Sunday, March 03, 2019

"The Library Book" by Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean's very enjoyable work, The Library Book is full of amusing and insightful library tales. Rather than write a review of this book -- which has been very popular and the subject of many reviews since its publication last October -- I wanted to share a few of the thoughts that I found most interesting.

One of the themes that Orlean expresses throughout the book is the role of libraries as a public, collective site of memory: "Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory."  (p. 94). She writes:
"All the wonders and failures, all the champions and villains, all the legends and ideas and revelations of a culture last forever in its books. Destroying those books is a way of saying that the culture itself no longer exists; its history has disappeared; the continuity between its past and its future is ruptured. Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived. (pp. 102-103).
Libraries have recently evolved, she points out, into much more than a place to store books for public use, and much more than research centers. Although many of the functions of storage and research have been replaced by the internet, libraries are just as important as ever, she demonstrates. Members of the under-thirty generation are discovering many things to like about this not-at-all obsolete institution including this: "libraries are society’s original coworking spaces and have the distinct advantage of being free." (p. 289).

Charles Lummis from the California LIbrary
Hall of Fame (link).
Orlean's book intersperses a number of histories and stories about libraries, especially about the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) and about a devastating fire that nearly destroyed it in 1986. She includes a number of sketches of the librarians, especially the women, who worked to create the LAPL, beginning in the late 19th century.

I was most impressed by a particular policy of Charles Lummis (1859-1928), a very colorful character who served as director of the LAPL from 1905 to 1910. Among his many creative and flamboyant actions:
"He felt personally responsible for the intellectual health of the library’s patrons. The popularity of pseudoscience books, which he considered 'not worth the match to burn them up,' worried him. Instead of removing the books from the collection, he established what he called the 'Literary Pure Food Act' to warn readers about them. He hired a blacksmith to make a branding iron in the shape of a skull and crossbones— the poison warning symbol— and used it to brand the frontispiece of the offending books. He also created warning cards to insert in the questionable books. He wanted the cards to say, 'This book is of the worst class that we can possibly keep in the library. We are sorry that you have not any better sense than to read it,' but he was persuaded to use a more restrained tone. The cards, shaped like bookmarks, said, 'For Later and More Scientific Treatment of This Subject, Consult ______,' followed by a blank space for librarians to list better books on the topic."  (p. 145).
For a much more thorough treatment of The Library Book, see the Washington Post review, which summarizes the book thus:
"Orlean, a longtime New Yorker writer, has been captivating us with human stories for decades, and her latest book is a wide-ranging, deeply personal and terrifically engaging investigation of humanity’s bulwark against oblivion: the library."


Jeanie said...

That's interesting, the part about evolving into research centers. I guess it makes sense but I'd not thought of it before.

Charlie Louie said...

I haven't read this book but am inspired to go out and buy a copy. I remember libraries I frequented growing up as being such a central part of every community xx

Debra Eliotseats said...

I think this sounds intriguing. I have a friend that would LOVE this book. Filing it as a gift idea.

Tina said...

This has been out a while but I’m just learning about it through your blog. Libraries have indeed evolved as I can do research, as you mentioned, use a computer if I need to, check out music and DVDs.

Thanks, as always, for your nice comment. I sure love that bird mug!