A Love Letter to Libraries: Susan Orlean’s The Library Book

In her fascinating 2018 book, The Library Book, Susan Orlean recounts the story of the Los Angeles Public Library and its remarkable journey from destruction to rebirth. On April 29th, 1986, a devastating fire consumed the Central Library of Los Angeles, destroying hundreds of thousands of books and leaving much of its infrastructure in ruins. Through extensive research and interviews with those who lived through this tragedy, Orlean sheds light on how the library could be rebuilt despite such immense destruction.

The Library Book
  • Orlean, Susan (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 336 Pages – 10/01/2019 (Publication Date) – Simon & Schuster (Publisher)

The Fire at the Los Angeles Public Library

The blaze that consumed much of the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles started around 11 pm on April 29th, 1986, and burned until dawn. By then, it had destroyed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. Unfortunately, the building was also left in ruins; its fire-resistant materials had failed to contain the blaze, spreading quickly throughout the library’s many floors and departments.

The Effects of the Blaze

When news of the fire reached Angelenos, many feared that their beloved library was gone for good; however, remarkably enough, it was able to be rebuilt in just over two years due to an outpouring of support from citizens across Los Angeles. While reconstruction efforts were underway, there were still significant obstacles to overcome — they had to reconstruct an entire building and replace hundreds of thousands of lost books.

The Inspiring Stories Behind Rebuilding Efforts

Throughout her narrative, Orlean introduces us to some truly inspiring stories about those involved with rebuilding efforts after the fire. Harry Peak—a young actor, embroiled in a complex case involving arson—and Gene Scott—the eccentric pastor who spearheaded fundraising efforts—are two prime examples whose stories help demonstrate how a community can come together during difficult times and achieve seemingly impossible feats.

Charles Lummis’ Impact on the Rebuilt Library

We also learn about Charles Lummis — one of America’s first conservationists — whose legacy remains alive today at the rebuilt Central Library in downtown Los Angeles. Before becoming a conservationist, he served as a librarian for five years at what is now known as Lummis House; his dedication to reading left a lasting impression on patrons before and after his tenure there. His influence can still be felt today at Lummis House and other libraries across California thanks to initiatives he championed, such as public access points for children living in poverty-stricken areas or those without access to technology or internet service.


Susan Orlean’s The Library Book is ultimately a love letter to public libraries everywhere; she highlights their essential role in society by telling us stories about those involved with rebuilding efforts after the devastating fire that consumed much of downtown LA’s Central Library in April 1986. We are reminded that libraries are more than just places where we go for information or entertainment; they are bastions for knowledge that provide access points for people regardless of their race or economic background and help foster communities within our cities and towns worldwide.