A California librarian describes his long, strange trip through the stacks
Quiet, Please: Dispatches From a Public Librarian. By Scott Douglas. Da Capo, 330 pp., $26.95.
By Janice Harayda
A modern public library is a cross between a computer lab, homeless shelter, psychiatric ward, babysitting service and incipient crime scene. Books haven’t yet become an afterthought. But can anybody doubt that they’re going in that direction?
Scott Douglas has observed the trend at close range – first as a page, then as graduate student and currently as a public librarian in Anaheim, California. He tells his story in a book that he describes as a “kind of” true memoir of his life amid the stacks.
In Quiet, Please, Douglas uses composite characters and other devices that require a greater-than-usual skepticism. But some of the incidents he describes could have happened at any public library. Teens on drugs? Check. Power-crazed staff members? Check. A loony patron who wanted people to listen to her theory that “World War II was thought up by Churchill and Hitler during a game of poker”? Check – unless a patron were to tell you instead that aliens were sending coded messages through the computers.
Douglas’s literary persona is that of public servant who dislikes great swaths of the public. He seethes when a disabled patron damages a projector cord during a free computer workshop. “The way I see it,” he says, “we spent $40 in library work to fix the problem caused by some stupid old man in wheelchair.”
The problem with this persona isn’t that that it’s mean-spirited or ideologically unfashionable, though often it is both. It’s that it isn’t funny enough to justify the shtick. Many writers get away with occasional meanness or flouting political orthodoxies because, at their best, they are hilarious — David Sedaris, P.J. O’Rourke and Bill Bryson among them. Douglas tends instead to be just smug. What, really, is funny about his confession that he hated some of the displays of support for firefighters after 9/11 because he had found that “firemen were a bunch of arrogant jerks”?
At the end of the book, Douglas suggests how libraries could improve. He’s right that most need to go higher-tech and, for example, let patrons save material to USB devices such as flash drives. And he may be correct that some would benefit from scrapping the Dewey Decimal system and adopting a bookstore model of shelving, so that librarians could direct people to the “religion books” instead of “the 200s.”
But Douglas devotes so little space to these topics that his comments on them, like many others in the book, read like throwaways. He also focuses narrowly enough on his own experiences that he ignores many sources of tension – if not crisis – that are roiling libraries elsewhere, such as unionization, levies and bond issues, and gang-related crimes. Early on, he describes himself as someone who sees the glass as “half empty,” and that phrase fits his book, too.
Best lines: Quoted above. The theory of the patron who believed that “World War II was thought up during a game of poker by Churchill and Hitler.”
Worst lines: “I don’t like white people.” “I’ll be honest. I’m not a fan of the handicapped.” “I’d like to dispel the cliché that librarians are boring, but that simply just doesn’t seem true to me.” “I hated teens, but sometimes they really made me laugh at their stupidity.” “At some point in a person’s life, you stop growing … This period in a person’s life is called becoming a senior citizen. Melvil Dewey was “a major dick” and he and other famous librarians were “elitist wimps.”
Editor: Shaun Dillon
Furthermore: Since 2003 Douglas has written about his work for the Web site for www.mcsweeneys.net/links/librarian/28myspace.html.
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