“The library is a whispering post.”

Books on Tap met virtually on Thursday, July 1 at 7 pm to discuss The Library Book by Susan Orlean. The Amazon book blurb hooks us in by describing a catastrophic fire and the lingering puzzle: “more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library — and if so, who?” But being the library geek I am, I’ll share a secret: take a peek at the call number, 027.4794. The 000 class is for “computer science, information, and general works”; the 020 division classifies “library and information sciences,” and the 027 section is for “general libraries.” Readers with this knowledge won’t be surprised when they find “the broader story of libraries and librarians” (Goodreads). I would have expected more investigative-style journalism if the call number had been 345 or 364!

In fact, “Orlean noted that its [The Library Book] design is actually very intentional. Rather than a chronological and subject-leading discussion of the fire, she instead sets up the book as a sort of library in which each chapter is a volume of its own. This allows the reader to learn a little bit about everything, just as they might by browsing titles on book spines in a library” (Book Riot). So how did our readers respond? We found Harry Peak to be the thread who kept popping up throughout the book. He kept us reading until the end, as there were swaths of the book that were more arduous; pages felt bogged down by seemingly endless statistics. There was just enough Harry for us as readers (we took Orlean’s bait and stayed on for the history, social commentary, quirks, and stories of local, everyday transcendence and transformation). 

In fact, Orleans provided plenty of space for additional characters of interest, and our group loved the larger than life personalities, especially the head librarians; we were surprised at the level of independence these figures had, given the library’s positioning as a public, bureaucratic, government-associated institution. But these librarians were like cowboys — romping through the wild west and pulling off dazzling stunts. Reading about the level of power and influence was almost dizzying, and certainly added hints of tension to the narrative — a bad director could have easily created a world of destruction and hurt. Would it happen in L.A.? What we did not find as endearing were the gimmicky card catalogue inserts at the start of each chapter. We found very little correlation between the item being catalogued and the content of the chapter; but, these artifacts did reiterate for us the immense variety of materials available. This was something we found (and enjoyed) throughout the book. We are all familiar with library books, but it was delightful to read about maps, musical scores, and restaurant menus, too. 

Most of all, our members were “amazed” (their word, not mine!) at the extent of a librarian’s job. At the crux of this amazement was the realization that librarians have to deal with so much (and so much of it arrives under our noses without any advance warning). The promise of change, uncertainty, and novelty is what drew many of us into this field, though. We enjoyed telling our own stories and reflecting with our club about how libraries, like grocery stores, are some of the best places to visit when travelling, as they are unfiltered, uncensored reflections of the community. Libraries treasure local history and information, are free and open to all members of the public, and their core values include access, democracy, diversity, intellectual freedom, and service (read more about the core values of librarianship, and find links to other amazing documents such as the Freedom to Read Statement the Library Bill of Rights, here). We have more work to do before we can say we truly reflect our service area, but we show up daily to put in that work. 

This love-fest would have been all the more fun in person. While our Zoom meetings have allowed us to share conversation with faraway friends, we are excited to reconvene at Champion Brewing Company for our next meeting (Thursday, August 5, 7 pm). We will be reading Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry. Please join us at Champion next month! Email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

About JMRL Central Reference

Librarians in the reference department at the Central Library of JMRL.

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