The great LA Public Library Fire!

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Non-Fiction/History/True Crime


Hardback Edition

310 Pages

            Ah yes, the famous Los Angeles Public Library fire of 1986. Never heard of it? Neither did I, but thanks to this remarkable effort by Susan Orlean we are now taken behind the scenes to discover all that happened on that fateful April day when the Main Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library had one of the worst library fires in history.

            How did it happen? Who started the fire? Was it arson or an accident? What was the scope of the tragedy? All these and more questions are answered by the author along with an absolutely tremendous history of libraries, the LA Public Library system, Librarians, and all the while the author tries to solve the mystery behind who started this fire.

            Is it non-fiction or a mystery book? Well this book is a bit of both as we have a true crime that happened and which caused the total destruction of 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. That’s right, about 1.1 Million books were either totally or partially destroyed.

            Orlean gets to interview the first responders from LAFD, arson investigators, the DA who was in charge of the case, witnesses, librarians, fund-raisers, defense attorneys, and relatives of the primary suspect.

            We get to follow the inner workings of both the LA Public Library, libraries in general, and how public libraries were both developed and how they have evolved into todays “community center” styled libraries. Despite being a lifelong fan of libraries, and having my own daughter who is a college librarian, this book was an eye-opener for me.

            Companies and individuals banded together to help restore the library. This took the form of either massive corporate funding efforts, along with mass public appeals for donations, as well as the use of freeze drying warehouses where the water and smoke logged books were stored until they could be slowly defrosted and repaired. We also learn about the hard-working librarians who suffered through those times; many of whom stayed with the Library system to this very day. It was a bleak time but eventually a renovated library grew on the same site as the original library, with the stacks now filled with many of the books that had been damaged, but where many books, maps, and musical scores were lost for eternity.

            So who did this? Slowly but surely one suspect begins the come to the fore, a gentleman who appears to be a habitual liar and yet someone who had witnesses that seemed to correlate every new story that was being told to the investigators. The evidence against this person appears to be sufficient to bring charges against the individual but in the end no trial was ever held and there was no satisfactory conclusion to the case.

            Orlean touches on all of these issues in this well written book, it is book that every booklover should read. The book also helped me rekindle my memories of the Reading (PA) Public Library and the weekend mornings when I wandered throughout the Children’s Library in the basement of the building, and then my amazement at the main library, the card catalogs and all those books in the stacks. Those memories helped me understand the tragedy in Los Angeles and how devastating the fire was to both the Librarians, the patrons of the library, and the community as a whole.

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