Academic Libraries and 'The Library Book’

Public libraries, books, and us.

November 28, 2018

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Published in October of 2018.

There should be a word for a book that you know would be great but that you are hesitant to read, but then you go ahead and read anyway and then wonder why you hesitated. I wouldn’t be surprised if there exists a Yiddish word to express this thought.

The Library Book is just one of those books in which I initially hesitated to acquire, finally committed to reading, and then thoroughly savored.

So why did I hesitate? For those of you who have not yet put The Library Book at the top of your must-read pile, why the delay?

Part of my hesitation was that I think that I already know quite a lot about public libraries.  After all, I’ve been going to the public library since I was a small child.  My confidence that I understand public libraries is also bolstered by the fact that my campus office is in the main academic library building. I’m surrounded by librarians.

Orlean’s deep dive into the history and operations of the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) is plenty to convince me that my confidence was, as usual, unfounded. Those of us outside of the library world are liable to conflate the mission, operations, and cultures of academic and public libraries.

The Library Book tells the story of the LAPL through the prism of the 1986 fire that nearly burned the place down. As per an Orlean book, The Library Book is never about only one thing. Instead, it reads like the love child of a true crime mystery, a sociological study of the impact and challenges of public libraries in urban communities, and a history of public libraries in America. Throw in some ideas about how public libraries are evolving and the limits of current arson investigative techniques, mix in a cultural history of Los Angeles, and you are only just starting to describe the delicious stew that is The Library Book.

We are experiencing a gratifying boomlet of books in which public libraries are discussed for their contributions to society, and in which librarians come across as the coolest people on the planet. The Library Book makes a perfect companion to Palaces for the People.  

What we very much need is a book as good as The Library Book and Palaces for the People to be written about academic libraries and academic librarians.

As much as I don’t know about public libraries, I’m sure I know less about the world of academic libraries.  My firm sense is that academic libraries are as essential for colleges and universities as public libraries are for their local communities.  I also tend to believe that academic librarians are the smartest, most dedicated, and ultimately among the most important educators and professionals on campus.

It would be a great thing if we were discussing a book about the past, present, and future of academic libraries.

Can you recommend any books about libraries and librarians, public or academic?

What are you reading?

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Joshua Kim

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