Thursday, December 04, 2008

Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian

Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian is one young librarian’s description of his early days as a librarian in the California public library system. Scott Douglas was initially attracted to library work because of his love for books and literature, but that just set him up to have his illusions shattered by a system staffed with more non-readers than readers and a surprisingly high percentage of staff people oblivious to literary history. At least that’s the way that Douglas portrays the two libraries in which he has worked. Readers will have to judge for themselves just how much he exaggerates the deficiencies of his fellow staff members (pictured largely as incompetent societal misfits) in order to create a few laughs at their expense.

In his early days as a library employee, Douglas is shocked to find that even a green, part-time library employee like him is more knowledgeable of the world of writers and books than the longtime employees he meets. The professional librarians and permanent staff display a shocking lack of knowledge, a deficiency, though, that does not seem to concern any of them so much that they care to correct it.

As mediocre as Douglas makes the library staff sound, they do shine in comparison to the library patrons he describes. He delights in describing the crazies, the homeless, the teens with raging hormones, the patrons who use the library computers only to visit pornographic sites, the parents who dump their children at the library, the latchkey kids who have no other place to be in the afternoons, and the occasional death threat he receives. All for the sake of humor, of course, and all most likely exaggerated to a degree that voids much of the truth in what he describes.

I spotted this book in the library (a perfect spot to find a book about working in a library, right?) and started reading it as soon as I got it home. I was expecting to gain some insight into what that work environment is like – and maybe I did gain a little. My problem, though, is that the author’s style is seldom serious or believable enough to make me feel that what I’m hearing from him should do anymore than go in one ear and out the other.

Scott Douglas emphasizes laughs over truths, as can readily be seen in the dozens and dozens of meaningless little footnotes that he spreads throughout the book. Seldom does a page go by without forcing the reader to glance down two, three, or four times to read the references. And seldom is the glance worth the effort because most of the footnotes are little one-or-two-line throwaways that should have been inserted into the body of the book if used at all. On top of the half-page “asides” on largely unrelated topics that are added every half dozen pages or so, these footnotes (all in tiny print) very early on strike the reader as being both unnecessary and irritating.

I visit my local library on a weekly basis, something I’ve done for several decades now, and I generally enjoy the visits and come away satisfied. But if I had never experienced a library for myself, Quiet, Please would encourage me to leave well enough alone.

Rated at: 2.5

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