Monday, March 11, 2019

The Library Book

The Library Book, Susan Orlean

“Worldwide, there are 320,000 public libraries serving hundreds of millions of people in every country on the planet.” Susan Orlean has written an ode to those libraries with an account focussing on Los Angeles Library. Orlean remembers a childhood spent with her mother at the local library:
“On the ride home, my mom and I talked about the order in which we were going to read our books and how long until they had to be returned, a solemn conversation in which we decided how to pace ourselves through this charmed, evanescent period of grace until our book were due.”
After years away (spent purchasing rather than borrowing books), she rediscovered the joy of the library with her young son, and realised that much is the same in libraries as it ever was.
“It wasn’t that time stopped in the library. It was as if it were captured here, collected here, and in all libraries – and not only my time, my life, but all human time as well. In the library, time is dammed up – not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”
Yet, libraries have also changed vastly, dealing with digitisation, and becoming of one of the last free, safe public spaces available to all people, which now often provide children’s story time, ESL classes, genealogical services, assistance with government support and help for the homeless.
“The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity. It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace... One of the few places homeless people are welcomed, given access to computers and the Internet, and permitted to dally all day (unless they act out) is a public library. Libraries have become a de facto community centre for the homeless across the globe. There is not a library in the world that hasn’t grappled with it issue of how – and how much – to provide for the homeless. Many librarians have told me they considered this the defining question facing libraries right now...”
By focussing on Los Angeles library she deals with the major fire that damaged almost 1 million books and items in April 1986. So there are many details about how the fire spread, the damage done and the investigations that followed. One man in particular, Harry Peak, was always a suspect, but never convicted. It was interesting to read about a major fire and loss that I never heard about (we were even living in the USA at the time) partly because it was overshadowed by the Chernobyl disaster.

Woven throughout is the history of the library to date, from its humble beginnings, moving around various buildings and finally the construct of the landmark building it is today. She introduces us to the various librarians who have held the post with their quirks and foibles, and gives the reader an insight into the massively complex job it is to now run a major library network in a modern city,

She also talks about the role of books in general, and since this is a book about massive damage to a library, also considers what war and a decision to burn books does to the public record and says about the values of a people.
“Taking books away from our culture is to take away its shared memory. It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying our cultures books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.”
Obviously I love books, love reading and love our library system. Not only do I love the actual books I get from it, we also borrow numerous DVDs, and every single book I read on long service leave (including this one) was a digital loan on an iPad, administered by our local library. I am getting to know our librarians personally and expressed my concern to them recently that a new automated borrowing system would not affect their employment. They assured me they have plenty to do elsewhere!

An interesting and insightful read about libraries and books, and the place they hold in our society.

No comments: