Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Library Book - Susan Orlean

This book started showing up all over my Facebook feed late last year. Excerpts, interviews, and recommendations came from friends, family, and organizations. Everything I saw gave me reason to believe that I would love this book. And I did.

Of course it would have been right and good (and indeed, most meta) for me to have gotten a copy of this from a library, but I knew that there would be a long waiting list, and I really couldn't wait, so I purchased and downloaded an e-version onto my iPad. I read it out loud with my husband. We both thoroughly enjoyed it.

Normally when I read a book I mark any passage I find about libraries, so that I can easily find them when I am done reading it in order to write my blog post. It is not so simple when I read a book entirely about libraries. If I were to mark every relevant page I would essentially have to re-read the entire book, and I'd still be hard pressed to figure out what to write about here. So I was forced to make some hard decisions. As it is, I marked over sixty pages, so not even everything I found especially noteworthy made the final cut.

In this ode to libraries Orlean weaves together her own relationship with public libraries with the story of the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) and the fire that destroyed the Central Branch in 1986. The tale includes the history of the LAPL begining in the 19th century. Replete with quirky characters including early library director Henry Lummis, and Harry Peak, the man who was arrested for, but never convicted of, starting the fire.

Library Love

Orlean's own love affair with libraries began when she was a child when she went to her local public library regularly with her mother, and they would discuss what books they checked out on the way home. She explains that her family owned very few books because her parents knew that they could get what they wanted for free at the library. In college she eschewed the library and began buying books, to the point that she only had wistful memories of the library. A school project for her first grade son brought her again to the public library
As my son and I drove to meet the librarian I was flooded by a sense of absolute familiarity, a gut-level recollection of this journey, of parent and child on their way to the library. I had taken this trip so many times before, but now it was turned on its head, and I was the parent bringing my child on that special trip...when we stepped in, the thunderbolt of recognition struck me so hard that it made me gasp.
From there Orlean rediscovers her love of libraries, and discovers some things that aren't quite so lovable about them as well. For instance, we see that sexism in libraries has a long history with the tale of Mary Jones who lost her job as director just because they wanted to hire someone else (a man)

Mary Jones' story begins with Mary Foy who was hired in 1880 when
the library was still an organization run by, and catering to, men. Women were not yet allowed to have their own library cards and were permitted only in the Ladies' Room. No library in the country had a female head librarian, and only a quarter of all American library employees were women. The feminization of librarianship was still a decade away.  
Foy served as library director until 1884 when she was removed to make room for Jessie Gavitt, daughter of a "popular rancher". It was further determined that "Foy's father was doing well enough financially that he could now afford to take care of her". A succession of women ran the library until 1905 when Mary Jones, then director, was asked to resign by the library board who believed that "it would be in everyone's best interest to have a man run the library." The man they had in mind was an unconventional fellow named Charles Fletcher Lummis. He was offered the job of director at twice the pay of Jones.

Lummis had been in Los Angeles since 1885, when he walked there from his home in Ohio to take a job as a journalist.  He dressed in a "manner that was not typical for a Caucasian male of the 1880s. His favorite outfit was a three-button suit coat and trousers made of bright green wide-wale corduroy, which he wore with a red-and-black patterned cummerbund."

A philanderer, he was "the focus of endless gossip...reckless, dramatic, quixotic, romantic, and perhaps a bit of a tall-tale teller".

Eventually, Lummis' offensive ways became too much, and in 1910 he was asked to leave.


The story of the fire is interwoven with the story of the enigmatic Harry Peak who some believed started the fire. Ultimately, it was never determined who set the fire, or for that matter if it was arson at all. Harry Peak, however, always remained a person of interest. He was questioned several times, and even arrested and ultimately had over a dozen stories regarding his whereabouts on the day in question. Sometimes he produced an alibi, other times he put himself near the library (but not in it) and at other times he confessed to the crime.

In describing the fire the author made excellent use of allusion, letting her readers know that "The temperature reached 451 degrees and the books began smoldering".

