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.)”

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?