There was the smell of old books, a smell that has a way of making all libraries seem the same. Some say that smell is asbestos.—Quiet, Please
This is a niche memoir in a world currently stuffed full of niche memoirs. Only this one is tucked into a smaller niche on the far side of the niche packed full of memoirs, because most of its readers will be librarians or aspiring librarians and possibly the people who love them.
In fact, I’ve worked in a handful of libraries and always thought I would like to continue doing so in the future. After reading this book, I still think I may want to work in libraries, but if your faith in your library-centric future is faint, you might want to skip this memoir. Or else read it in order to convince yourself that your true career path lies elsewhere.
The funniest material is about the crazy patrons who flock to branch libraries in Californian cities. They probably exist in most places, but the mild Californian climate probably attracts a higher than normal concentration. Clearly, Douglas’ memories about patrons who range from mildly neurotic to completely bonkers to your run-of-the-mill angry teenager are more interesting than describing the mild-mannered pensioners or soccer moms who must surely have also patronized the library at some point.
Sometimes it is Douglas’ coworkers who make the least sense, with their committees and regulations and policies. However, the reader gets the idea that these sometimes bizarre rules are in place because there are some very strange situations that need to be addressed. Should there be a policy regarding how long patrons are allowed to remain in the restroom? Or whether it is acceptable to bring your own casserole into the library and ask the reference desk worker to heat it up in the staff room so you can continue playing computer games without going home to feed your children? Is serving free popcorn to all and sundry a good idea when some patrons would prefer their books sans grease spots? Yet who doesn’t love free popcorn? As Douglas’ boss remarks, “...more important than books is community! Libraries are about community! And community loves popcorn!’
Douglas has a knack for observing people. That said, his inconsistency in mentioning co-workers by name or maintaining a coherent time-line for the book is distracting, at times. The author resorts to many, many footnotes and sub-sections within the chapters to distract the reader from the general disorganization of the narrative, and the book can be thoroughly enjoyed if the reader simply takes it as more of a collection of anecdotes than a cohesive tale. One chapter, for example, discusses In-N-Out hamburger vouchers given as prizes for reading achievement. Douglas notes first that though he has not eaten beef for several years he can still remember how good an In-N-Out burger tasted; four pages later he remarks that the last time he ate there he couldn’t remember what it tasted like.
Funny thing, memory. And Douglas does go right ahead and admit that his memoir is embellished for the entertainment of the reader. Better to come straight out and declare such a thing than to pretend that it is possible for memoirs to be entirely factual. Refreshing, really.
Though Douglas periodically proclaims himself to be a jerk, the only time when he comes across as truly pathetic is when describing his boredom in the early stages of his library career, and his inability to stay away from that black hole of time wasting solitary game, Freecell. In a chapter which explains ‘How to Do Nothing and Get Paid’ he notes: “I start each day telling myself I’m not going to play Freecell. It should be easy to resist. I hate that game. It’s pointless and you accomplish nothing. And yet by the end of each day I have played more than a few hands.”
Along with playing Freecell, and also being an occasional jerk, Douglas is relatable to the reader because that’s probably what most of us would do when faced with a tedious, quiet Saturday morning and the need to do something more than stare at our hands (Douglas describes doing that as well, and from various angles) in order to continue receiving a paycheck.
From death threats to a demolished library to the uselessness of library school, Douglas explores his early declaration that libraries are not a home for people who love books (including librarians who are not inclined to read for pleasure), but rather exist as a gateway to a better future for people who make use of available resources. The appeal of the job, ultimately, is to be able to help the people in the community. They are what sustains the library, and given meaning to Douglas’ job.
Though Douglas starts out with what he later recognizes as a naïve and hopeful attitude about helping people evaluate resources and think critically about things like current events and mass media, the narrative soon changes its focus to explore how the library as an institution can hope to stay alive in modern times. The author realizes that the well-being of the community must be a primary concern for the librarian, whether that means running reading incentive programs with fast-food coupon prizes to get hungry kids a hot meal, or ignoring the homeless person in the corner who comes in for a safe place to sleep. “People made the library. That’s what made a library. Without them, all the sacredness was gone. It was just a building with books.”
Douglas advocates a changing role for the modern library, where many patrons come in and ignore shelves full of books in order to update their MySpace profile or do research on Wikipedia. He envisions a library that is more like a massive chain bookstore, offering food and drink and many electrical outlets in which to plug in the average person’s assortment of devices—cell phone, iPod, laptop. Indeed, without making some concessions to our electronics-saturated lifestyle, the branch library may be a dying breed. Young, computer-savvy librarians like Douglas are exactly the antidote.
Douglas rambles about his library experience on a regular basis on his blog, Speak Quietly. He also provides periodic contributions to McSweeney’s, Dispatches from a Public Librarian. If there weren’t enough stories for you about crazy people doing strange things in libraries in this memoir, that’s where you can find more.