Susan Orlean’s Love Letter to Libraries Is Also a Look at Their Prejudiced Past

"The Library Book" is a gimlet-eyed history of this beloved public institution

New York public library
Photo by Patrick Robert Doyle on Unsplash

I survived growing up in Mississippi by reading. The Greenwood-Leflore Public Library was only three blocks from my house. At the time I didn’t understand how libraries were arranged and would spend long afternoons wandering the shelves at random, filling my arms with books. I’d read on the second floor benches overlooking West Washington, going on trial with Jeanne d’Arc for the heresy of cross-dressing, stomach clenching at Alexandra Feodorovna’s growing obsession with Rasputin, travelling from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen during Anne Frank’s last days.

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I loved libraries so much that I became a public school librarian. Library lover Susan Orlean did one better, writing The Library Book. Orlean combines her love of libraries and of literature into a fascinating exploration of the devastating arson which nearly destroyed the Los Angeles Library, chronicling the broader history of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.

I spoke with Orlean over Skype about the history of libraries, access and gender discrimination, the actress Parker Posey’s influence on the profession, and the continuing relevance of libraries in the digital age.

Deirdre Sugiuchi: You have so many incredible details in this book, from the color of fire to the temperature when books burn, to sprinkler guidelines in the library, how did you research this book?

Susan Orlean: Very carefully. I interviewed a huge number of people–anyone from firefighters who were there, to a huge number of librarians both retired and current—and I went through a huge amount of archival material as well. The fire department had its log from the fire that I had access to, and it detailed minute to minute what was going on with the fire. But it really was tracking through archives, talking to tons of people, and reading old newspaper accounts—everything I could get my hands on.

DS: You spoke to and wrote about so many incredible librarians. Did you have a favorite?

SO: I did have a favorite. I probably shouldn’t say I had a favorite but I did, or rather two favorites. The most fun to write about was Charles Lummis because he is such an incredible figure, a fascinating, maddening, interesting genius. But my real favorite was Althea Warren, who led the library through the depression and through some very interesting times.

Warren was a strong interesting woman who was a great advocate of reading. She was really passionate about reading in a way that really defined her. Her goal was just to inspire people to read, not only patrons but the librarians as well; she wanted them to be as passionate about reading as she was. There was something very effecting about her story. She was an incredibly good head librarian. I think she probably didn’t get as much credit because it was during her time when the library had a lot of financial difficulties, and she had to lay staff off and make cuts. I think she was unfortunately stuck with some circumstances that weren’t ideal but there was something about her that really inspired me and moved me. and she seemed like a really valiant figure.

DS: Speaking of Charles Lummis, he basically helped force out his female predecessor, Mary Jones. You chronicle gender discrimination against librarians in the past. Would you care to expand on that?

We think of librarianship as being a feminized profession but it was not for a long time.

SO: We now think of librarianship as being a feminized profession but it was not for a long time.  It was a very male profession and women entering it, particularly at the level of management, was a big change in the profession. And at the time Mary Jones was running the library, it was a little bit unusual to have a woman be the head of the library system. It’s always been a very gendered profession and it’s a very interesting one in the sense that it began as being so male dominated and then switched very quickly actually when it switched being a much more feminine profession. The change was very quick and dramatic. It really made for a huge change in the whole profession.

Now we are seeing a switch back into having many more young men going to library school. It’s just drawn more young people who were interested in it for the information management aspect of it but also a kind of the mission for social good. That I think has attracted a wider range of people, particularly young people. It’s a really interesting thing to observe from a gender perspective. You know women first were brought into the profession because there was a huge need for a lot of librarians as libraries were being built by the dozens around the country and the idea was that women would work for less money. It was a horrible way to staff all these new libraries so it really comes with some background that’s not very savory.

DS: You speaking of the influx of female librarians leads to the importance of the Carnegie Foundation and libraries in America.

SO: I don’t want to overstate my knowledge but the development of Carnegie libraries was such a significant stimulus for the huge expansion of libraries in this country. What happened was it was a little like cities who were competing for the Amazon headquarters. Cities were competing for these Carnegie libraries, and in some cases where they didn’t get the grant they went ahead and built the library anyway, but Carnegie triggered the idea of this great expansion of libraries and establishing many more libraries, particularly these branch libraries, and democratizing even more access to libraries. That really triggered an enormous growth of libraries in this country and I suspect in other countries where they were building libraries.

