The Library Book, by Susan Orlean

The Library Book, by Susan Orlean

Disclaimer: I don’t really know how to summarize “The Library Book.” 

Ostensibly, this book is about the devastating fire at the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986. But the book covers so much more.

“The Library Book” is like a fire, winding around corners, heading down unexpected paths, and lighting up nooks and crannies we didn’t know existed.

And like an all-consuming fire, the book achieves its goals:

  • Sharing the history and cultural importance of libraries. 

  • Explaining how libraries operate, serve communities, and innovate services.

  • Illustrating how libraries both reflect and help shape the communities they serve. 

Instead of summarizing the book, I’ll share some interesting ideas from it, and hopefully you’ll want to read it yourself to fill in the rest (and you should).

The Author: Susan Orlean

Author Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean is a terrific writer. She knows how to find the interesting thread in almost anything, and then bring it vivdly to life.  

Why Orlean wrote The Library Book:

I grew up in libraries, or so it seems. My mother and I would take regular trips to the branch library near my house at least twice a week, and those trips were enchanted. The very air in the library seemed charged with possibility and imagination; books seem to have their own almost human vitality.

But over time, I had become more of a book buyer than a book borrower, and I had begun to forget how magical libraries are. I never stopped loving libraries, but they receded in my mind, and seemed like a piece of my past.

And then I started taking my own son to the library, and I was reminded instantly and vividly of how much libraries had meant to me, how formative they were to my love of reading and writing, and how much they mean to us as a culture. The next thing I knew, I was investigating the largest library fire in the history of the United States. The life and times and near-death experience of the Los Angeles Public Library was a story that felt urgent to tell, and gave me a chance to pay tribute to these marvelous places that have been such an essential part of my life.

Key Ideas from The Library Book

Orlean’s writing about fire is … on fire

Orlean is really talented. Here’s a snippet of how she describes the library fire: 

The fire flashed through Fiction, consuming as it traveled. It reached for the cookbooks. The cookbooks roasted. The fire scrambled to the sixth tier and then to the seventh. Every book in its path bloomed with flame. At the seventh tier, the fire banged into the concrete ceiling, doubled back, and mushroomed down again to the sixth tier. It poked around, looking for more air and fuel. Pages and book jackets and microfilm and magazines crumpled and vanished. On the sixth tier, flames crowded against the walls of the stacks, then decided to move laterally. The fire burned through sixth-tier shelves and then nosed around until it found the catwalk that connected the northeast stacks to the northwest stacks. It erupted into the catwalk and hurried along until it reached the patent collection stored in the northwest stacks. It gripped the blocky patent gazettes. They were so thick that they resisted, but the heat gathered until at last the gazettes smoked, flared, crackled, and dematerialized. Wind gusts filled the vacuum made by the fire. Hot air saturated the walls. The floor began to fracture. A spiderweb of hot cracks appeared. Ceiling beams spalled, sending chips of concrete shooting in every direction. The temperature reached 900 degrees, and the stacks’ steel shelves brightened from gray to white, as if illuminated from within. Soon, glistening and nearly molten, they glowed cherry red. Then they twisted and slumped, pitching their books into the fire.

Ridiculously good. 

Fire investigations aren’t as conclusive as we are led to believe 

Orlean explores the discipline of fire investigation, and finds it lacking. Turns out it’s really hard to read the tea leaves when the tea leaves have been turned to ash and scattered. 

Some years ago, I read a story in The New Yorker that got under my skin. “Trial by Fire,” by David Grann, was about a case in Texas in which a man named Todd Willingham was convicted of setting a fire in 1991 that killed his three children. The key evidence against Willingham was patterns left by the moving fire—what arson investigators call “burn marks”—in the family’s house. A long-standing belief among arson people is that fires burn hottest where they originate. The charring on the house’s wooden floors was darkest and deepest under the children’s beds. There was nothing under the children’s beds that could have started a fire spontaneously, so investigators believed that someone had set the fire intentionally. The only person in the house that night besides the children was Willingham, who claimed he had been asleep at the time the fire began and that he had done everything possible to save his children. Eventually, Willingham was convicted, largely because the burn marks were interpreted as proof that the fire started under the beds. He was sentenced to death. After losing all of his appeals, he was executed in 2004.

