Book Review: Free For All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library

freeforallFree For All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library
by Don Borchert
210 pages
Published 2007
Memoir

Like Quiet, Please, Free For All is a memoir from a public librarian. It was interesting, but I didn’t find it as engaging as Quiet, Please. So if you’re only going to read one, I’d recommend Quiet. If you’ve got time, though, this was an interesting second view on public libraries. It felt a little more detached than Quiet did; and there was a lot less biting sarcasm. I find it interesting that both books are written by male librarians, in what has been a female-dominated field for some time. I’ll have to go looking for a woman’s memoir about being a librarian, and see how it differs!

Free For All goes a little bit more in depth on the hiring process, and talks more about library pages, both topics I found interesting. To be honest, though, I found the entire book just kind of…blah. It’s not a bad book, and it’s a quick read at just over two hundred pages, but it’s just…blah.

From the inside cover of Free For All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library:

“Mild-mannered librarian tells all!

Not long ago, the public library was a place for the bookish, the eggheaded, and the studious – often seeking refuge from a loud, irrational, and crude outside world. Today libraries have become free-for-all entertainment complexes, filled with deviants, drugs, and even sex toys.

What happened?

Don Borchert was a short-order cook, door-to-door salesman, telemarketer, and Christmas-tree-chopper before landing work at a California library. He never could have predicted his encounters with the colorful kooks, bullies, and tricksters who fill the pages of this hilarious memoir. 

In Free For All, Borchert offers readers a ringside seat to the unlikely spectacle of mayhem and absurdity that is business as usual at the public library. You’ll see cops bust drug dealers who’ve set up shop in the men’s restrooms, witness a burka-wearing employee suffer a curse-ridden nervous breakdown, and meet a lonely, neglected kid who grew up in the library and still sends postcards to his surrogate parents – the librarians. 

You’ll finally find answers to all those often-asked questions: What’s up with that Dewey Decimal System – do librarians actually understand it? (Yes, but they don’t all like it.) Do the library computers have access to everything, even porn? (Yes.) What happens if you never pay those overdue fines? Do they just keep adding up? (Sort of. It depends on what kind of day the librarian is having and how polite you are.) And what’s the strangest thing to land in the book return bin? (You won’t believe it, and it’s got absolutely nothing to do with great literature.)”

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Book Review: The Library – An Illustrated History

libraryThe Library – An Illustrated History
by Stuart A. P. Murray
308 pages
Published 2009
Nonfiction

This is one of those books that I could only read a chapter, sometimes two, at a time. It was really interesting, with lots of GORGEOUS pictures of libraries, but it’s still a history and sometimes boring. It was very in-depth, though, starting with “The Ancient Libraries” and moving through the middle ages, to the Renaissance, to the early modern period, to the 21st century. Murray talked about all the books lost to religions, primarily Christianity, suppressing other religions’ ideas and burning their books and records, and also mentioned in many places the casualties of war – bombed, burned-out libraries, priceless ancient books being lost to fire and looters. The latter was preferable, as that usually meant the book would resurface somewhere!

I was a little disappointed that he didn’t talk more about the development of cataloguing systems, and barely mentioned the Dewey Decimal System at all. I thought that was really odd, considering it’s the most-used cataloguing system today! He talked about the difficulty of maintaining a catalogue, but didn’t discuss a lot about how that changed in the modern age.

If you’re interested in libraries, I would definitely recommend this book. As histories go, it wasn’t nearly as dry as some I’ve read, and the pictures were fabulous. I’d definitely like to own this book someday, but for now it will have to go back to the library.

From the inner cover of The Library: An Illustrated History:

“The first libraries appeared five thousand years ago in Southwest Asia’s ‘Fertile Crescent’…the birthplace of writing, some time before 3000 BCE,” writes Stuart A. P. Murray, introducing his fascinating exploration into the history of the library. With the dawning of advanced civilization, the written word flourished and the need for libraries became paramount in many societies.

