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


  1. Why bother, huh?!? He does have a point about librarians not really being readers. I know plenty that don't read.

  2. Ok...I've resisted commenting on this blog for a while now, but now I think I must break my silence. I work in a public library, working on my Master's so I'm a few credit hours short of calling myself a 'Librarian' (although our job tasks are one in the same). I was an English undergrad. I think the author and myself come from very similar places, but I can't see why he gets all bent out of shape about librarians being less than experts on classic literature. The vast majority of the public do not read 'literature' per se, they read popular or genre fiction. English professors, now they should be more than adept with the classics, but librarians, not so much. It's necessary for us to be familiar with ALL fiction, non fiction, research materials, microfiche, and other media. It would be near impossible to be an expert with the whole gamut of materials housed in public libraries. Sure, librarians should have more than just a passing familiarity with the classics and lit in general, but if anything we should be experts in what our customers read and ALL our materials.

  3. I've always wondered what it's like to work in a library, the behind-scenes sort of stuff. So this book interests me, although the footnotes sound annoying.

  4. I'm tired of people who go for laughs at the exspense of truth. I think David Sedaris has brought his curse on us all. (I still love his earlier books.)

    I'm a regular reader of Ricklibrarian, a librarian who keeps a blog about what he is reading and what is going on in the library world. He's very good. Not funny, though.

  5. Maggie, I'm not really surprised that a good percentage of librarians aren't readers - but the way that the author characterizes the whole staff as filled with dysfunctional misfits was just too over the top for my tastes.

  6. Those are legitimate points, Nickabe57, and I largely agree with what you say. But I hate to see the dumbing down of librarians happen just because it's happening to the reading tastes of the general public.

    The more I think about it, too, non-reading librarians sort of tick me off...why are they taking up space in libraries if they don't appreciate books and reading? There are others who would love their jobs and would most likely do better.

  7. C.B., I agree. I'm really tired of memoirs that seem to have been written by wannabe stand-up comics.

    I'll have to find that librarian blog you mentioned...

  8. Jeane, the footnotes as done by this author are EXTREMELY irritating, useless, disturbing, not funny, and a complete waste of space.

  9. Sam--hate to beat a dead horse here, and i understand and empathize with your points...BUT, I wouldnt say there is a dilution of intelligence in public libraries. With the overwhelming internet-based technologies emerging (seemingly) everday, librarians must keep up. Digital technologies and training take up alot of training time at my library; librarians scrambling to keep up and stay proficient with modern digitalization(s). Twitter, Blogger, et al, even digital Land Records have been included in new training. And remember Sam, we're here to serve the public--that ranges from soccer moms to successful business professionals...not simply classic lit readers.

  10. I love Rick the Librarian's blog! He does loads of nonfiction! :)

  11. You make a great point, nickabe57, and I understand what you're saying.

    Somehow, though, I can't help but be a little disturbed at the way traditional libraries are turning into community entertainment centers - with all the noise and lack of respect for others that comes with the change.

  12. I'm a librarian myself. I've worked mainly in academic libraries, and I've volunteered at public libraries. I also read this book. While I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Douglas went a little over the top in his descriptions of the behaviors of some of the librarians/staff/patrons, a lot of it was still pretty believable. I haven't dealt with too many strange coworkers, but, even in academic libraries, I've had experiences with odd, sad, and/or potentially scary patrons. Public libraries deal with this sort of thing much more often, since, in the absence of good help any place else, they've turned into a one-stop social services depot.

    As for librarians not being readers, well... My TBR list is usually a lot longer than I have time for, and I know this is true for quite a few of the people I work with. I make time to read what I want to read, but a lot of what I choose to read is the kind of stuff some may call junk. After working my way through a few scholarly articles on cataloging, user experience, and whatnot, as well as the snooze-fest that is Resource Description and Access, my junk helps me unwind. The important thing is that if a user needed to know something about a certain work, whether it be good literature or not, I'd know where to find that information.


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