21 October 2018
“All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here is my story, please listen; here I am, please tell me your story.”
For many people, I imagine libraries are like places of worship - everyone is made to feel welcome and part of a greater community.
In the case of a library, it’s a community not only of readers, but also of people looking for someone to answer their questions, migrants taking literacy classes, people needing help with bureaucratic forms, teens wanting a safe place to hang out, collectors with memorabilia to donate . . . the list is endless . . . although it does eventually end with homeless people seeking a safe place to sit out of the weather. (If they fall asleep, they may be turfed out.)
The Los Angeles Public Library has had a particularly lively history and some unbelievably colourful people running it. Charles Lummis was one of the most charismatic and peculiar men around, I suspect, even in the wilds of Los Angeles in 1885.
Lummis was in Ohio when he was hired, and he decided to walk from Ohio to California, ostensibly to find out about America, but really to make an entrance when he got there. And he did. His “tramp” was covered by the newspapers and he was famous by the time he arrived. It all helps with funding!
This is him in his sombrero and bright green, wide-wale, corduroy suit with red Indian-patterned cummerbund which he wore all the time. He’d fit right in with today’s Hollywood.
[See photograph of Charles Lummis]
The author introduces each chapter with the library details of various books that might apply to the chapter. The central story is about the LA library and the devastating fire, but the history of early libraries and its own establishment are woven in with the details of the fire and the mystery surrounding the suspected arsonist.
Susan Orlean is a well-regarded author and is also a staff writer at The New Yorker Magazine, so you know you’re in good hands. What could have been a dry history book is more like investigative journalism, with plenty of gossip and innuendo – this is Los Angeles, remember! Lummis was famous for his drunken parties and wild friends, and his section of the book reads like something out of the hippy days nearly a century later. There really is nothing new under the sun.
I won’t attempt to summarise Orlean’s excellent research or the police hunt for the perpetrator, but I do want to mention some of the book-burnings she describes. She even tried to burn one herself, to see what it would feel like, but she had a terrible time bringing herself to do it.
“Once words and thoughts are poured into them, books are no longer just paper and ink and glue: They take on a kind of human vitality. The poet Milton called this quality in books ‘the potency of life.’ I wasn’t sure I had it in me to be a killer.”
In another part of the world:
“In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned.”
They say that history belongs to those who write it. That’s true – to a point.
“The first recorded instance of book burning was in 213 BC, when Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang decided to incinerate any history books that contradicted his version of the past. In addition, he buried more than four hundred scholars alive.”
What a frightening thought. But then in our own time, during WW2, the Holocaust attempted to wipe out an entire people, including the books.
“Special book-burning squads known as ‘Brenn-Kommandos’ were sent out to burn libraries and synagogues.
. . .
“By the end of the war, more than one third of all the books in Germany were gone.”
Meanwhile, back in the States
“In the 1940s, for instance, a schoolteacher named Mabel Riddle, with the support of the Catholic Church, began a campaign to collect and burn comic books because of their energetic portrayal of crime and sex. . . many local parishes sponsored their own comic-book fires. In a few instances, nuns lit the first match.”
. . .
“Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.”
Back to Los Angeles. The fire and its aftermath are described in horrifying detail, but the amazing thing is that it’s the water from the firefighting that causes so much damage. Mould and mildew are as bad as fire. Did you know you have to freeze a wet book to salvage it? What do you do with thousands of them? The fish markets! The logistics of packing wet books, moving, storing, freezing, rebuilding the library are extensive and exhausting.
Oh, one more thing. When pseudo-science books started becoming popular, Lummis instituted his own “Literary Pure Food Act”, branded the books with a “poison” symbol, and added inserts.
“The cards, shaped like bookmarks, said, ‘For Later and More Scientific Treatment of This Subject, Consult______,’ followed by a blank space for librarians to list better books on the topic.”
More libraries, more librarians, sombreros and all!