Throughout the history of the world, libraries have been constructed, burned, discovered, raided, and cherished – while the treasures they housed evolved from early stone tablets, to beautifully illumined vellum, and to the mass-produced, bound paper books and the digital formats of our present day. The Library opens doors to the libraries of ancient Greece, early China, Renaissance England, and modern-day America. This volume speaks to the book lover in all of us while offering a panoramic view of the history of libraries across the centuries.

Book Review: Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian

dispatchesQuiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian
by Scott Douglas
330 pages
Published 2008
Memoir

“You catch a guy on a computer jacking off, just get a librarian – don’t try and handle it yourself.” That was the first thing Faren, the library manager, said to me on my first day of work.
I was a library page.

The opening lines of this book caught my attention immediately. I’ve always loved libraries, and have recently applied for a library page position at my local library. Until reading this book, I (perhaps naively) thought that would only mean shelving books. Quiet, Please is a look inside a public library – a peek at the quirky patrons, from the seniors having trouble with computerized book catalogs to the homeless who spend all day every day inside those walls to the teenagers hacking the library computers to look at porn. Douglas points out the eccentricities of librarians – people he thought knew everything about books until he actually began to WORK with them and found that many of them rarely even read. He tells us all of this in the engrossing style of your favorite uncle’s college stories – exaggerated, full of digressions, and sometimes only barely based on a kernel of truth.

One thing I found a little jarring – the opening lines of the book mention a patron using a computer on his first day of work. Yet, a chapter later, he’s describing the day the computers arrived at the library. So did he start before the computers were in the library or after? I don’t know, and that contradiction is one black mark on an otherwise remarkable book.

I had one other disagreement with Douglas; in the closing of the book, he states that libraries need to adjust to the way people are using libraries now, which I do agree with. But in his list of ways to adjust, he mentions organizing books by subject, like book stores do. When I was a child, I always thought this would be a good idea. If I was looking for Sci-fi/Fantasy books, why can’t I just go to the Sci-fi/Fantasy section and browse? As an adult, I see that this is a TERRIBLE idea. My local library arranges its fiction this way, and it’s incredibly hard to find anything I’m looking for. I know the author’s name – but whether it’s shelved in Science Fiction or Romance or Mystery or General Fiction….(they don’t have a Fantasy section, so they always get shelved elsewhere!) It wouldn’t be so bad if the catalog said “Fiction – Mystery” but instead the catalog always says Adult Fiction Stacks. Which could mean ANY of their categories. What baffles me a little bit about Douglas’ idea is that he also mentions non-fiction categories, and non-fiction is already categorized that way through the Dewey Decimal System. They might not be labeled, but they’re definitely arranged by subject. (Which brings up another beef I have with my library – if I want the catalog to display everything they have from Call Numbers 020 to 029, to find everything in library science and library studies, WHY CAN’T I?) /end rant

The book has not helped me decide whether I ultimately want to be a public librarian or a research/university librarian, which I am disappointed by. I thought it would help! His tales repel me a little bit – I want to be a librarian to work with books, not homeless people. But they also attract me – up until now, I’ve worked in retail and food service – heavily customer service oriented jobs. Public libraries seem to be an interesting mix of my past experiences plus what I hope to do. Ah, well. I have years of school ahead of me before I have to make that decision.

From the back of Quiet, Please:

“For most of us, librarians occupy a quiet, inconspicuous role as the occasional shushers behind the desk. But in QUIET, PLEASE, McSWEENEY’S contributor Scott Douglas takes these quirky caretakers of literature out from the safety of the stacks and places them front and center. With a keen eye for the absurd, and a Keseyesque cast of characters, Douglas delivers a revealing and often hilarious look into a familiar, innocuous setting that’s surprisingly anything but.

Witness the librarian who thinks Thomas Pynchon is Julia Roberts’s latest flame, the technician with a penchant for French pop, the patron who believes the government is canceling her print jobs, and the countless teenagers who know exactly where to shelve suggestions for further reading.

