As I read through Scott Douglas’s Quiet, Please: Dispatches From a Public Librarian I often wondered if he worked in the worst library ever. There were almost as many anecdotes about his coworkers as there were about crazy patrons. Not that I’m bothered–crazy people stories are one of the best things about working in libraries–but I wonder what non-library folk will think if they ever pick it up. A book like this really destroys the unflappable image of the librarian.
I’ve read Douglas’s Dispatches before, on McSweeney’s Internet Tendencies. The book version has the same style and tone. It meanders from anecdote to anecdote, with frequent asides for trivia, and occasionally interrupted by footnotes (necessary and otherwise). Aside from a sometimes unreliable chronology, there isn’t a whole lot to link it all together. There doesn’t even seem to be a consistent thesis, as Douglas lurches back and forth from despairing for libraries and their patrons to hope for the continuing role of librarians in the future. If you’ve spent any time with librarians, you’ll know that we do the same. But Douglas does it with bipolar frequency–just about every chapter.
So while there isn’t much to take away in the grand scheme of things, the best thing about this book is the crazy people stories. One of the reasons I love going to conferences is that, when you get a bunch of librarians together, we start telling stories about all the whackos that we’ve encountered. There’s something about libraries and crazy people. I suspect it’s that, unless people are being criminally disruptive or destructive, we can’t really kick them out. But libraries draw them like lodestones. This book is peppered with stories and I enjoyed the hell out of those.
I suppose some readers could also use it to learn about functioning in dysfunctional workspaces. As I said, there are almost as many stories about weirdo co-workers as there are about the public. It reminded me a lot of the little public library where I worked (though I will admit that it wasn’t nearly as bad as Douglas’s libraries). These stories–although I enjoyed the hit of schadenfreude–made me despair a bit myself. I agree with Douglas’s comment that libraries aren’t just buildings fun of books. What makes them libraries, and what makes them important, are the people. I’d add, however, that we’re going to need good, passionate librarians to take us forward.
I don’t know if other readers will really understand what it’s like for us until they read this book. We have to fight so hard to keep drawing in new readers and keep a hold of the old ones that we’re nice to people who would get bounced out of businesses after five minutes of nonsense. But I will definitely recommend this to two groups. First, I’d recommend it to people who think we just sit around and read all day. And second, I’d recommend it to library workers who need a laugh and a dose of schadenfreude.