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Posts Tagged ‘book review

A Free Spirit Lights on a Branch

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While browsing through the zeroes in a New York Public Library branch, looking for a book on Excel that would help me improve my pivot table skills, I stumbled across Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks and Gangstas in the Public Library by Don Borchert (New York: Virgin, 2007).  Once I started reading it later that day, I couldn’t put it down.  Aside from the author’s annoying habit of conflating the terms library assistant and assistant librarian, the former requiring only a Bachelor’s degree and the latter a Masters in Library Science, the book is an engaging, witty and sometimes touching look at life in a branch library.

I bridled at the seemingly intentional obfuscation of the author’s job title because it was such a long, arduous struggle through grueling years of full time work during the day and as many courses as I could afford and wrap my mind around in night school, from undergrad through graduate degrees for me to move from library assistant to assistant librarian.  Once I was able to let go of that, however, I really enjoyed the author’s style and his stories.

The cast of characters at his branch of a self-contained library system in one of the smaller cities that make up the patchwork of Greater Los Angeles runs the gamut from Lydia, the charming and upbeat AIDS hospice worker, to the creepy pedophiles who lurk in the stacks to the daily visitor Henry, who battles psychic demons while working through a photocopy of the L.A. Times crossword puzzle, and everyone in between.  Borchert describes them all in colorful language, with his formerly private thoughts about them and their antics interjected for extra spice.

The author also seems to be able handle managing both down and up, according to his account of things, with aplomb.  He gets on well with the pages and is the calm, reasonable and stable rock the librarians can rely on, especially in times of crisis.  When fights are about to erupt or after-school kids who’ve been dumped at the library to wait for their parents are getting out of hand or a patron is angry about having to pay a fine, Don is your man.  He seems especially fond of Terri, the children’s librarian he worked with for many years until she transferred to the main library.  He recounts a funny story of the first program Terri planned that involved animals in the library.  Terri had a severe allergic reaction to a marmoset.  Luckily, none of the children in attendance suffered from the same allergy, but the city administration was careful to thoroughly clean and disinfect the branch, throwing the poor custodians in harm’s way without a care, in the process.

Through it all, Borchert waxes philosphical about what it means to be a civil servant and why cities provide library services to the public.  The uses a population has for a library service are varied, from a clean, well-lit refuge from a hectic world, a place to ostensibly do homework, a source of reading material in a favorite genre, a place to get questions answered, or to broaden one’s scope of knowledge.  “Some patrons use books as an aid to sleep,” says Borchert when referring to the aforementioned hospice worker, “Lydia uses books to make her world larger.”  Leaving your home or office for bit, going to a center of reading and information, interacting with the people who work there and the other visitors and increasing your knowledge are some of the many worthy reasons to have public libraries.


Written by whyaretherelibraries

April 15, 2009 at 1:02 pm

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