I'm like a library book
so check me out
Greetings from Ireland!
I’ve been off on my honeymoon walking the Kerry Way, a 133 mile ten day hike through County Kerry Ireland:
At night Raviv said he didn’t fall asleep, he died, and somehow came back to life by morning. This was the vibe:
One of the things I missed most as I hobbled through the soggy hills of Ireland (we had a very nice time) was going down rabbit holes with all of you. Not actual rabbit holes of which I saw many. Or ‘The Hole of Sorrows’ which is the name of a Portal Tomb in County Clare.
Aside: As far as I can tell a portal tomb is an old Irish burial practice … but despite many hours of googling I found no evidence that it transports you to another dimension. The Hole of Sorrows is made of limestone though, and I was once told that buildings made of limestone hold more ghosts, so that’s something.
The Senegalese euphemism for when someone dies is to say “their library has burned.”
There have been a lot of posts about books on this fair substack:
but never one about their origin story: libraries.
One of the best books i’ve read in recent years is Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, about the history of the Los Angeles Public Library. I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially as we move into the portal tomb months of Autumn.
The book begins by discussing the great fire at the Downtown Public Library in 1986 where more than one million books were damaged or destroyed. Once the fire was finally out, so many of the surviving books were water damaged, so hundreds of volunteers showed up to help pass the books in a continuous line to meat packing freezers nearby. Multiple freezers were dedicated to storing wet books so that the library had more time to dry out as many books as possible before they got mouldy.
Library books are not just the prey of fires - in Portugal the University of Coimbra Library keeps a colony of bats who come out at night and protect the books from paper-eating insects.
Which is a shame not just because libraries are thick with hot facts, but also because people use them to find love: this note was once found inside a library book:
Dear Jennie, where are you keeping yourself? I have searched three cities for you and advertised in vain. Knowing that you like books I am writing this appeal in every library book I can get hold of in hope that it may come to your eyes. Write to me at the old address, please.
Marry him Jennie!!
And love was not just found within the pages of a book. The iconic Althea Warren, City Librarian of the Los Angeles public library from 1933-1947:
was very much in love with Gladys English, the Los Angeles Public Library's head of the Children's Department. After Gladys died Althea established the “Gladys English Collection of Original Illustration for Children’s Books.” If you haven’t been to the children’s section of the Downtown Public Library in Los Angeles go, go now.
Althea wrote the book as it were, on how to live with books:
Warren was an avid reader and encouraged all librarians to do the same. She said in a speech to a library association in 1935, librarians should “read a drunkard drinks or as a bird sings or a cat sleeps or dog responds to an invitation to go walking, not from conscience or training, but because they’d rather do it than anything else in the world.” Throughout her life, Warren published little tip sheets - “Althea’s Ways to Achieve Reading” - to encourage people to find time for books. She approved of fibbing if it gave you an additional opportunity to read. “The night you promised to go to dinner with the best friend of your foster aunt, just telephone that you have such a bad cold and you’re afraid she’ll catch it,” she wrote in one of her tip sheets. “Stay at home instead and gobble Lucy Gayheart in one gulp like a boa constrictor.”
When she wasn’t swallowing books whole, she also began a phone-in reference service for the library. The reference service was extremely popular, and it was used in ways that no one at the library anticipated - it was essentially the original google. I’ll just say it, Althea Warren invented google.
In 1937, the library compiled a list of what callers were asking, which included:
What Romeo looked like
Average length of human life
Whether immortality can be perceived in the iris of the eye.
So Althea’s invention is better than google.
A good reference desk became a central feature of the library. Central Library’s reference department was called the Southern California Answering Network - SCAN - and it was popular locally and also nationally. The SCAN librarians also kept records of the requests they received:
Patron call. Wanted to know how to say “The necktie is in the bathtub” in Swedish.
Patron wants to know origin of the expression “bear coughed at the North Pole” (unable to provide answer).
Patron call asking whether it is necessary to rise if the National anthem is played on radio or television. Explained that one need only do what is natural and unforced; for instance, one does not rise while bathing, eating or playing cards.
Or if one is looking for their necktie in the bathtub in Sweden.
In 1973, the library even added a service called the Hoot Owl Telephonic Reference, which operated from 8pm to 1am, long after the library was closed. Dialing H-O-O-T-O-W-L connected you to a librarian who could find the answer to almost any question. The Hoot Owl slogan was “win the best without a fight.”
Althea Warren wasn’t the only notable City Librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library, in 1905 Charles Fletcher Lummis was appointed, to much controversy as he had no training. He had a varied career but this is my favourite fact about him:
He loved the library, but felt out of place among other head librarians he met at national conventions. He thought they were “pompous asses,” so he created a group he hopes would provide refuge for himself and his fellow library iconoclasts. He called it “The Bibliosmiles,” and it was also known as “Libraries who are nevertheless human.” one of the founding members was Tessa Kelso, who shared Lummis’s contempt for the status quo. The group’s slogan was “Cheer up, American Library Association!” Its official beverage was apricot brandy. Each member had a Bibliosmiles nickname. Lummis’s’s nickname was “Grim Reality.”
Matija and Cecilia co-authored a paper, looking into the heritage of smell, specifically the smell of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and the smell that they emit when paper degrades.
‘Some people say that it’s the smell of dying books’ Matija exclaims.
They compiled a Historic Book Odor Wheel
This work is still in its infancy, says Bembibre, but one day odor could be used more by museums and historians to reconstruct a past we can no longer smell.
Smell is often referred to as the Cinderella Sense, the most under-appreciated of the 5 senses, but probably one of the most checked out books from the Downtown Public Library Children’s department.
The title of this post was taken from this iconic Flame Princess rap written by Seo Kim, I dare you not to sing it when you check out your next library book. But it can also be co-opted for checking out libraries in general.
Epilogue: I’m a Library, so check me out.
After reading The Library Book I make a point of checking out the library of every new town I go to. The library in Telluride, Colorado is particularly appealing to me:
Because not because they offer:
But if I lived there, I would check that out.
Please let me know your favourite libraries in the comments!