Conventional wisdom tells us not to judge a book by its cover, but if you judge "The Library Book" by its title, you won't be far off. It is a book about a library, specifically the Central Library of Los Angeles. But don't let the simplicity of its subject matter fool you -- this nonfiction work is vast in scope, rich in detail and filled to the brim with compelling characters.
On April 29, 1986, a fire consumed the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles, destroying or damaging more than a million books in its path. A young man named Harry Peak was later arrested under suspicion of arson. It was a devastating chapter in the history of the library, and author Susan Orlean documents it well. While the fire, its aftermath and Harry Peak are central to "The Library Book," those who are seeking a chilling true crime read will be disappointed. I'd argue the category that it fits best is biography. True, the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) is not a person, but Orlean treats it like a living entity. She charts the library's life, from its birth to its present, with research and reverence.
Throughout its more than 100 years in operation, the LAPL has hosted its share of characters. Orlean's book is populated by them all. Take Mary Foy, who became the first female head librarian in the country at just 18 years old. Did I mention that this happened in 1880 before women were even permitted to access the main collection or have their own library cards? Or what about Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a man who roamed the library with the official job title "The Human Encyclopedia"? The profiles of present-day LAPL employees are just as interesting. I particularly loved reading about the InfoNow department, a phone line where people can (and do) ask anything, from the shelf life of beans to how to sign a baby shower card.
It is difficult to summarize the content of "The Library Book." Orlean examines topics from homelessness to censorship, the physics of fire to the evolution of public architecture. Like a library itself, it has something for everyone and, inevitably, some parts that will not be for you. But while this book is exhaustive, it is far from exhausting. Orlean writes with heart. And she captures, better than anyone I've read, the reason that I work at a public library: "A library ... 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."
Lizzy Gregory Stuckey is the youth services manager for the Dalton-Whitfield County Public Library.