Friday, January 4, 2013

Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian - by Scott Douglas

Like Anne Miketa'a Library Diaries, Douglas' book is a series of essays about his work, co-workers, and the patrons at the public library where he is employed. Unlike Miketa's book, this one is funny and well-written. Rather than simply making fun of people and insulting them, Douglas reflects on what he learns from them, and how they help him grow, both professionally, and personally.

I probably could comment on something he says on just about every page, but in the interest of not making this the longest blog post ever, I make particular note of my favorite library topics:

On stereotypes
The Librarians who interviewed him for his first professional job "were distinctively librarian - large framed glasses, granny hairdos, and uptight frowns". This sentence refers the reader to one of Douglas's many footnotes which reads "the stereotypes about librarians are largely true." Sadly, I must concur. He goes on with these descriptions:

"You say library (emphasis in original) and there's this iconoclastic image of an old-lady librarian telling people to be quiet and not to run." To be fair here, Douglas goes on to say how important "that iconoclastic lady" is to the library.

'The librarian was the typical stereotypical librarian-ugly clunky glasses, hair in a tight bun, and clothing that could just as easily have been put on a man. She looked irritated when I asked her where I could plug in my laptop..."

He doesn't, however, cast any aspersions about himself being hip, even as a non-stereotypical young, straight, male librarian:
"I wasn't cool. I was a librarian, and not being cool was as cool as I'd ever get."

On critical thinking
As a university librarian I am often frustrated by the fact that we are supposed to teach students to be critical thinkers, but it seems we are not supposed to do it (think critically) ourselves. Administrators seem to just want us to do what we are told. Douglas makes a similar point when discussing his frustration with his courses in library school
I didn't think the school needed to get political and have faculty implement viewpoints, but I thought it was important to study the way media, both online and on TV, had radically changed the way people sought information. How can librarians teach others to think critically and objectively when they themselves are not doing it?
On censorship
The library banned when it became a nuisance.
It didn't take long for things to get out of hand....Teens started stealing library cards so they could get extra time [on the computer]; adults would constantly argue about why they deserved more hours; and even little fourth graders were asking older kids for advice on how to 'pimp out' their MySpace page....Ultimately, MySpace was blocked because it was slowing down the network. This wasn't the real reason. The real reason was because it was making all the librarians mad. Actually, the straw that broke the camel's back was when a manager saw a teen posting a photo of girl's nipple piercing [sic] to his page.
Popular online role playing games would meet a similar fate. When a "middle-aged mother of three kids" started spending all her time in the library playing a video game Douglas was told to
Find out what this game is and make...a list of why we should ban it. I want to get rid of that lady. If all she is doing is playing a video game then she doesn't need to be in the library
Once the website was blocked the woman stopped coming to the library, so did her children, who often came to the library to read books.

When Douglas got fed up with teens acting up in the library while he was "in charge" he banned them from using the internet unless they were doing homework. When a page points out to him that that's censorship, Douglas replies "there's a big difference between censorship and punishment". I often say that when someone says what they are doing is not censorship, you can be sure that it's censorship. I have to say that the burnt-out page saved the day on this one. He texted the library manager, who was on vacation, and tattled on Douglas, who was admonished by his manager to let the teens back on to the computers.

Last month when I blogged about The Librarian's Book of Quotes I noted the commentary I found most "thought provoking"

I have never met a public librarian who approved of
censorship or one who failed to practice it in some
--Leon Carnovsky, Library Quarterly 20 (1950)

Here, we see this in action.

On gender
When I was in library school, one of my assignments was to write about five famous librarians throughout history. I was very frustrated with the assignment, as I was determined to write only about women in this female-dominated profession, and as I was studying the early days of librarianship, I had to dig pretty deep to find someone who was not a man to write about. (Ultimately, I did succeed in my quest). Famous librarians that Douglas mentions about are:
Melvil Dewey (whom he does recognize as a "hater of women" as well as an "elitist racist dick")
John Cotton Dana
John J. Beckley
Charles Ammi Cutter

Famous women librarians are remarkably hard to find. Consider, for instance, the first hit I got when I "googled" "famous librarians". On this list of Top Twenty Five Most Famous Librarians in History, only seven are women.

I was particularly intrigued by this commentary about women in library history:
"One thing male librarians rejoiced at was the fact that they could save money by hiring women; at the time, [when children were finally allowed into libraries] women who did the same job as men at the library earned less."

"At the time"?! Give me a break! This is still true today. See the Library Journal Salary Survey.

And an interesting thing I learned from Douglas is that John Newberry's (for whom the Newberry Award is named) A Little Pretty Pocket Book is credited as being the first book in the genre of children's literature. I was surprised to learn that the book was actually marketed "with a ball for boys or a pincushion for girls". I recently read this article which looks at the gendering of toys in the 20th century. It seems we have come full circle.

And finally:
I added An Extremely Goofy Movie to my list of must-watch library movies based on Douglas's recommendation.

More on Scott Douglas at

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