzle), learn about electronics, how to master your iPhone and online dating, play chess, knit, write, discuss books, and so much more.  The library hosted the first annual literary festival, Saugatuck StoryFest for the community this year and welcomed 100 authors and storytellers to participate.  (authors include Sheila Nevins, Andrew Gross, Peter Blauner, Heather Frimmer, Alisyn Camerota, Cristina Alger, Wendy Walker, Lynne Constantine, Kate Moretti, Riley Sager, Meredith Schorr, Fiona Davis, Marilyn Simon Rothstein, Lynda Cohen Loigman and Abby Fabiaschi)

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Right now, The Westport Library is finishing up a significant $20 million dollar Transformation Project, and is due to be open to the public summer 2019.  They look forward to sharing with the community an expanded indoor/outdoor café, many conference rooms, comfortable seating areas overlooking the Saugatuck River, a larger makerspace, a hackerspace, a recording studio and room for events that accommodate over 600 people…there will be something for everyone in what is to be an incredible community gathering space with endless resources and opportunities.

If you are even in this neck of the woods, please come visit!  It will be worth the trip.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

What can I tell you? I am the product of a happy and relatively uneventful childhood in Cleveland, Ohio (back when the Indians were still a lousy team, and before they became a really good team and then again became a somewhat lousy team, although I have hope again…) This was followed by a happy and relatively squandered college career at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (back when Ann Arbor hosted a Hash Bash every spring). I studied literature and history and always dreamed of being a writer, but had no idea of how you went about being a writer – or at least the kind of writer I wanted to be: someone who wrote long stories about interesting things, rather than news stories about short-lived events. There is no guidebook to becoming that kind of writer, so I assumed I’d end up doing something practical like going to law school, much as the thought of it made me cringe. After college, I moved to Portland, Oregon (back when Portland was cappucino-free) to kill some time before the inevitable trek to law school – and amazingly enough I lucked into a writing job at a tiny now-defunct monthly magazine. That led to a job at an alternative newsweekly in Portland where I wrote music reviews and feature pieces. While I was in Portland, Mt. St. Helens erupted; I started writing for Rolling Stone and the Village Voice; I learned to cross-country ski; I failed to learn how to cook.

I moved to Boston in 1982 (back before they built the Ted Williams Tunnel and long before the Red Sox reversed the curse). I wrote for the Boston Phoenix and the Boston Globe, and started work on my first book Saturday Night. Four years later I moved to New York. After moving to New York, I learned how to snowboard; wrote The Orchid Thief; became a staff writer at The New Yorker; got married; got a Welsh Springer Spaniel; learned how to order take-out food. These days I do some lecturing and some teaching, but most of the time I’m writing pieces for The New Yorker and occasionally for other magazines, and working on books. My latest project, a book about the Los Angeles Public Library and the arson fire there in 1986, will be published in October, 2018, by Simon and Schuster. Right now, I split my time between Los Angeles and the Hudson Valley of New York, with my husband, my son, and a small menagerie of animals.

 

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4 thoughts on “Susan Orlean’s account of the Los Angeles Public Library’s tragic fire, the history and the rebuilding, and innovation and the future at my own local library.

  1. Totally love this! F.

    On Sun, Dec 16, 2018 at 1:41 PM Book Nation by Jen wrote:

    > booknationbyjen posted: ” My Review: In April 1986 a suspicious fire > started at the Los Angeles Public Library and destroyed over 400,000 books > and countless irreplaceable historical materials, among them a cherished > collection of maps, sheet music, plays and first editions of ” >

  2. Sounds like a fascinating book. In Fairfield, (the town next to Westport) a mains water break occurred just after Thanksgiving this year, causing extensive damage. The library is still not open to patrons. It reminds me of how fragile books can be, and I’m grateful that they come in so many forms that they need never be lost – unless they’re priceless antiquities. I can still borrow eBooks and audiobooks, but it’s a shock when such an important part of the community proves to be vulnerable to the elements.

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