Well Hack Library School, this is it – my final post on these hallowed pages. I’m starting a job in February at a Science Library, which is basically my dream job. The library is at a big University, so I have many challenges ahead of me: how to balance research and librarianship; how to serve so many students and faculty; how to construct library instruction for large classrooms. The list goes on. But I’m excited for this challenge. This job will push me hard and will hopefully make me a better librarian than I could have ever hoped.
As I step down from this role as writer and editor here, I keep thinking about The Library Book by Susan Orlean. I’m about halfway through the book and I wish I had kept a journal of my thoughts after each chapter. It’s been a long time since I’ve had such an emotional reaction to a book as I have Orlean’s true crime love letter to libraries. I’ve tried to analyze why I feel so much emotion while reading this book, and the only answer I can come up with is, I love libraries. Like, I’m in love with them, similar to my love for my dog or my partner or even my mother. I feel deep attachment to them as an idea, as a societal institution, as a home. So books about libraries, if they are well written and truthful, illicit a reaction very similar to someone exposing a loved one – or setting fire to my home.
For those who aren’t familiar, most of the book is about the Los Angeles Public Library and it’s main (Central) branch. One of the most devastating library fires in America happened there in 1986. The cause of the fire was arson. While the core of the book lies in an investigation of this fire, Orlean’s voice as a writer takes her all over the world of libraries, from ancient China to modern public library struggles with the homeless and the drug addicted. I’m not a big fan of this style; the topics she raises so briefly only serve to frustrate my desire for the details, for more information, and make me upset that the topics she raises aren’t given the time they deserve. She takes detours that I’d rather not take, like her entire chapter on her walk up a hill to burn a book that served as an introduction to the next chapter about Ray Bradbury… it felt too contrived. But I don’t think I’m Orlean’s intended audience. She’s writing to those who maybe aren’t as familiar with libraries as most librarians are.
When I do get sucked into the book, it’s at the weirdest moments. When Orlean describes visiting her local library as a child with her mother, I veered off in a reverie for almost an hour, thinking about my own childhood library, including the amazing conservatory in the center of the library that smelled of rich dirt and rain. It was completely incongruous with the rest of the library; the library was in a very small, very rural town with a tiny budget. And yet it had a conservatory – a well kept conservatory – robustly flourishing in a wild jungle way right at the heart of it! I have no idea, to this day, who kept it up. I do know that the conservatory inspired in me an awe, a magical wonder in plants that I probably wouldn’t have formed otherwise. You could take your books in there and walk the tiny little path and sit on a bench and read. It was heavenly. I haven’t been to that library since I left almost 15 years ago; I don’t even know if the conservatory is still there. After reading Orlean’s passage, I almost felt like I had to go back there tomorrow.
Orlean’s descriptions, too, of public libraries, of the librarian’s visceral emotions after the arson of the LA Central, have me reeling. On more than one occasion, I have literally blubbered myself to sleep as I read about their reactions to watching the collections burn and their depression after the fire was put out. These are hard passages to read, even for the stoutest hearts; I think that reading about them as a librarian is particularly hard.
These emotions seemed pretty normal to me; nostalgia, fear, grief after loss, are all easily explained, even with libraries. But what took me by surprise, and why I’m so confused at the rush of emotions from The Library Book, was the anger. There are several chapters in this book where I felt real, heavy, almost overwhelming anger. It was at the smallest of things. I was upset that Orleans only briefly mentioned the librarians who are fighting the opioid epidemics in her home state of Ohio. I was angered that she never really delved into the true functioning of our public libraries – how library pages do an enormous amount of grunt work often for little pay, how the circulation desk constantly deals with real issues of harassment of various kinds, how librarians are struggling to justify the importance of their jobs to communities that simultaneously utilize their abundant resource and seek to defund them. It’s possible Orlean touches on these in the second half of the book, but I’m not convinced.
Yet, after each flash of my anger, I steady myself. Orlean is doing something with this book, something that I think that librarians aren’t very good at themselves. She’s describing our work to those who aren’t library workers. She’s marketing us. Maybe she doesn’t delve into how much hard work goes into being a page or a circulation clerk (though, to be fair, she does talk about those in the ILL department) because those are the details that don’t matter to those outside – even if they are shockingly important to those of us on the inside. She is helping us serve our patrons by providing large brush strokes of how a library functions. She has to focus on the guy at the top so that those reading her book understand the library as a whole, organic beast.
What’s hilarious about all these emotions is that I’m not going to be a public librarian. I love academia, and I hope that I can go to school for the rest of my life – which is why I chose to be an academic librarian. But my roots are in public libraries; I worked in public libraries for much of my grad school. Those roots are where I learned what “service” meant in libraries – and how service is literally at the core of every type of librarianship. Public library programs often feed into academic library programs, maybe slowly, but definitely steadily. We gain a better understanding of how we can help students and faculty when we learn what public libraries are doing and how they help their patrons. We feed each other.
So, as I start my career, I feel like this is the perfect book to step off with. It reminds me exactly why I wanted to be a librarian, it gives me hope in the future while keeping a steady eye on human behavior, and it gives me the motivation I need to continue telling my story. My story is such a small one, but I brush up against topics that are big and important and need telling. My only hope is that my work in librarianship can be as informative, helpful, and in service to others as Orlean’s. Hopefully my work will one day help my own library flourish.