Susan Orlean Shares Love Of Libraries In New Book

[photo courtesy Noah Fecks]
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The largest library fire in the history of the United States wasn’t the lead story in the media the next day.

Best-selling author Susan Orlean, who only learned of the 1986 Los Angeles County Public Library fire six years ago, wondered what could have pushed such a cataclysmic incident from the headlines.

“There was another world event unfolding the exact same day, which was the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in what was then the Soviet Union,” Orlean said.

Fascinated by this still-unsolved case in Los Angeles, Orlean researched what took place, which led to her latest work, “The Library Book” (Simon and Shuster).

“It was a devastating fire that burned for seven and a half hours. When it was finally put out, 400,000 books were totally destroyed and 700,000 were damaged either by smoke or the water used to put out the fire. The building was closed for seven years. The building suffered damage, but the real damage was to the contents, which was more than half of the contents of the library,” Orlean said.

As Orlean dug deeply into the events of the fire, she found herself thinking about what libraries mean to society in a larger sense.

“I was struck by how powerfully disturbing the idea of library burning is. It was more than hearing about a fire in a building, it felt like this horror. Something about libraries burning really hits deep for people. A lot of what I wanted to explore is, why do libraries mean so much? Why do we respond to the idea of a library burning with such emotion? Plus, what is the role of libraries, now and in the past? Why do we still care about them? Do we still care about them? What is it that makes them so important to who were are?” Orlean said.

 

Orlean, who grew up in Shaker Heights, has very fond memories of visiting the city’s Bertram Woods Branch library twice weekly as a child with her mother.

“I think what I loved was that you could leave with things you hadn’t paid for,” Orlean said with a laugh. “I loved that feeling that you would grab four or five or six books off the shelf and all you would have them do is have them stamped at the checkout counter and you would walk out the door with them. I was an avid reader. The library felt like this unlimited bounty. It was place where there all the books in the world and they were all waiting there for me. It was just dreamy.”

Orlean went through a period where she stopped borrowing books from the library and bought them from stores. However, when she had a child, she wanted him to have the same experience visiting the library as she did. Orlean was surprised at what she found.

“It’s amazing to me how libraries have adapted to the modern world. Instead of digging their heels in and resisting all of the changes in how we get information, the library has become a hub for all of that. The idea that you can rent movies or log in to borrow e-media, just fascinates me,” Orlean said.

Orlean has heard those who question whether libraries should be in the business of providing these kinds of services, but she feels libraries have always been about more than lending books.

“I think libraries have always existed as a place where information, stories and knowledge are shared in a community. We see there are more ways to share than simply books. It is a great resource for everyone to share in all of these different ways.”

In addition to being a repository of knowledge, Orlean feels libraries provide communities with another important function. “They’re the perfect place for a community to look upon as a town square. What could be better? They are usually in beautiful buildings. They are open to everyone and are full of interesting things. They offer a chance to be together as a community in a way that is only paralleled by public parks, in terms of their inclusiveness, access and there is no cost involved, so no one is kept out.”

Susan Orlean will discuss “The Library Book” in the Louis Stokes Wing Auditorium of the downtown Cleveland Public Library Saturday at 2 p.m.

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