Literary Hub

Susan Orlean: “Librarians Are Heroic.”

susan orlean

Libraries function in myriad ways. They’re public spaces, information repositories, and places you can go to break the copy machine by stuffing them full of broken crayons. They’re also living organisms—a body that is constantly morphing and shifting, aligning itself with whatever the community needs. A library is the materials it houses, but it’s also the people who use it.

Susan Orlean writes about the library body extensively in her upcoming book, The Library Book. Her work examines how libraries function—including deft research of essential library history and an investigation of the massive fire that incinerated over 400,000 at the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986—but it’s also a look at how loss and trauma can lead to necessary growth. The book is startling and gorgeous. As a librarian, I find it to be an essential text on the past, present, and future of libraries.

Susan took the time to speak with me via email about the book (and about libraries).

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Kristen Arnett: You speak a lot about libraries as community spaces. You talk about the ever-present noise; how odd it is when you’re finally in the building before opening and it’s actually quiet for once. Libraries are generally bustling! Was this surprising to you? Did you find yourself preferring the noise over the quiet?

Susan Orlean: There’s such a stereotypical image of a library as being a hushed place with stern librarians keeping everyone quiet, so it was a delight to realize that libraries are lively, bubbling with activity and even conversation. I found the noise really pleasant—it’s the noise of people engaged in what they’re doing, which delighted me.

KA: I know we both prolifically use Twitter—have you noticed a difference in how libraries are keeping up with their communities via social media platforms? Have you had any libraries approach you this way regarding your book?

SO: Social media has been a great boon for libraries—it allows them to stay connected to their communities and highlight their programming. I’ve had a lot of libraries say hello to me on Twitter since I began tweeting about the book, and I love it. I also love how being active on social media makes libraries feel like part of the here-and-now and not the fusty old institutions some people might imagine them to be.

KA: What was it like to do research about libraries when libraries themselves are research havens? Often when I am dealing with reference, I discover that questions bleed into even more questions. Did you have that feeling writing this book?

SO: It was a little like a Russian nesting doll, especially when I discovered that the library had archives about the library in its Rare Books collection. In fact, it had 48 boxes of material, which kept me busy for about six months. This book definitely radiated more questions as I researched it, but fortunately, I was in the ideal place to answer those questions.

KA: Los Angeles Public Library has a very specific bone structure as well as a very specific community of users. In visiting other branches, did you feel as though they were all one extension of that central library, or did they feel like very different organisms?

SO: The branch libraries felt like separate entities with distinct identities, rather than little offshoots of Central. It makes sense: Los Angeles’ neighborhoods are so self-contained and individual, so it’s very fitting that the branches would reflect their neighborhoods in terms of their collections and their ambience.

“It was a delight to realize that libraries are lively, bubbling with activity and even conversation. I found the noise really pleasant—it’s the noise of people engaged in what they’re doing, which delighted me.”

KA: Now that the book is complete, how do you see yourself utilizing libraries in the future? Will they be a resource for future work—are you gonna ask-a-librarian?

SO: I rediscovered the delight of working in a library and I plan to do it frequently. It’s such a perfect co-working space, and it’s free! I also just met the Genealogy librarian at Central Library, and she’s available to help guide anyone through their family research, so I’m going to take advantage of that as soon as I can. I also have begun borrowing e-media from the library. I hadn’t even realized it was available for loan until I started working on the book. It’s an incredible resource.

KA: I was fascinated by your experiment to burn a book. You compare the feeling after it’s done to “jumping out of an airplane.” To be perfectly honest with you, it made me want to try that out myself (even though it’s terrifying to even think about). Did writing about book burning take on aspects of the horror genre for you?

SO: I definitely don’t recommend burning books! I did feel compelled to do it to explore just how repugnant an act it seemed, and it definitely felt taboo. Learning about book burning throughout history was horrifying. It’s such a statement of hatred and contempt that it sickened me to learn about how extensive it’s been. It had the quality of a horror story, for sure.

KA: Since you don’t work in libraries, did you come up against any push back from librarians or library staff about writing this book? Were there any issues with providing information for your book regarding privacy rights of patrons?

