May 2008

Jonathan Shipley

nonfiction

Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian by Scott Douglas

For me, the first inklings of a love for books was because of Mrs. Munger, the librarian at Garfield Elementary School. I was a happy little kid going to that mint green painted concrete (beauteous, it was) building in Olympia, Washington and was just discovering books and how great it was to a) buy books through the school’s Scholastic Book Club (“Hello, The Hoboken Chicken Emergency!”) and b) get books -- for free -- at the library. If I didn’t check them out I’d sit in this cozy little loft built right into the library where Mrs. Munger always told us to be quiet, please. “Let’s keep it to a soft roar. Shall we?”

Librarians, and those that frequent libraries, will have fun reading Scott Douglas’s new memoir about his young life (he’s in his 20s) in the stacks of a public library in Anaheim, California. It’s woefully uneven (as were the books available at Garfield) but Douglas’s obvious passion for libraries and what they can do for communities, his love of books and his charming humor thread the disparate parts together.

“’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 at work.” So begins Douglas’ chronicle of how he became a librarian and those people (the odd who work there, the quirky patrons) who inhabit it. It’s funny, in other words. You get that from the get go. Funny is what one might expect since he’s been highlighting the trials and tribulations of librarianship for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency since 2003.

He does his best to maintain this humor as we meet his somewhat weird coworkers (many of whom don’t read much more than the TV Guide), the folks that come through those library doors (kids, teachers, jackers-off), and follow his slow rise up the library ranks. Slow, being the operative word at times. The book is fresh and funny and then, boom!, slag and slow and drawn and dull, like reshelving self-help books (section 150 -- Dewey Decimal). His unending discussions of library school aren’t very interesting. And, though there’s funny bits and trivial asides thrown about in the pages, boom!, there’s a discussion about 9/11. A downer to be sure. There’s a silly little tale about a coworker then, boom!, he highlights the need for libraries amongst kids in broken homes, or worse.

That’s not to say these topics aren’t important or are worthy of mention. It’s just a bit jarring when you’re rollicking along on a sarcasm-laced riff on computer usage in libraries and then come into a section that’s not at all rollicking -- it’s the opposite, in fact. It’s about how a bag of popcorn given at the library for fun might be the biggest meal of a kids’ day. That’s sad, really. And, honestly, a reader isn’t coming into the book looking for sadness (the back cover touts it being “hilarious” and the author having “a keen eye for the absurd”). A reader is here for what the book promises - humor, Douglas’ funny little anecdotes about the life of a librarian, interesting asides about library history, his trials and tribulations with his weird coworkers. Douglas keeps that humor to a soft roar when it should be unmuzzled.

Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian by Scott Douglas
Da Capo Press
ISBN: 0786720913
320 Pages