For writer Susan Orlean, trips to her hometown library in Shaker Heights, Ohio, had been a childhood ritual, a way of bonding with her mother as they collected armfuls of books to read and discussed their borrowed treasures on the ride home. Even today, she can remember the sights and smells of that small branch library, and the thump of the date-stamp machine as it gave the books their due dates.
But for all the magic of those early visits, the adult Orlean became more of a bookstore customer than a library patron, a buyer rather than a borrower. She rediscovered her fascination with libraries around 2010, when she took her young son to visit their local library.
“The minute we pulled into the parking lot, I began having this flood of emotions, of memories of going to the library with my mother,” Orlean told a large crowd gathered Thursday at the Watertown Free Public Library. She hadn’t thought about those trips for some time, but the sensory experience of entering the library with her son overcame her. “Everything reminded me of going to the library with my mother, and I was — I was just overwhelmed.”
A longtime staff writer for The New Yorker and bestselling author of titles such as Rin Tin Tin and The Orchid Thief, Orlean had sworn off writing another book because of time commitment required, but she was intrigued by the unique hold that libraries had on her imagination.
The writer had a subject, but needed a story; Orlean found it when the head of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles told her about the 1986 fire at that city’s Central Library, a blaze that either damaged or destroyed more than a million books, and remains the worst library fire in U.S. history. The devastation of that fire, and city’s determination to rebuild, gave Orlean a way to explore the role of libraries in society.
“Why are libraries so filled with these kinds of connections for us?” Orlean asked the audience at the Watertown Library. “Why do they mean so much? Because clearly they do. They’re not just big warehouses filled with books. There’s something about them that feels enchanted and special.”
Orlean’s exploration of that question resulted in her latest work, The Library Book, which examines the devastating 1986 fire and traces the history of the Los Angeles Public Library from its beginnings to its present-day operation. Orlean is now working to adapt her book into a television series.
Watertown hosted Orlean as one of several events commemorating the library’s 150th birthday, and celebrating its progression from a single room in Town Hall to a 21st Century provider of information, technology services and community programs. The festivities culminate in Saturday night’s 150th Anniversary Gala, which will include live music, artwork and children’s activities at the library.
The writer’s visit also coincides with the selection of her book for this year’s One Book, One Watertown program. Each year, the library selects a book as a kind of town-wide bonding effort, to promote community discussion about a single work and its ideas and themes.
Some observers might find it odd to celebrate one library’s birthday with a story about the fiery destruction of another, but Orlean said the loss of a library, and a society’s response to that loss, illustrates the importance of these institutions.
“I do think that it’s particularly relevant, as you’re celebrating the 150th anniversary of your library, to realize that these places have had a meaning to us — and when I say us, I mean humankind,” Orlean told the crowd. She said libraries represent more than their physical selves. “They have meant something to us as a civilization from the minute we began building libraries. We looked to them as the repository for our knowledge, our dreams, our stories — who we are. Libraries contain the story of who we are.”
Libraries are so powerful to the human spirit, Orlean said, that dictators and authoritarians attack them to oppress people and attempt to destroy their culture. World War II brought about the worst destruction of books in all of history, Orlean said. In her book, she describes an awful scene of people forming a human chain to burn books in Nazi Germany. But she also writes about a different human chain, the one that Angelenos formed a half century later to save the remaining books from their burned library. LA’s Central Library reopened its doors seven years later.
“The library did reopen, and the books were salvaged, and it continued on,” Orlean said, “because ultimately human kind continues on, and our libraries go with us.”
Orlean’s book functions partly as a mystery, recounting the details of the April 29, 1986, fire that burned for more than seven hours at LA’s Central Library and injured 50 firefighters. It also follows the arson investigation into a young man named Harry Peak, an aspiring actor who drifted through 1980s LA, working odd jobs and concocting an ever-changing alibi for the day of the fire. Peak was arrested but never charged in setting the fire, and Orlean’s research questions whether the devastating fire had been intentional at all. While the fire investigation gives The Library Book its plot, Orlean’s work morphs into a biography of the Los Angeles library system, with the quirky characters who helped to build it; the book also serves as a meditation on the importance of books, libraries and public service.