Punctuated by his own highly subjective research into library history – from Andrew Carnegie’s Gilded Age to today’s Afghanistan  – Douglas’s account offers insight into the past, present, and future of a social institution entering the digital age. And as his own library attempts to adapt and to redefine its place in the community at large, Douglas also finds himself searching for a place among the odd, exasperating, and desperately human lives around him. The result is a humorous and surprising take on the world of our literary public servants.”

When one library closes…

Every book blogger’s worst nightmare is coming true for me – my local library is closing! Luckily it’s only temporary, and for a good reason (the big building they’ve been constructing is ready to be stocked up with books and will be opening in 8-10 weeks!) but the timing is terrible! I’m picking up Paper Towns by John Green tomorrow, and I think I’ll have to grab a few more books to hold me over until the new building opens up.

I can’t wait for the Grand Opening of the new library! I’ll take my camera and make a post about it. The library in my hometown is HUGE with several smaller branch libraries scattered around the city; working with a system that has had several small branches and no large “home” library has been a learning experience for me. With the opening of the new Gaithersburg library, though, it should be more what I’m used to.

eugene libraryThe library I grew up with in Eugene, Oregon, outgrew its building my freshman year of college and moved to this beautiful building, built specifically for it. Through our various moves to southern California, North Carolina, and now Maryland, I’ve never found a library that quite matched it in size or scope. I’m very hopeful for the new Gaithersburg library though.

Gaithersburg_Lib_StreetConceptThis is a piece of concept art for it – all those windows remind me of my hometown library pictured above!

new-gaithersburg-libraryThis is a look at how it’s actually shaping up. It looks pretty good from outside, so I’m very excited to see it stocked with books! In the meantime, if I REALLY need to, I can go to another branch library; there’s one in Rockville, which is a bit of a drive but not too bad.

What does your local library look like?

Mobile Libraries: Bringing books to hard-to-reach places.

biblioburro

I just learned about this via a Facebook post to an old news story, but a little bit of research shows this dude is still going strong. This man is Luis Soriano, and he brings books (and literacy!) to rural areas in Colombia. Soriano is an elementary school teacher, with a degree in Spanish literature. He bought two burros – Alfa and Beto – and travels around the Magdalena district of Colombia, helping kids with their homework and reading to them! He’s the subject of a CNN news story and a PBS special. There’s at least two children’s books written about him! (And another book about interesting mobile libraries.)

Soriano is really impressive; he’s been tied up by bandits (annoyed that he didn’t have any money), fractured his leg when he fell from his donkey, and more recently had a leg amputated due to a donkey accident, but he’s still committed to bringing books to children! (According to Wikipedia, at least, though I’m having trouble finding a current website or blog for him.)

BooktankSoriano isn’t the only one finding creative ways of bringing books to people. In Argentina, the Arma de Instruccion Masiva, or “Weapon of Mass Instruction” travels the streets of Buenos Aires, bringing books to all. (Video and more photos at the link, and you can find him on Facebook.) Raul Lemesoff turned his 1979 Ford Falcon into a library tank! The library consists of about 900 books and growing.

bookcamelKenya’s mobile library travels on the back of a camel! They have a website and a novel written about their work. It was started in 1996 and travels to four settlements per day, four times a week, with 12 camels! They’re always looking for donations, and their website has details for how to donate.

bookdonkeys

In Zimbabwe, donkey-pulled carts, organized by the Rural Libraries and Resources Development Programme, bring books to rural areas.

There are many other unique mobile libraries, from classic cars to bicycle trailers to boats. Seeing people so passionate about sharing the joy of reading is really inspiring, and I definitely won’t take my local library for granted anymore! I may even need to go through my own stacks and see about donating a few to some of these, though parting with books is something that I find it incredibly hard to do.

When was the last time you went to the library?