Hannibal Free Public Library

The Library Book


Susan Orlean

October 18, 2021

2:30 – 4:00 p.m.




On the morning of April 28, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library.  As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more.  Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library? 

Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.




Susan Orlean is an American journalist. She has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992, and has contributed articles to Vogue, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Outside.  Orlean is the author of several books, including The Orchid ThiefRin Tin Tin, The Ghost Flower, and The Library Book




  1. What has your relationship with libraries been throughout your life? Can you share some library memories from childhood to adulthood?


  1. Were you at all familiar with the Los Angeles library fire? Or any library fire?


  1. How would you describe the fire’s impact on the community? How about the community’s rebuilding efforts?


  1. In chapter 5, Orlean writes that books "take on a kind of human vitality." What role do books play in your life and home, and do you anthropomorphize them? Have you ever wrestled with the idea of giving books away or otherwise disowning them?


  1. What is your impression of John Szabo? How does his career inform and shape your understanding of what librarians do?


  1. Libraries today are more than just a building filled with books. How has your local branch evolved? Are you able to chart these changes and gauge their success within the community?


  1. The Library Book confronts the issue of street people patronizing the library. How do you feel about the L.A. library’s involvement, handling of the issue, and the notion of inclusion?


  1. Andrew Carnegie is perhaps the most famous supporter and benefactor of libraries. Can you name a modern equivalent who is using his or her largesse to underwrite public works? Is it more important for the public sector to have big benefactors or overall community support?


  1. What was your initial impression of Harry Peak? Did it change throughout the investigation?


  1. What was your reaction to the Mary Jones and Charles Lummis saga? Can you cite any similar examples from history or the present?


  1. Each of the head librarians discussed in The Library Book brought certain qualities to the position. What ideas and initiatives did you like? Did you disagree with any?


Adapted from:  https://www.litlovers.com/reading-guides/non-fiction/11396-library-book-orlean?start=3