Struck by Willingham’s insistence on his innocence, a prominent scientist and fire investigator named Dr. Gerald Hurst had been asked by Willingham’s family to reexamine the case shortly before the date of execution. Hurst began by trying to determine whether the fire truly was arson. Hurst believed that the analysis of where the fire started was wrong. Despite the heavy burn marks under the children’s beds, he didn’t believe the fire had started there. He inspected the house again. When forensic science was applied to all of the evidence, it showed that the accelerant on the front porch was probably from a can of lighter fluid used to start a small charcoal grill that had been knocked over by firefighters entering the house. A faulty space heater or wiring had probably started the fire inside the house. Flames had raced down the hall into the children’s bedroom. The extreme burn marks under their beds indicated only that the fire had settled there for a while. Hurst’s analysis was too late to change the outcome for Willingham, but it succeeded in raising great concern about the reliability of what we assume about fire. 

As long ago as 1977, forensic scientists warned that the principles of arson investigation were mostly myth.

On the concept of negative corpus in fire investigations: 

In the case of a fire, negative corpus means that if accidental sources are eliminated, the fire is deemed arson, even when there is no affirmative proof that it was arson. If there is no evidence of how the fire was started, it is assumed that the source of ignition was a lighter or matchbook that was then removed from the scene. It’s like finding a dead body, ruling out the obvious causes of death like a heart attack or stroke, and then declaring it murder even though there is no positive proof that it is murder. This ignores the possibility that the death was caused by something natural that hasn’t been detected. 

Legal scholars and forensic scientists have challenged negative corpus for years.

You’ll never think of librarians the same way again

Some very colorful personalities led and transformed the LA library. 

John Littlefield: 1873

The first city librarian of Los Angeles was a dour asthmatic named John Littlefield. He hated the crowded space more than anyone, and he tore out of the reading room whenever he could to hide in his office and smoke a medicinal compound of jimsonweed to soothe his lungs. According to one of the library’s early annual reports, Littlefield’s smoking was unpopular with library patrons. “As [Littlefield] coughed and wheezed and gurgled and smoked,” the report states, “the abominable fumes of the burning [jimsonweed] permeated the whole establishment and nearly choked everybody in it.” Littlefield, in general, seemed burdened, regretful, and tormented. Any time he was called out of his office, he muttered, “Well, if I must, I suppose I must,” which was followed by a loud groan.

Mary Foy: 1880

Mary Foy was only eighteen years old when she was hired to replace Connolly.


Women were not yet allowed to have their own library cards and were permitted only in the Ladies’ Room. No library in the country had a female head librarian, and only a quarter of all American library employees were women. The feminization of librarianship was still a decade away.

Mary Foy probably would have continued as city librarian for years, but when the mayor who had appointed her left office in 1884, the library board voted to remove her. The reason cited was that Foy’s father was doing well enough financially that he could now afford to take care of her; it was presumed that she no longer needed a job.

Tessa Kelso 1889

People referred to her as “unconventional.” She was so brilliant and forceful that she persuaded the board to hire her even though she had no relevant job experience except that she once covered a library convention for her newspaper. Kelso thought the library was stodgy and needed to modernize. She abolished the membership fee. In no time, the number of cardholders rose from a little more than one hundred people to twenty thousand. She moved most of the books onto open shelves and allowed children over twelve years old to use the library if they had an average of ninety on their school exams. She set up “delivery stations,” an early version of branch libraries, in outlying areas where immigrants were settling.


she hoped the library could expand and begin loaning more than books; she pictured a storeroom of tennis racquets, footballs, “indoor games, magic lanterns, and the whole paraphernalia of healthy, wholesome amusement that is . . . out of the reach of the average boy and girl.” She believed a library could be more than a repository of books; she felt it should be “the entertainment and educational center of the city.” This ambition never came to pass during her tenure, but it anticipated by almost a hundred years the modern notion of what a library can be.

Mary Jones 1900

She recruited African American librarians for branches in neighborhoods with large black populations and encouraged them to build a collection of books about “the Negro experience.” The library thrived. It was circulating about four hundred thousand books annually when Jones took over. By 1904, that number had almost doubled.


Despite her success, she was asked to resign:

the head of the board, a lawyer named Isidore Dockweiler, turned to Jones and asked her to resign. As Jones sat dumbfounded, Dockweiler explained that the board believed it would be in everyone’s best interest to have a man run the library.

Charles Lummis 1905

Charles Lummis had arrived in Los Angeles in 1885, when the Los Angeles Times offered him a position on its staff. At the time, Lummis was a newspaper reporter in Ohio. He accepted the offer and packed his belongings. Then he decided that he would walk from Ohio to California.


