For many of us, libraries were sanctuaries when we were young – maybe they still are. Weird and bookish kids found themselves an accepting home among the stacks, filled with stories of other weird and bookish kids who saved the world and lived their best lives. Libraries have evolved into so much more than a place to borrow books: they provide essential social services, shelter, and support. And yet, they’re under attack, for… I don’t understand what, exactly, but it usually boils down to having books on their shelves that a small vocal section of the community don’t like. For National Library Week, I thought it was high time for a show of support from Keeping Up With The Penguins. Here are ten books about libraries, those heavenly sanctuaries for weird and bookish kids that deserve our protection.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Before you pick up The Library Book, you really should warn your family and friends: you’re about to become a fount of fun facts about libraries and their history. Susan Orlean hadn’t even heard about the 1986 Los Angeles Central Library fire until she moved to the area (it was edged out of national news headlines by the Chernobyl disaster on the same day). As she investigates the fire, and tries to seek out the truth of who might have set the beloved institution alight, Orlean discovers a rich and fascinating history of libraries, librarians, and Los Angeles. Read my full review of The Library Book here.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
It’s hardly surprising to think that most bibliophiles imagine the afterlife to be some kind of library. That’s basically the premise of The Midnight Library. The main character, Nora, decides to take her own life after a series of bad decisions leaves her with a lonely life and a long list of regrets. She finds herself, hovering between life and death, in a magical library, filled with books that represent all the lives she could have lived. One by one, guided by her librarian, she “reads” book after book, and gets to sample all of these potential lives and potential selves. It’s a bit saccharine, sure, but it was the fable we all needed during the pandemic years. Read my full review of The Midnight Library here.
The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams
In The Reading List, Aleisha – a bright but anxious teenager – scores herself a dream summer job: working at the local library. There, she finds a crumpled-up list in the back of a well-worn copy of To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s a bunch of novels she’s never heard of before, but she’s intrigued. She decides to use her job at the library to track them all down and read them one by one. On impulse, she passes the list onto Mukesh, one of the library’s patrons, a widower desperate to connect with his bookworm granddaughter. This is a heartfelt and moving book about the power of books and libraries to bring us together.
The Department Of Rare Books And Special Collections by Eva Jurczyk
Sure, there’s a stereotype about librarians: they’re stern, quiet, rule-followers. But what about one of them gets called to adventure? That’s what happens in The Department Of Rare Books And Special Collections. Liesl is your stereotypical librarian, working away at preserving rare books in a university library, until her boss is incapacitated by a stroke and she discovers a shocking secret. One of the prize manuscripts in the collection is missing – and one of her colleagues goes missing along with it. Will she be able to uncover the truth behind both disappearances, without involving the police? This is an unassuming-hero-makes-good story that will warm your cockles.
The Last Library by Freya Sampson
The Last Library – called The Last Chance Library in some territories – is like a feel-good sports romance for library-lovers. Instead of a couple coming together to save a sports field or win a championship, the stakes are a local library and a community of eccentric characters dedicated to keeping it open. June Jones is a reclusive thirty-something who’d prefer to spend her time with fictional friends than real people, but the campaign to save her village library forces her to open up. An old school friend, Alex Chen, comes out of the woodwork to help June with the campaign, and… well, you’ll have to read it to see where things go.
The Library by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen
The Library (subtitle: A Fragile History) is a booklover’s dream book about libraries. First off, it comes in a beautifully-designed hardcover, complete with ribbon bookmark. They clearly knew their target market! And inside, you’ll find “the rich and dramatic history of the library, from the famous collections of the ancient world to the embattled public resources we cherish today”. It’s an interesting wide-view window into world history via book collections through the ages, with a particular focus on the ancient, medieval, and Renaissance history of the library, when it largely existed as personal collections of the wealthy and powerful. Read my full review of The Library here.
The Librarian by Salley Vickers
Historical fiction readers looking for books about libraries can’t go past The Librarian. Salley Vickers imagines a charming 1950s English village, introduces a children’s librarian, and plagues the community with scandal – it’s a winning recipe! Sylvia Blackwell thinks her new job in East Mole will be a dream come true, and it almost is… until she falls in love with an older man. That alone would be enough to get tongues wagging, but it’s Sylvia’s relationships with two of the town’s children, and the literature she introduces them to, that really lights a fire under them all. This book is proof of how a library can change a child’s life – for better or for worse.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
The Starless Sea is one of the dreamiest books about libraries you’ll find at your local, marrying the usual contemporary world with a mythical and magical one. The story begins when Zachary Rawlins, a student killing time before semester starts, finds a mysterious old book in the library that recounts a specific and strange event from his childhood. He has no idea how his story could have been written into a book, donated by an enigmatic deceased benefactor to a university library, before he was even born. Investigating the book’s history takes him to a masquerade party in New York, and there he stumbles into a magical world of pirates and princesses, bees and keys, swords and stories. Read my full review of The Starless Sea here.
The One And Only Dolly Jamieson by Lisa Ireland
The main characters of The One And Only Dolly Jamieson are a former stage star sleeping rough and a disgraced mummy influencer: where on earth would their paths cross? At the library, of course! Dolly Jamieson is just looking for a place to stay warm and snooze, while Jane needs a quiet place to dry her tears and pull herself together. They get to talking, and soon Jane takes an interest in Dolly’s incredible story. They meet at the library, again and again, to start putting Dolly’s life on the page. The library is perhaps not the main focus of this book, but it is an essential component of the story, one that brings people together and offers them a safe space to figure out what comes next. Read my full review of The One And Only Dolly Jamieson here.
Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey
Never doubt that librarians can save the world. In Upright Women Wanted, they’re the only ones who do. This dystopian novel by Hugo Award-winning author Sarah Gailey is a futuristic queer Western, populated by bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing. Esther, a young woman desperate to escape the marriage her father has arranged for her, stows away in the Librarian’s book wagon. She’s drawn away from everything she knows, and into a world that forces her to question it all. If you’re looking for books about libraries that interrogate queer identity and social mores, this is the one for you!
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