ASSOCIATES (2006, November, v. 13, no. 2) -

Julia D. Ree
University Libraries
University of California, Riverside

Comic strips are a part of our American culture. We’ve read them in newspapers for decades and we are now beginning to read them online. We have become lifelong fans of Charlie Brown and Cathy and Opus. Some of us even miss that rascal Calvin and his sweet tiger Hobbes.

We see different occupations showcased in comic strips, from Rex Morgan, MD, to Gasoline Alley. As library people, we just haven’t seen our lives or experiences portrayed consistently in that same way. That is, until now.

There’s a new kid in town, a kind of Calvin, but all grown up. He’s a librarian. His name is Dewey, and he lives in the fictional small town of Mallville, and works…you guessed it, as a librarian in the Mallville Public Library. Finally, a slice of life comic strip about the kinds of things library people experience! And Dewey gets to say and do things that you and I can only dream about. You really ought to meet him.

I first became aware of Unshelved during the ALA Midwinter Conference, in San Diego, California. If you’ve attended any ALA conference in the past few years, you may have seen this comic strip and not even realized it has a life of its own long after the conference is over. Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes write and draw Unshelved and have done so for nearly five years. This is not their “day” jobs, but it is the job they love to do, and it shows. During the day “Gene” is a working librarian (so he gets LOTS of ideas in the field!). Bill is a software engineer. But in that so-called spare time, they have created a little engine that could. They speak at library sponsored meetings, manage booth space at various conventions, and sell their Unshelved-inspired t-shirts, hats, and books. Most importantly for them, however, they ask those of us in the library community and the comic book community to subscribe to their online comic strip. What a great way to develop a fan base! I was offered the chance to subscribe, back in 2004, and while I couldn’t imagine at the time that it would be all that funny (it’s about WORK, after all), I signed up anyway, thinking, okay, I can give this a shot…the samples looks pleasant enough, the artistic style is uncluttered, and the message is fun, if it makes me smile once in a while, then it’ll be worth it.

I met them again in San Diego, later in the year, this time at the San Diego Comic Con, and it was then that I had to tell them that Unshelved was a real hit for me, and I was glad that I signed up! The comic strip spoke to me in a way that told me that Bill and Gene were writing about stuff they loved, work included, and that making this comic strip was as much for themselves and their interests as it was for the general library community. I like to think that I share some of those interests, because the panels that are the most fun for me have elements of my interests in Science Fiction, Comic Books, and Movies.

So, what is this “Unshelved” thing? Basically, it’s life in a small town, where the library is the true center of town. The strip centers on Dewey, the young male librarian, ironic, pithy, and work-phobic. He has the freedom to do things or express himself that would get anyone else fired in a heartbeat.

His co-workers include Mel, the Head Librarian who just can’t seem to control her people, Tamara, the gentle, vegan, hippie wannabe, Colleen, the old-school brilliant librarian who is the consummate technophobe, and Buddy, the closest thing to a library assistant and jack-of-all-trades that Mallville has ever known.

Ah, but that’s not all the characters who show up at Mallville Public Library. After all, what would a library be without its patrons? There’s the brilliant smart-alecky kid (Merv) who could give Wesley Crusher a run for his money. You know the type. He’ll probably grow up to be the CEO of a major corporation, or he’ll be a master criminal. Maybe he grows up to be a librarian. Then, there’s Ned the nudist who is (thankfully) strategically placed behind shelves or, papers, or counters, or potted plants, but, is nevertheless, a habitual patron at the library. And, of course, there are the hordes of nameless patrons who remind us of people we’ve seen, people we know, and more importantly, people we’ve served in our capacity as folks who work in libraries.

If I have one gripe about the strip, it’s their use (or, NON-use) of Library Assistants. I know that Dewey is the central character. I know that he interacts with other librarians. I know that Buddy is there, although not so much. I asked the guys once why there were no library assistants and they felt that they had enough characters. Pishaw, I say! You can’t have a realistic library without some library assistants. And the lone library assistant is a beaver? Really? That’s the best you can come up with? Okay, the Mad (about Reading) Cow was a real groaner…Maybe I should just be grateful for Buddy.

But that complaint aside, it’s still a fun read, and well worth exploring. At its core, Unshelved gives you a glimpse into the lives of people we know, or people we could know. I think it will make you laugh, too, and not necessarily because it’s “library humor.” The settings may be familiar, but the situations are universal. How many times has a cell phone gone off in the middle of a nice dinner out? How many times has the computer fried your text, or just gone to the blue-screen-of-death? What happens in Mallville happens to all of us at one time or another, in all kinds of places.

I happened to be leaving our local Chinese Restaurant recently, wearing one of my Unshelved t-shirts. “Will work for Books” was plastered on my chest, and I was physically stopped by this woman who asked WHERE I got that shirt?!?! I showed her the website printed on the sleeve, and she wrote down the web address! I’m betting that she will buy that shirt, and maybe others, and will be a convert to the Unshelved life.

This is, then, the true appeal for Unshelved. Universal situations about folks like you or me, portrayed with humor and fun. It’s not nasty or vicious. It just pokes a little fun at the ironic things in life. And when I think of universal situations portrayed with humor, my mind returns to those classic comic strips I grew up with. It makes me think of Peanuts, or Cathy, or Calvin and Hobbes. So, if I could just say one thing to Bill and Gene, it would be this: it’s time to branch out, guys! You need to widen your sphere of influence. And, being proper library people, we are here to help. What if everyone who bought a t-shirt wore it amongst the masses, instead of just to work? What if we shopped for our groceries clothed in “What happens in the Library stays in the Library” or what if we went to dinner in our “Book club” shirts? What if we told someone NOT in the library community about Unshelved? If we all did these things, just think of the buzz we could create! We could be helping to expand the Unshelved universe and could be witnessing the beginning of the next Peanuts, or Bloom County, or Cathy. And wouldn’t that be great?

Visit Unshelved at

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