just asking questions

Susan Orlean on the Fascinating History and Surprisingly Bright Future of Libraries

Susan Orlean. Photo: Amanda Schwab/StarPix/REX/Shutterstock

When Susan Orlean fishes for a story, she reels in a hidden world. And so the latest delightful trawl from the author of Rin Tin Tin and The Orchid Thief starts with the tale of the 1986 fire that damaged or destroyed 700,000 books in the Los Angeles Central Library. But The Library Book pans out quickly to the fractious, eccentric history of the insitution and then, almost inevitably, a reflection on the past, present, and future of libraries in America. Orlean follows the narrative in all directions, juxtaposing the hunt for the library arsonist — possibly a frustrated actor — with a philosophical treatise on why and how libraries became the closest thing many of us experience to a town hall. She spoke to Intelligencer this week about her remarkable discoveries (not all as gruesome as the three dead bodies found in recent years among the stacks), her newfound hope for libraries as humanitarian hubs, and why Trump’s erasures of information aren’t far off from lighting a book on fire. (Spoiler: She did that, too.)

You write in The Library Book that, just before embarking on it, you had given up on writing books. What happened?
My biography of Rin Tin Tin took me a long time and it really felt grueling. Part of it is that I had a toddler. The subjects that attract me don’t lend themselves easily to being made into books. When I finished Rin Tin Tin I thought, All right, I’m done. I can’t throw myself into another five-year project again and have it looming over me. It’s a little like how the minute you give birth you just say, Oh my God, I don’t know what I was thinking. But when I began thinking about libraries, it immediately came to me: Someone should write a book about a year in the life of a library. And I resisted a little, thinking it was just formless, and that is where I get myself into trouble. And just when I felt that I had resisted successfully, I heard about the fire. That did it for me. It’s like in classic crime movies where somebody says, “This is my last score! One last score and then I’m really out.”

As part of your broader research, you burned a book, a copy of Fahrenheit 451. As a bibliophile and as a writer, to put the flame to the paper — how did that feel?
It wasn’t easy, believe me. It was weirdly emotional, even though I could go buy another copy of Fahrenheit 451 in one minute. It wasn’t about the rarity or the preciousness of the book. But that was what I was exploring: Why does it feel so wrong? It was shocking — it happened so fast when I finally put the match to the book. I’m glad I did it. It confirmed to me the sensation that we have about books being more than just blocks of paper. They have a quality that is very human.

You write, “In the saga of humankind, most things are done for money. Library books are burned because they contain an idea that someone finds problematic.” You detail the terrifying history of groups destroying books to amplify their ideology. When Trump took office, someone in the government removed a lot of the public information on climate change. Was that in the back of your mind?
Absolutely. The point of book burning is to not have discourse, to say, “This idea doesn’t even exist. These people don’t exist. Culture doesn’t exist. This version of history doesn’t exist.” The idea that a free society suffers from having information available is really, to me, anathema, and tells you a lot about an inability to tolerate divergent opinion. That’s scary. The erasure of information, whether by fire or by deleting a website, never bodes well.

Your family is Jewish, and you write that a third of all the books in Germany were burned during World War II. I’m curious if you felt that this was an erasure of your own past?
Oh yeah. Jews have a very deep connection to books. For me it was really horrifying. “Where they burn books, they next burn men”; we saw that to be true. I’m not a historian but I’d be very curious to know of a culture in which books were burned where there wasn’t also mass extermination of people. There probably hasn’t been. That’s so much of what interested me — that the continuum is really uninterrupted from books to people.

The history of L.A.’s Central Library, at least, is very well preserved; the archives survived the big fire. There’s even a section of recordings a librarian made in the 1960s about how hot it was every day in the library without air conditioning. They documented their own existence so well.
And I had no idea, until a librarian who I was chatting with asked if I had seen the archives and I said, “Which archives?” And he said, “Well the library’s own archives,” and my mouth started watering. They had 64 boxes of material from the beginnings of the library to the present time — odds and ends and ephemera and newspaper clippings and just amazing stuff — the library’s story of itself.