Before leaving Ohio, he convinced a local newspaper to publish his travel diary, which he would write in the form of a weekly letter. His first column was titled, extravagantly, “LUMMIS’ LEGS: How They Measure the Distance Between Cincinnati and Los Angeles. Sixty-three Miles Already Traversed and Only Three Thousand One Hundred and Thirty-Seven Yet to Walk.”


the Los Angeles Times editorial board argued he was unfit for the job because he had “never set foot in a library school, wore eccentric corduroy suits and was known to drink and swear on occasion.” At that point, Lummis’s personal life was in tatters. He had conducted dozens of extramarital affairs. His partners were rumored to include Arcadia Bandini de Stearns Baker, one of the wealthiest women in California; Kate Wiggin, author of the novel Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm; several of his secretaries; evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson; and the teenage daughter of Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, who first summoned him to Los Angeles.

Lummis may have been named head librarian, but Mary Jones would not go quietly:

Mary Jones did not agree that she should be removed from the library, and she particularly objected to the idea that she should yield her position simply because she was not a man. She ignored the library board’s request and came to work the next day. She told her staff that they should proceed as if it were an ordinary day, and that she didn’t wish to discuss the matter any further.


For the time being, the Los Angeles Public Library was run by a fired head librarian who refused to leave, and a fired board of commissioners who refused to yield. The Great Library War could have continued indefinitely, since Mary Jones made it clear that she had no plans to surrender, but Mayor McAleer became so exasperated that he asked the city attorney to see if there was a legal remedy. This was sixty years before federal law prohibited job discrimination based on gender. A few days later, the city attorney announced his decision, saying that the city librarian served at will, and therefore the board had the legal right to fire her for any reason at all, including the fact that she was a woman. Jones and her supporters were outraged and continued to protest, but it became clear that the city attorney’s ruling would not be shaken loose. At last, Jones turned in her keys and left Los Angeles for good, accepting a job as the head of the library at Bryn Mawr, a women’s college in Pennsylvania.


From the beginning, there were complaints that Lummis disappeared from the library for days at a time. He did go fishing frequently, and he spent time attending to his other projects—his books, the Southwest Museum, his continued attention to Native American issues—but much of the time he was gone from the library, he was working at El Alisal, where he sometimes spent fourteen or fifteen hours a day attending to library business. It suited him to work from home. Though he was an unconventional executive, he was passionate about the job, and much of what he did for the library made it the institution it is today.

Lummis made many other changes at the library, labeling “junk science” books as such, starting an autographed book collection, developing a marketing campaign to increase library usage among lower-income and minority residents, 

But his tumultuous personal life continued: 

When he started his job at the library, his personal life was in turmoil, and the scene at El Alisal was a circus. El Alisal was a small, rough house; Lummis and his wife and their children and the daughter he conceived in college lived there, along with a family of troubadours and an endless stream of partygoers who came and went on no particular schedule. In 1907, one of the troubadours murdered one of Lummis’s housekeepers. Still, the parties continued, as many as two or three a week, one blurring into the other, with some guests who never bothered to leave. One day in 1909, Lummis’s wife, Eve, came across the diaries in which he detailed close to fifty extramarital affairs. Outraged, Eve left El Alisal and moved to San Francisco with two of their children,

Lummis was the first library blogger:

Lummis’s annual written reports to the library board were not the usual tallying and tedium; they were anecdotal and discursive, full of pronouncements on the state of libraries and the city and life, and often included long, elaborate descriptions of other city libraries he visited around the United States. He took great pleasure in writing the reports. He divided them into sections with titles like “The Battle of the Shelves” and “Beans When the Bag Is Open” and “What Are We Here For?” The reports sometimes ran longer than 120 pages. To head librarians around the country, Lummis’s reports became legendary, and they often requested copies so they could read and then pass them around to their staff. Because of the reports, Lummis was perhaps the best-known librarian in the United States.

Lummis was asked to leave in 1910, and he was never the same. 

The book covers so much more.

The Library Book packs a massive scope into its 336 pages. Some other key topics include:

  • A typical day in the life of the head librarian and library staff

  • The life story of Harry Peak, a chronic liar and drifter, who was arrested as the prime arson suspect but was never indicted. 

  • The changing role of the library as technology and society changes 

  • The constant challenge of providing safe and open access while dealing with homelessness 

If books and libraries matter to you—and you just like descriptive and vivid storytelling, then go check out—pun intended—The Library Book.