The Library Book | Susan Orlean

Summary of: The Library Book
By: Susan Orlean


How does a fire change the course of a historic library’s story? In ‘The Library Book,’ Susan Orlean takes us through the pivotal events surrounding the 1986 Los Angeles Central Library fire. Orlean explores the mystery of the fire’s origins, the aftermath of damage to over 700,000 books, and the massive community effort that brought the library back to life. Within the book’s pages, you will find discussions about the role of libraries in modern society as well as the history of the LA Central Library and its transformation over time. Prepare to dive into a captivating narrative of resilience, sense of community, and the power of human intellect in the face of adversity.

The Devastating Fire at Los Angeles Central Library

On April 29, 1986, a seven-hour and 38-minute fire raged through the stacks of the Los Angeles Central Library, damaging over 700,000 books. The library had been discussing sprinkler placement that day, and despite the American Library Association’s warning against sprinkler use, the fire department had installed them in the building. The damage was extensive, and the cost of replacing the books was estimated to be around $14 million. Fortunately, librarians and volunteers were able to pack the damaged and undamaged books for freezer storage or the book depository. The library then created an electronic catalog, which millions of people now use. The campaign to restock the library was led by Lodwrick Cook, the president of ARCO, and raised $10 million by 1991. Reconstruction began on June 3, 1988, and the library restored its original building while adding a new wing for the stacks. The grand reopening took place on October 3, 1993, and drew 50,000 people, all eager to get library cards.

The Mysterious Library Fire

Harry Peak, a likable but unreliable out-of-work actor, was the prime suspect in the biggest library fire in US history. Though he repeatedly claimed responsibility, he failed a polygraph test, and the truth remains elusive. Harry’s habit of lying and tall tales overshadowed his hint of firsthand knowledge of events that witnesses corroborated. The mystery remains unsolved, and nobody knows for certain what happened on the day of the fire.

The Unsolved Mystery of the Library Arson

Harry Peak’s lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles for false arrest and slander due to involvement in the library arson case stalled after he changed his story. The case was settled for $35,000. Arson Research Project founder Paul Bieber analyzed the reports on the fire and concluded that the point of origin couldn’t be determined, and old wiring may have caused the fire instead. The possibility of arson challenges the “negative corpus” reasoning that investigators use to determine arson cases.

In 1986, the Los Angeles Public Library caught fire, causing the loss of over one million books and leading to the biggest loss to any public library in the history of the United States. Harry Peak, a local odd job worker, was arrested for the fire. However, city officials declined to charge him due to a lack of concrete evidence. The author of the book, Susan Orlean, posits that Peak probably didn’t start the fire on purpose, although he may have accidentally caused it.

Due to the lack of evidence, Peak filed a $15 million suit against the city on allegations of false arrest and slander. The city countered this with a $23.6 million claim for compensation related to fire damages. The case stalled as Peak changed his story multiple times, although his main alibi stayed the same. He decided to settle down and become a medical assistant, but he contracted HIV/AIDS soon after. Peak’s lawyer sought an expedited case, leading to a settlement of $35,000.

The lack of knowledge of the fire’s point of origin led the investigators to believe it must be arson. However, modern forensic techniques like those used by Paul Bieber challenge this “negative corpus” reasoning, particularly in light of evidence showing that old wiring may have caused the fire, and arson may not have been the cause at all.

The Ever-Evolving Role of Libraries

John Szabo, the city librarian of an eight-story library building, sees the library as part DIY-university, part community center, and part information hub. Despite the rise of high-tech offices, the library boasts numerous special collections, including an extensive photography collection that includes images from Ansel Adams and Roland Curtis. Unfortunately, the library is not without its problems, as thieves routinely plunder it. Additionally, the library has become a shelter and internet access point for the homeless population in Los Angeles, which has grown to nearly 60,000 people according to 2017 data. Despite these challenges, the library remains an important institution in the community.

Burning of Libraries Throughout History

Libraries have been burned many times throughout history. The library of Alexandria was burned multiple times, and the Mayan culture was erased by Spanish conquistadors. In the Middle Ages, the pope ordered Catholics to burn Jewish books, and the Nazis burned books by Jewish authors. Even today, libraries continue to be casualties of conflict and arson. Despite efforts to protect cultural property, the destruction of libraries has not stopped.

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