Censorship, book burning, and information loss is the topic of chapter 9 in this book. From Egypt's Great Library of Alexandria, to the Spanish Inquisition, to the colonizers in the Americas destroying Aztec codices, to what George Orwell called that "most characteristic of [Nazi] activit[ies]" - the burning of books. The Feuersprüche (Fire Incantations)
was a pet project of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party's propaganda chief, who understood how fundamental books were to Jewish culture, theology, and identity. Burning Jewish books, in his opinion was an ideal form of bloodless torture, demonstration the limitlessness of German control...The irony of the Feuersprüche was that they [the Nazi's] treated books as seriously as Jews did. To feel the need to destroy them acknowledged the potency and value of books, and recognized the steadfast Jewish attachment to them.
In describing the LAPL fire and its aftermath the author demonstrates how the burning of books, information loss, and the investigation effected those who worked in the library.
Twenty-four of Central's 250 librarians...asked for transfers to other branches. A survey of the remaining staff asked what the most stressful aspect of the fire was. The answers were dire. They included: "Feeling of powerlessness, helplessness brought about by confusion...feeling of isolation of having to work in an almost empty shell of a building that was once a vital place"; Being afraid that, even though nobody was killed in the fire, somebody is going to be killed or badly hurt..."; and "Feeling like a refugee. Holes ripped in an organic entity."...
Furthermore the "librarians complained of eye infections, breathing difficulties, skin irritation, and post-traumatic stress disorder."

Random Musings

Rather than giving each chapter a title, the author started each chapter with a bibliography of books (along with their Dewey Decimal Call numbers) that were related to the upcoming pages. When I noticed inclusion of a book I'd read (or better yet blogged about - such as chapter thirty's Bibliotech) I was sure to mark it. Chapter fourteen's list caught my attention with the inclusion of Map Librarianship: An introduction by Mary Lynette Larsgaard. The  very book that served as my textbook in 1991 when I took a course on Map Librarianship at the University of Arizona Graduate Library School. A few years ago I found the text in packed away in  box at home and used it to make a book-themed Christmas decoration.

Last Christmas when I put this on display at the library I overheard one student say to another "Look at that, they ruined a perfectly good book to make a decoration". While I agree on principle that we shouldn't destroy books, I also think that making art from out-of-date textbooks is a wonderful use of these works (and frankly, this would otherwise have simply be sent to the recycling bin).

The rumors of the demise of libraries are long standing, as evidenced by LAPL's Senior Librarian Glen Creason's reporting that when he entered library school in 1979 (on a whim, hoping to meet women) that the head of the RAND Corporation announced that libraries would soon be obsolete. 

Perhaps one of my favorite anecdotes in the book is the story about a CBS radio program called Americans at Work that aired during the Great Depression and featured plays about different professions. One of the plays was about a young woman (Helen) wanting to become a librarian. Her mother insists that it is a job for "older ladies who need to help out a bit". Then Helen's uncle comes to the rescue explaining that "a librarian's got to be a right modern smart girl nowadays."

Some things, of course, are universal in libraries. I was especially interested to read about the problem with getting an employee parking lot, something that was an ongoing issue when I worked at the McAllen (Texas) Public Library in the mid 1990s and that people who call asking questions that they can easily "google" the answer to goes on every where.

Orlean had my husband and I crying a bit at the end when she explains why she wanted to write the book
to tell about a place I love that doesn't belong to me but feels like it is mine, and how that feels marvelous and exceptional. All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library's simple unspoken promise: Here I am, please tell me your story; here is my story, please listen.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Her Mother's Daughter - by Marilyn French

"A novel by the author of The Women's Room" says the cover of the book. When I learned the term "feminist literature" in college it was because of Marilyn French. I actually read The Women's Room, the whole thing, when it was assigned to me in my Literature and Social Change course 25 years ago. I was stunned during a small group discussion in class to learn that one in my group (a man) admitted to not having read the whole thing. This, of course, did not stop him from providing us all with his opinions of the work.

Anyway, when I saw this on a free book exchange shelf I knew it would be a good thing for me to read during my time off over the holidays.

The novel follows four generations of women from the turn of the 20th century, through the depression and into the tumultuous '60s and '70s. The mother-daughter relationships throughout the decades are always complicated, and aggravated by the fact that they are living in a man's world.