I was fascinated that the InfoNow department — essentially a Call a Librarian service — survives to the present day. It’s funny because now there’s … Google.
Even the librarians occasionally were struck by how odd it seemed that someone would call the library to ask something that was quite easy to look up. But sometimes people just like to ask other people questions — or don’t know exactly how to ask the questions for Google. They have a question that’s more nuanced than what they think they can ask online. They do get more for their money by calling the library. There are some people who literally make up a question so they can call. Their intent is not really to get an answer; it’s just to have human contact. It’s an analog experience in a digital world — a nice antidote to the rest of your daily experience.

I want to talk about some of the Central Library’s librarians, like Wyman Jones, who was the head librarian leading up to the fire. There’s a picture of him in the book on the cover of a magazine called California Librarian, and he looks like a sexy Jack Kerouac.
I know! He was a fascinating, cantankerous, arrogant, brilliant man who was sure that he knew the entire story of the library in a way that no one else could ever know it. He basically said, “I’m not going to talk to you because I’m writing my own book,” and yet he couldn’t not talk to me. He would lecture me about what I didn’t know. I had a fascinating relationship with him. It was all on the phone, unfortunately, and he passed away not that long ago. Maybe to run an institution like that you have to be a little bit crazy and arrogant and a little bit sure that everything you know and think is the final word. And he was absolutely in the same mold as Charles Lummis [a notoriously eccentric early head of the library] and some others— just these tremendous, crazy, influential figures who were probably in many instances impossible to work with, but geniuses in their own way.

A long line of women ran the Central Library at the turn of the century, a time when women were not even allowed in a lot of libraries. This book has a lot to say about gender roles in the library.
Librarianship was really dominated by men, the same way the teaching profession was — and then there was a big switch. It’s this whipsawing of logic that one can barely make sense of. These women were tremendously important in the running of the library. Mary Jones, who was replaced by Charles Lummis, was a really significant, very progressive figure who had a lot of influence. And she was just dismissed for no logical reason.

Were you indignant on behalf of these women? Jones was fired because the board no longer wanted a woman in charge.
Oh God, it was crazy! Some of the women, like Tessa Kelso, were controversial figures — she was a troublemaker, and that’s what got her into trouble. But Mary Jones was a shocking episode. Women came roaring into the profession once the library system expanded so dramatically in the middle of the 20th century. They needed a lot more staff, and women were willing to take those jobs for a very small amount of pay. They were pressed into service in great numbers, and by the time men blinked their eyes women were dominating it.

I expect anybody who writes or thinks about books to be a little pessimistic, but this book is brimming with hope. You say libraries could become a saving grace in our society — a real human unifier. How did you come to this conclusion?
If you spend some time in libraries you can’t not notice the commitment and the real dedication that librarians have. It’s truly inspiring. I’m not naïve about the troubles they face. They’re always fighting for money in the budget, and they have to deal with issues that are incredibly difficult in terms of being inclusive of all patrons. But nobody becomes a librarian to be rich or famous, and so there’s this incredible feeling of grace that you sense when you meet them. I also think that in the dark moment when people were scratching their heads and saying, I don’t know why you need a library when everything’s online, smart librarians were in place who could say that’s not what it’s all about. It’s about having a center of information, of knowledge. And libraries have done a fantastic job in reimagining themselves: No no no this is great, this is part of who we are, and now we have more room to do literacy class, to do story time, to do tax preparation.

I loved the librarian who realized he was helping drug dealers with their taxes. Then there was the security guard who told you he’s found three dead bodies in the last six years. Did anything else blow your mind?
This doesn’t sound sexy, but just the number of books that are in and out all the time and the number of people flowing through — it was like opening up the back of a grandfather clock and seeing the gears spinning.

Having seen The Orchid Thief turned into such a markedly distorted but fascinating film version, are you thinking that somebody could turn The Library Book into a movie?
Not to let the cat out of the bag but you can expect an announcement about that soon. I have a history of these unlikely projects coming together and so I’m really happy about that.

Will you write another book, or are you really done this time?
Knowing me, I probably will. No matter how much I assure you and swear up and down that I’ll never write a book, I have a feeling I’ll get snared by a subject that I’ll find too interesting to resist.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Susan Orlean on the Surprisingly Bright Future of Libraries