In some respects, Orlean captures the feeling of wandering among library stacks and becoming engrossed in unexpected topics — in Orlean’s case, those subjects include the flawed science of arson investigations, the challenges of serving homeless populations in a public setting, the lengthy process of restoring waterlogged books after a fire, and the strange tales of librarians who field reference-request calls. Above all, though, Orlean pays homage to the power and endurance of the written word.
“Books are a sort of cultural DNA, the code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know,” Orlean writes in her book. “All the wonders and failures, all the champions and villains, all the legends and ideas and revelations of a culture last forever in its books.”
Last year, the Watertown Library knew it wanted a special book for this year’s One Book, One Watertown program, one that would tie in with the 150th anniversary celebration, said Jill Martin Clements, the library’s supervisor of adult and reference services. Orlean’s book wasn’t yet out, but the librarians knew about it; Clements reached out to the publisher, explaining the library’s upcoming celebration and asking if they would send advance copies of the book for review.
“They sent them, we read them, and we loved it,” Clements said earlier this week. By last spring, they were already coordinating with Orlean’s book tour schedule to get her to Watertown. “It all felt like it was meant to be,” she said.
Orlean, who used to live in the Boston area and wrote for The Boston Globe and now-defunct Boston Phoenix, also has a personal connection to Watertown — her best friend lives within walking distance of the library.
“I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the backside of the library,” she joked.
Orlean received an enthusiastic welcome from Watertown’s library patrons. The library initially offered 100 tickets for dinner and the talk with Orlean, but those sold out in two days, according to Jamie Kallestad, the library’s community engagement specialist. The library added another 50 tickets for the talk alone, and those also sold out within a day or two, he said.
During the event’s question-and-answer session, one man thanked Orlean for recording an audio version of the book, so that he was able to enjoy it as a member of the blind community. Another audience member said she had been reading a free excerpt of the book but ran out of text after the dramatic description of the fire. She said she “had to buy the Kindle (version) at 11 o’clock at night so I could keep reading.”
Watertown resident Brian Adams mentioned his late grandmother, who had run a one-room library in Western Massachusetts. He thanked Orlean “for the spotlight you’ve put on the role of women in the history of American libraries.”
After Adams got his book signed by Orlean, he spoke fondly about his grandmother, Ruth Dwyer, and her legacy as the Sandisfield town librarian in Western Massachusetts. Adams would help his grandmother operate the bookmobile, and he remembered her hosting ice cream socials to encourage children to read during the summer. She was a staunch defender of the First Amendment, he said, and would protect books that some in the community might have wished to censure. She developed a good sense of what the town’s readers wanted to read, he said.
“She was the kind of woman who would call you, without any prompting, and say, ‘I have a book that you might like,’” Adams said. “It was a small town, and she was really a big part of the heart of that community.”
Adams grew up in the Berkshires, but he and his wife Edwina Kluender most recently lived in Hong Kong before buying a house in Watertown last year. They didn’t waste time finding the brick building on Main Street.
“Every time we move, the first thing we do is join the local library and get a library card,” Adams said. “It’s the sense of community.”
Adams and Kluender really like their new library, and they appreciate its attributes beyond the traditional books – the technology, the building itself, and the amount of care the librarians take in serving the public.
“It’s really amazing,” Kluender said.
The 150th Anniversary Gala will be held this Saturday, April 6, from 7-9 p.m. at the Watertown Free Public Library, 123 Main St. The event is free and open to the public, but the library asks that people RSVP at watertownlib.org/150. The library’s invitation reads: “Join us for a celebration of WFPL’s past, present, and future! Experience the library as you never have before with live music, new artwork, and history on display throughout the building. This all ages event will include fun activities in the Children’s Room and a pizza party for teens. Beverages and light refreshments will be served. Attire: dress to feel fabulous.”