DS: You talk about access changing in libraries. Now we think of libraries being open for everyone, but in the beginning they were fee-based. Can you talk about how access has changed in libraries?

When the L.A library was founded, women were not permitted the use of the general library, and children were not allowed at all.

SO: If you look at the L.A. Library as an example, when it was founded women were not permitted the use of the general library, and children were not allowed the use at all.

Initially there was a membership fee that doesn’t sound like a lot of money to us [now], but actually represented a considerable amount of money to people [then]. A week’s wages. The first thing that some of the early head librarians did was lower the fee so it became a pretty insignificant amount of money.

Secondly they expanded women’s access to the library general. Children were allowed from a certain age. There were always all of these complicated restrictions. They had to have a certain grade average, be a certain age, be able to sign their name. There were all sorts of rules, which is funny when we go now and see a storytime with infants and toddlers running around. So these went from being, even though they were public institutions initially they weren’t truly public, to having the mission stated very clearly now that access for everyone is fundamental to the whole meaning of a library. That’s a huge change in considering the pace of history it hasn’t been that long of a time.

DS: I’m from the South where library use was restricted for people of color. They would have bookmobiles or no access. Librarian Althea Warren promoted African American librarians like Miriam Matthews in certain neighborhoods. I couldn’t tell from your book if people of color were ever prohibited from the L.A. library.

SO: Not that I know of. They weren’t segregated. What was sort of notable about Warren’s promotion of African American librarians was that she encouraged them to develop collections of books by African American authors, or about black history, and that was a very unusual thing to be collecting those books at that time, but as far as I know there was no segregation in the libraries in California.

DS: I think your book is the first time I’ve ever seen the Parker Posey movie Party Girl recognized as catalyst for the new wave of librarianship. That movie totally inspired me to become a librarian! Was that just something you observed, or did someone else talk to you about this?

Women first were brought into librarianship because of the idea that women would work for less money.

SO: That’s so funny! I had begun to wonder why becoming a librarian went from being something that seemed very nerdy and uncool to suddenly seeming very groovy and appealing to people.

I was trying to figure out was there some cultural touchstone that changed the perception of this profession when I was talking to the library about the launching of their teen department, and they said they had someone from Buffy the Vampire Slayer who was a librarian. I thought “Oh, I wonder if there was another librarian figure in a movie.” Because believe it or not that can be very influential to decisions that people make or just the perception that people have can be really influenced by a movie. I don’t remember now who pointed out Parker Posey but I thought “Oh my God that definitely would have had an impact.” And I believe that it did.

DS: Oh 100%! So you just wrote this incredible love letter to libraries. How has your interaction with them changed as a result of writing this?

SO: I think that it really made me fall deeply in love with libraries. Obviously that was a huge motivation in doing the book. Rather than having my fantasies about libraries be disproved, I came away feeling even more amazed and awed by what libraries do and what they can do. A lot of times you write a book and you come away a little bit cynical about what you’ve written about, but this had a very different effect in that it’s really made me value and savor the role that libraries have.

DS: You talk about as recently as 1979 when the Rand corporation was declaring libraries irrelevant. In the digital era there has been pushback against libraries. Can you talk about how important they are in this era?

We see libraries now as community centers for knowledge and information, rather than museums of books. That’s why they thrive.

SO: I think that the Rand corporation analysis now looks pretty silly and to put that into perspective I think that if libraries hadn’t evolved then maybe they would be irrelevant.

If libraries had decided their only mission was to be basically a depository for books, then maybe their relevance would be growing smaller and smaller. But instead the Rand analysis came out just about the time when many libraries were acknowledging that change in the way we get information, and rather than resisting, they were embracing it. They began programming everything from storytimes, to book clubs, to lecture series, to tax preparation workshops. They became a center for where you could use computers as opposed to resisting the idea of computers. They began lending e-media instead of being scared by the idea of e-media.

So in all fairness Rand was probably looking at the old model of libraries and simply didn’t realize that libraries were very aware of how things were changing and were willing and pretty eager I think to embrace and become central to it.

I think that we see libraries now as community centers for knowledge and information, rather than museums of books. That’s why they thrived and will continue to thrive and maybe even exceed where they are now in their importance to communities.

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