Love Letters to the Library

The SLPL Social Sciences librarian (on left, holding her childhood library card) giddily posing with Susan Orlean, author of The Library Book

"In the library, time is dammed up – not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever." The Library Book, pp. 11-12.

"Why have so many public officials and civic leaders failed to recognize the value of libraries and their role in our social infrastructure? Perhaps it's because the founding principle behind the library – that all people deserve free, open access to our shared culture and heritage, which they can use to any end they see fit – is out of sync with the market logic that dominates our time. (If, today, the library didn't already exist, it's hard to imagine our society's leaders inventing it.) But perhaps it's because so few influential people understand the role that libraries already play in modern communities, or the many roles they could play if they had more support." Palaces for the People, p. 37.

These two titles arrived at St. Louis Public Library in the fall of 2018, though the many copies the Library holds of each book have spent very little time on our shelves; both books are regularly checked out and in the hands of (we can only assume) book and library lovers. Readers are likely to feel even more fervently about the importance of public libraries and surprised at the breadth and depth of modern library offerings after reading one or both of the books. A recent article in the New York Review of Books, "In Praise of Public Libraries" by Sue Halpern, quotes the authors (first Klinenberg, then Orlean): "'Libraries are the kinds of places where ordinary people with different backgrounds, passions, and interests can take part in a living democratic culture,' he writes. Yet as Susan Orlean observes in her loving encomium to libraries everywhere, aptly titled The Library Book, 'The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity. It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace.'"  (The article also praises the film Ex Libris by Frederick Wiseman about the New York Public Library, also in theory available via St. Louis Public Library, though at the time of this blog post the film is checked out and the catalog shows a patron with a hold.)

Orlean's The Library Book tells the story of the April 29, 1986 fire that devastated the Los Angeles Central Library; the book is simultaneously a detective story exploring the suspected arson and the prime suspect, a history of the Los Angeles Public Library system and some of the colorful characters who headed it up since it was founded in 1873, and a deep dive into libraries - how they function, what they do, and who makes them run - both the people at the reference desks and the many folks behind the scenes. Orlean begins each chapter with a short list of books related to the topic at hand, complete with authors and Dewey Decimal Numbers. Since she had already done the hard work, we pulled many of the books listed (and we had most of them) for a book display, provided here virtually in list form 

Copies of titles from the beginning of several chapters in Susan Orlean's The Library Book

Klinenberg's book focuses broadly on "social infrastructure," its essential role in society, and posits that the decline in social infrastructure can be closely linked to the decline in the quality of civic life. The title "Palaces for the People" is the phrase that Andrew Carnegie, industrialist and library philanthropist, used to describe the many grand public libraries that were built in part from his largesse, one of which is our very own, decidedly palatial, Central Library. ("The cost of the building in round numbers was $1,500,000, of which about $65,000 was for furniture and $30,000 was for lighting fixtures, including bronze and carved marble standards, etc. The sum of $500,000 was given by Andrew Carnegie, and the remainder was taken from funds of the Library." ~facsimile reproduction of 1912 pamphlet, "The Central Library Building of the Public Library of the City of St. Louis." Carnegie also funded six St. Louis Public Library branches, four of which - Barr, Cabanne, Carpenter, and Carondelet - are still in service.) In addition to public libraries, Klinenberg examines other facets of social infrastructure, including housing (Chapter 2, "Safe Spaces," explores St. Louis' Pruitt-Igoe housing project), schools, parks, and more (but he does keep coming back to the libraries). While you wait for a copy of Palaces for the People to become available, you may want to check out this 99% Invisible podcast about the book.

In the month of April we observed National Library Week (April 7-13) and Preservation Week (April 21-27), but St. Louis Public Library is here for you year round, preserving books, culture, history, and the social infrastructure. Come downtown and visit your palace. 

Andrew Carnegie quote found on Locust St. side of Central Library.
We welcome your respectful and on-topic comments and questions in this limited public forum. To find out more, please see Appropriate Use When Posting Content. Community-contributed content represents the views of the user, not those of St. Louis Public Library