Julie McDonald Commentary: Author’s Book Describes Crucial Role of Community Libraries


During the general election earlier this month, nearly 60 percent of Morton voters opted to leave the Timberland Regional Library District, reversing a decision a decade ago to pay taxes to support the five-county library system. Yet they never received a permanent library inside the city.

Neither has Toledo, but volunteers there created a community library thanks in large part to Bill and Pat Caldwell’s donation of their former pharmacy building to house it. Timberland has provided a kiosk inside the library there.

But libraries are so important to communities, which I already knew but learned more Nov. 4 at the 20th Annual Fort Vancouver Regional Library Foundation’s Authors & Illustrators Dinner and Auction featuring Susan Orlean, bestselling author of The Library Book and The Orchid Thief. 

I’ve often joined my sister Charline Wright, owner of Columbia River Realty in Washougal, at the annual fundraising event in Vancouver that aims to raise $100,000 for the library system and draws as many as 500 people. I’ve listened to presentations by well-known fiction and nonfiction authors: Craig Johnson, who wrote Hell and Back: The Longmire Mystery series; Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; thriller author Brad Meltzer of The Lightning Rod fame; and Maria Semple, who wrote Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

If I haven’t read their books when I attend the dinner, I do afterward, and I just finished reading The Library Book by Orlean, who spent years digging into a 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Central Library that destroyed almost half a million books and damaged another 700,000.

Orlean shared her love for libraries developed as a child when she and her mother visited the Bertram Woods Branch Library outside of Cleveland several times a week. She recalled “beautiful librarians” stamping crooked due dates on cards inside books that took them on journeys into worlds near and far. 

Orlean shared stories from The Library Book during her presentation at the Vancouver Hilton, where she spoke of past jobs at Willamette Week in Portland and later for The New Yorker and her love of libraries.

“When I miss my mother these days, now that she is gone, I like to picture us in the car together, going for one more magnificent trip to Bertram Woods,” she wrote.

Later, she drifted away from libraries, preferring to purchase books. After moving from New York to Los Angeles in 2011, she discovered her first-grade son’s first school assignment was to interview a city worker. She suggested a garbage collector or police officer, but her son wanted to interview a librarian. As her mother had done decades earlier, she took her son to the local library. I loved her description of a library as “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.”

She met Ken Brecher, head of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, who gave her a tour of the Central Library, a building she described as “very whimsical.” 

“It looks like the architect fell asleep with a book,” she said.

During the tour, Brecher stopped in the fiction section, pulled a book from a shelf, cracked it open, lifted it to his face, and breathed deeply.

“I had never seen someone smell a book quite like that before,” she wrote.

At the Vancouver dinner, she described questions running through her mind as a Los Angeles newcomer. “I thought, what’s the protocol? Do I have to take the book and smell it? And he said to me, ‘You know, you can still smell the smoke.’ And I said, ‘They used to let people smoke?’”

“No!” Brecher said. “Smoke from the fire!”

“The fire?”

“The fire.”

She learned about the fateful morning of April 29, 1986, the date of the largest library fire in American history, overshadowed in the news by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that occurred three days earlier in the Ukrainian region of the Soviet Union. 

She suggested someone should write a book about the library’s fire … and she did.

“Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance,” Orlean wrote. “It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.”

In Senegal, she said, “the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned.”

In her 336-page book, reprinted in October 2019 by Simon & Schuster, Orlean delves into the history of libraries throughout the world and the nation, zooming in on the Los Angeles library and the librarians who developed it through the decades. She also explores the cause of the fire that burned for seven hours and reached temperatures of 2500 degrees. She also wrote about the man investigators suspected of starting the blaze in the fiction section, Harry Peak, a 28-year-old part-time actor who was arrested but released three days later when the district attorney declined to file formal charges. After the fire, the Los Angeles Central Library remained closed for seven years, reopening in October1993, only months after Peak died April 13, 1993, in Palm Springs, Calif., from HIV/AIDS complications. The Library Book with 5,645 reviews ranks 4.3 out of five stars.

Orlean’s descriptive prose brings readers inside the burning library, where book “covers burst like popcorn” and “pages and book jackets and microfilm and magazines crumpled and vanished.” She wrote that “steel shelves brightened from gray to white, as if illuminated from within. Soon, glistening and nearly molten, they glowed cherry red. Then they twisted and slumped, pitching their books into the fire.” Fifty of the 350 firefighters suffered from burns and smoke inhalation but recovered. Volunteers later salvaged some of the books.

In her book, Orlean wrote, “People have been burning libraries for nearly as long as they’ve been building libraries.” She delves into why, noting that “war is the greatest slayer of libraries” and “World War II destroyed more books and libraries than any event in human history.” She described destroying a library as a kind of terrorism.

At the dinner, she elaborated on the destruction of cultures and shared memories. 

“People burn libraries for the same reason that we love libraries,” she said. “They mean something more than the simple sum of their parts. They’re not just warehouses filled with books. They represent something that feels like part of a community. And in that sense, they have unfortunately been the target over the course of history of people who are making a statement about destroying community.”

The book also delves into another issue Lewis County commissioners are grappling with — homelessness. Among people waiting each morning for the library doors to open are parents, students, business leaders, scholars, readers, and the homeless, she said, “who rushed straight to the bathrooms and then made a beeline to the computer center.”

“Libraries have become a de facto community center for the homeless across the globe,” she wrote, noting that media attention to terrible conditions in psychiatric hospitals, development of antipsychotic drugs, and President Ronald Reagan’s cutbacks in funding for mental health led to the discharge of many patients who had no homes of their own. The Great Recession and foreclosures added to the ranks of the homeless, she said. “By 2009, more than 1.5 million people in the United States met the federal definition of homeless.”

In 2017, she said, LA had nearly 60,000 homeless people, second only to New York. 

And, in many cities, especially during times of trouble, she said, libraries provide sanctuaries.

“Often, at the library, society’s problems are magnified,” she wrote. “Homelessness and drug use and mental illness are problems you see in every public place in Los Angeles. One difference is that if you see a mentally ill person on the street, you can cross to the other side. In a library, you share a smaller and more intimate space.”

But their roles as community centers provide opportunities, too, as places to direct people to resources they may need. 

Orlean noted that “public libraries in the United States outnumber McDonald’s” restaurants, with 17,078 public libraries and bookmobiles visited by nearly 300 million Americans each year. She also addressed the growth in Little Free Libraries — where people can borrow and leave books for neighbors to read — such as those in Toledo’s Steamboat Alley and outside Gorham Printing in Centralia. Worldwide, 320,000 libraries serve hundreds of millions of people. She even discussed OverDrive, which was founded in 1986 and provides ebooks loaned through libraries.

I’m sorry to see Morton voters exit the Timberland Regional Library System, but I understand completely as they wanted a library that never materialized. As Orlean’s book illustrates, a library is central to a community.


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.