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