Susan Orlean at the 2018 Texas Book Festival in Austin, Texas in 2018.
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Susan Orlean at the 2018 Texas Book Festival in Austin, Texas in 2018.

Susan Orlean writes about the biggest library fire no one knows about

When author Susan Orlean moved to Los Angeles, people asked her if she had visited the beautiful library downtown.  

She didn’t even know there was a downtown. But soon she learned about the history of the library – and the tragic fire that burned the library for seven hours, destroying or damaging over a million books. 

Few know about this fire, Orlean said, because it occurred on April 29, 1986, the same day as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.  

Susan Orlean

New Yorker writer Susan Orlean tells the story of the Los Angeles Central Library fire and talks about why we love libraries and books.

"They lost many, many, many books that could never be replaced,” she said. It remains the largest-ever library fire in the United States, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

“The only complete patent collection west of the Mississippi was lost,” Orlean said. “Until another one was purchased, there was no patent collection that anybody could look at. Many of the books could not be replaced because they were out of print and not easily found again.”

Orlean pointed out that, “if you have $22m to replace books in a library, you’re a very lucky man. The city of LA was not so lucky and the insurance covered the damage to the building but it did not cover the books. So there was this crisis of how were we going to rebuild the collection.” 

For Orlean, libraries have a sacred quality. “When I walk into a library the first thing I do inevitably is just sort of gasp,” she said. 

“This feeling of such bounty and the fact that all of these things are there to be borrowed and looked at. There’s something very, very unique and kind of other worldly about the space of a library.” 

Orlean said one of the things that struck her was how libraries and the books in them create a sense of community and sharing.

“That feeling of it being an ongoing conversation that these books were written god knows when as a way of kind of communicating with people. And then we share those books, so in a sense, we’re kind of connecting with all the other people who have shared the same book and the stories are being carried on from one person to another, from one generation to another.

The author learned about her new city by researching the LA Central Library for her latest book, fittingly called “The Library Book.”  

“It was a great way for me to learn about the city,” she said. “The growth of the library in many ways paralleled and reflected the growth of LA as a city. It was a way to become familiar with my new home.”  

Produced for the web by Katherine Banwell.