Whip-smart Anatasia discovers solace in books, and the small library in the back of her elementary school classroom, as well as her local public library where books on art and photography pique her interest. As an adult Anastasia finds her dream job as a photographer for World magazine. She describes preparing for her interview
I had enough wits about me to set the interview a week away. This gave me time to go through all my drawers, considering. I rejected all those pictures of angry or dismayed mothers; and most of those that were interesting, odd close ups of unusual objects like a stack of sewer pipes or a train wheel, or the inside of an iris. All baby pictures were taboo. I ended with a set showing men working, machines, and a few splendid landscapes. After all, I knew what World liked. I saw it every week in the Herald waiting room. It was the best picture magazine-and the best paying-in the world. At the time, I regret to say, I did not think about all the concealed censorship; about how, if you want to get ahead in the wold, you take your cue from what is established, and shoot the things the establishment enjoys seeing, and avoid those it does not. I did not think about the ways we are taught, outside the church and the schoolroom, what to value, or about my being manipulated by the power world. I just wasn't thinking; I wasn't a political person...I didn't even think about how I automatically knew what photographs to include, or the meaning behind the choice of what to exclude.
As we close the second decade of the 21st century self-censorship is still an issue. I think the difference now is that artists and authors are aware that they are doing it. Concern over what will sell, or what our bosses will like continues to drive so much of our decision-making.

Also still alive and well is the practice of men participating in book discussions about books they freely admit to not having read, as evidenced by an (entirely optional) gathering I attended just last weekend.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library - by Carole Boston Weatherford

Going to elementary school in the 1970s meant that for one week in February each year we would celebrate Black History. It seemed that there were only two people worthy of recognition whom we would study each year: George Washington Carver and Benjamin Banneker (the latter was especially important to us because he was from Baltimore County Maryland, where my school was located). It did not occur to me that there might be more to history than what we were taught. Women (neither black nor white) were barely mentioned in any kind of historical context.

Even as Black History Week expanded to Black History Month there was little discussion of the contributions of those other than white men in building our country. We did discuss slavery, but recognition of contributions of individuals of color were rare.

Growing up in Puerto Rico in the late 19th century Arturo Schomburg was explicitly taught that "Africa's sons and daughters had no history, no heroes worth noting". A lover of books and reading, Schomburg set out to find the history that he knew was there. Like me he learned about Benjamin Banneker. Unlike me, however, he learned about a scholar whereas I simply learned of a native son. I'm not even sure I knew why he was famous beyond the fact that he had been a free black man during a time of slavery. Learning about Banneker began a lifelong quest for Schomburg to find out all he could about African Americans. His passion lead him to poet Phillis Wheatley, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and whaler Paul Cuffee. He also found some surprises about famous people who were descendants of Africans, among them naturalist John James Audubon, author Alexandre Dumas, and composer Ludwig van Beethoven. He collected all he could and soon had an enormous selection of literature.

A true mover and shaker of the Harlem Renaissance he rubbed elbows with W.E.B. DuBois, and Booker T. Washington. His vast collection of literature by Black authors and about Black history and was purchased by the Carnegie Corporation in 1926 and donated to the New York Public Library.
If Harlem was the heart of African-American culture, 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library was the mind. If the library were a university, its alumni would include the Harlem Renaissance figures who lost themselves amid its stacks and wrote in a quiet room downstairs. Schomburg's collection...would become the cornerstone of the Division of Negro History Literature and Prints.
It included more than five thousand books, several thousand pamphlets, plus priceless prints and papers.
He went on to found the Fisk University Library's Negro Collection in 1931, and then returned to the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library where
Arturo became the guardian of his collection. His peculiar method of shelving books arranged them by size and color, like a bouquet. In fact, he fired a new librarian for using the standard Dewey Decimal System. 
Any librarian can tell an anecdote about a patron who couldn't remember the title or author of the book they wanted, but they knew the color of the cover, so we won't necessarily shake our heads at Schomburg's methods. The Dewey Decimal System has plenty of drawbacks, too.

Beyond demonstrating the importance of libraries, this work also shows the importance of books as "windows and mirrors" on multiple levels.