SO: The librarians I encountered were all helpful and patient and, I think, excited that someone was looking at their profession with real interest. There were details about patrons that they couldn’t share, but it never became an impediment to my reporting. I loved writing about librarians; they remember everything and they’re so organized that they could find anything they wanted to share with me!

KA: I absolutely love how you begin your chapters with book titles, especially because you provide the call numbers. As a librarian, I felt this was a powerful reminder of all the ways that information spans broadly, but also how it’s contained within a very specific framework. So much of cataloging requires data entry. Work in a library long enough, and you can speak that code. What prompted you to choose this as a framing device?

SO: I had been looking up a particular title in the catalogue and just started noodling around, seeing if there were books on different obscure subjects, which, of course, there were. The sheer vastness of the collection really struck me, and suddenly, the idea of signaling that, by using the catalogue entries, appealed to me. And, of course, I was then able to use titles to foreshadow the content of the chapter, and the chapter could then serve almost as a little book that you pull off a shelf. I loved choosing those books; it was fascinating to dig around in the catalogue.

KA: The way that you describe the fire that devours the collection reads nearly in real time. It feels as though the fire is racing down the page. It made my heart race! Was this choice intentional? Since it had to specifically researched, how did you write this—all in one burst, or in small specific chunks?

SO: I wanted the reader to feel the power and fury of the fire; I wanted the section to feel urgent and incendiary. I read all the reports I could find and compiled the interviews I did with firefighters, and then sat down and wrote the section in one hot burst.

KA: This book has been longlisted for the Carnegie! Do you think that speaks to how much libraries and librarians appreciate this book?

SO: I am so thrilled—it’s such an honor! It’s especially meaningful to me that librarians have embraced the book; it’s not easy being an outsider trying to describe a subculture, so I’m delighted that they feel I’ve done them justice.

KA: This is a book about libraries but it’s also a book about loss and trauma. What was it like to write about a mystery that might never be solved?

SO: At first, I was sure I would solve the mystery of the fire, so when it became clear that I couldn’t, I was disappointed. I worried that it undermined the book that the arson remained unsolved. Instead, I tried to write the book as a sort of “choose-your-own-adventure” story, providing the reader with several different options of what might have occurred. It was how I made my peace with the lack of resolution.

KA: Not only do you write intense, beautiful descriptions of the people in your book, you also use this vivid language to describe libraries and parts of the collection. Is this because you feel like the buildings and books are just as alive as the people?

SO: I love writing about place, and I feel they are animated by their history, by their use, by the lives of the people who pass through them. It felt natural in the case of libraries in particular, since they also preserve all the stories of our culture; they reverberate with life.

KA: When I was in undergrad, I had a professor who told me they didn’t use library books because they didn’t like the idea of someone else having that book before them. You write a lot about the appeal of new books—that idea of owning something personal and important, the particular smell, the feel and sound of cracking a fresh spine. What would you say is the allure of circulating materials? Is there a different kind of love affair to be had with a book that a community owns versus a book that a single person owns?

SO: There is something about sharing that makes a library book different; maybe it’s just our ability to imagine who else has held the book and experienced reading it before us, and who might after us. It’s like being part of a daisy chain of narrative. There is also something heartening about being part of a community that shares—the way being in a public park has a different feeling than being in a private backyard. It feels good to know we can cooperate with one another peacefully.

KA: What was your favorite part of shadowing librarians in their day-to-day lives? Were there any departments you preferred over another? Could you see yourself doing library work?

SO: I loved spending time in the History department, which includes genealogy; it was fascinating to be around people as they were digging into their own histories. The History department also includes the map collection, a personal interest of mine, especially because I’m a relative newcomer to Los Angeles.

Shadowing the librarians was pure pleasure. I was awed by the depth of their knowledge and their generosity in dealing with patrons. They seemed heroic to me. I did find myself thinking that I could see myself working in a library; it seems like such interesting and rewarding work, both from the standpoint of dealing with books and with patrons. I would just need to master the Dewey Decimal system.

KA: What’s the best way people can support their local libraries?

SO: Use them! The vibrancy of libraries depends on them being used often by as many people as possible. Use them, donate to them, celebrate them. They are essential to us as a society.

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