Thursday, June 26, 2008
Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian
By Scott Douglas
Da Capo Press, $25.00 cloth
What are we supposed to glean from Scott Douglas’ memoir of his five years as librarian in the public libraries of Anaheim, California? Here are some random first impressions: patrons often use the computers and bathrooms for inappropriate behavior; librarians do not read, and Douglas himself lies about his own reading; Douglas now believes books are not everything; he is a typical slacker who goes off to graduate school on the city’s dime; the main attractions at modern public libraries are food sales and computer usage; he wants to be the next David Sedaris; the very idea of a public library as a gateway to knowledge for the masses is a pipe dream.
To be fair, Douglas does work in some history of libraries, from Alexandria in 300 B.C. to Andrew Carnegie and the first public institutions, and finally, to Bill Gates and his gifts of computers and software from the Microsoft empire. But there is little discussion of books. Douglas could have just as easily set his memoir inside an airplane factory. He is, in fact, into paper airplanes, as well as the computer game, FreeCell. His smug tone and attempts to channel Sedaris are off-putting and at times, downright irritating.
His use of footnotes, ala David Foster Wallace, another of his admitted heroes, is also annoying, and adds nothing to the narrative. “I think [the footnotes] give the book a certain urgency and energy,” he says. “The generation I grew up in is now being raised on DVD’s (sic) with commentary tracks. In many ways, the footnotes serve as my commentary track to the memoir.” Sorry, but a book is not a film. And, in a clarification, if the generation has already grown up they cannot now be raised on DVDs.
Douglas begins his story with his first days on the job as a library clerk. He tries to pass himself off to his co-workers as a reader and a man of intellect only to discover that his fellow employees are as clueless about literature.
He goes on to discuss his first forays into storytelling for young patrons, and to discuss how his first week in the library is the week of September 11, 2001. But he cannot give the tale sharpness or poignancy. His discussion of terrorism and resulting mood of the country is particularly shallow. While discussing the collapse of the twin towers with a friend over lunch, he writes, “How long until people don’t remember what 9/11 means?” His friend does not think anyone will ever forget. “I looked down at my pizza,” he continues. “My friend had picked the place for lunch because he had seen a commercial on TV advertising free bread sticks.” After pausing for a footnote about how much he likes free samples of bread sticks, Douglas compares the way Americans remember the Oklahoma City bombing to the way they might someday remember 9/11: as a shadowy, unfocused memory. It all comes off as superficial.
Douglas moves on to discuss his adventures in graduate school, an opportunity paid for by the city of Anaheim. He characterizes one professor as a “cocky, boastful goof who used big words to prove points.” Should he have used smaller words? “Nothing he said made any sense,” Douglas writes, “but I liked him because he had sweaty armpits, which were fun to draw in my notebook in lieu of real notes.”
Later in the book, Douglas takes offense when a teenager calls him a “faggot” for no particular reason. He takes great pains to tell us he is not gay, and that this incident, and similar ones, makes him hate teenagers. So name-calling and ridicule are fine when hurled at a goofy professor, but not when the insults are directed at him?
His remedy for putting an entire class to sleep with a boring story? “[T]ell a fart joke. Or if you don’t know any fart jokes, make a fart noise.” Douglas reveals his immaturity and vacuity with such comments and scatological attempts at humor. David Sedaris, Mark Twain, David Foster Wallace, he is most certainly not.
The book is a disappointment on so many levels. Even in the nuts and bolts editing, Douglas and his editors miss the mark. Awkward and grammatically challenged phrases abound: two fellow librarians “reminisce of the career of Julia Roberts.” He changes the names and characteristics of people in his story “so as not to receive a lawsuit.” He writes in another place that conspiracy theories “centered around 9/11.” When he questions an advisor about a failing grade, he writes that “the program prohibited her to tell me.” The problematic passages detract from the effectiveness of the writing, although the book would have made only a slightly better impression if it was copyedited properly. Inept writing and use of language in a book allegedly about books and libraries does not impress.
The only real value in this sophomoric carnival is the ample evidence that public libraries are in trouble. When Los Angeles went on a campaign to remodel its branch offices, many reopened in fantastically modern buildings with a bit more square footage, but with half the books replaced by a large number of computer stations. Douglas details this process in his library. As the influence of the computer grows, older books are not replaced. The budget shrinks for new books, and people come in to surf the Internet and check email. The library becomes a community center. The idea of a public library is diluted and eventually will be discounted altogether, the real “dumbing down” of our society and culture.
To his credit, Douglas does make an issue of how many immigrants and non-native English speakers come in to find books and information to learn the language and culture. It seems the public library system is ignored by middle and upper class Americans, with the exception being the elderly and the mentally handicapped. But Douglas is condescending and superior in his tone with these patrons as well.
Indeed, like the classroom, the library is changing. What disturbs is not just the lack of books, the limited funding of libraries by the city, the disrespect patrons show towards books, learning and the life of the mind. These are the fault lines in the rupturing American culture, but it is deeply disappointing that those whose job it is to promote learning, reading and writing, the librarians, have such poor attitudes and insufficient maturity to redefine and invigorate sacred space, the temple secular, the holy library. Front and center, that is the message clearly offered in Scott Douglas’ memoir.