ASSOCIATES (2008, March, v. 14, no. 3)


What Happened after I wrote a Book about the Public Library

Don BorchertDon Borchert
Torrance Public Library
Torrance, California

Long ago, when I first decided to write a non-fiction book, I experienced a moment of dread. I had read an article that a person should write about what they know. Cooks should write cook books, inspirational people should write inspirational books, and organic gardeners should write books about composting and encouraging worms. This becomes a problem when you realize that you are a library assistant in a small neighborhood library and don’t know much about any of these things, and not much more about anything else. I put down my pen, stopped writing, and decided to sleep on it before continuing. The next morning, it dawned on me that I could write about the library. And why not? I’ve worked in the same branch for more than a dozen years. I had a lot to talk about. Almost immediately, I stumbled over my next dilemma. This would be a book of non-fiction. The people I’d be writing about would be my co-workers and library patrons, librarians, real people, and I didn’t want to think that I was taking a handful of pleasant, cordial relationships and turning them into something like unattended dairy products left to go bad in the local supermarket cooler.

Then it occurred to me that getting published was a fevered pipe dream and that I might as well write whatever I wanted. I was an unpublished writer. I had no agent, and realistically almost no chance of ever seeing the thing in print. Who would want to read memoirs about the public library? Most importantly though, I realized that it’s just no good to censor yourself at such an early stage in the process. Getting published is something akin to getting hit by lightning, and as likely. You may hear about it all the time – tragedy on the eighteenth green during a sudden thunderstorm – but it’ll never happen to you. Worrying about something with such a remote chance of actually happening even seemed a little silly.

So I wrote about what I knew and what I’ve seen in my years in the library, and it was very pleasant to get it out and put it down on paper. Official library policy. Overdue fines. Lost books. Crazy people. The homeless. Children who have been told to wait at the library for three and four hours at a stretch until someone remembers to come and pick them up. Craft projects. Weeding. Volunteers. The Friends of the Library. Story-time. The summer reading program. Pestilence. Calamity. Plague. I wrote about it all, and I didn’t feel a need to go back over what I had written and put any kind of spin on it. Some of what I wrote is funny, and some of it is ugly. Some of it is uplifting, and some of it not so much so. But I enjoy working at the library. I like my job. Of course, some parts of it are harder than others, and some days are rougher than others. That’s why there are paychecks involved. But I’m an adult – I don’t need a steady string of Chicken Soup moments to feel good about the institution I work for. If I felt that way, I would have quit years before. I’ve done it in the past.

Library administration’s blood ran cold when they first heard about my project, and they developed facial tics wondering if I planned on burning my civil service career to the ground. Could I be doing this because of one or two tepid performance reviews? So my publisher sent them several advance copies of the galleys. They took a deep breath, clenched the necessary teeth, read the book and had a few laughs, and the tension and the stress in their faces fell away and clattered to the ground. I wasn’t such a bad guy after all.

The responses from some of the patrons I write about in the book have also been very positive. Ms. Aida Cripp is an older patron who comes to the library once a week, in a cab, and is always dressed as if she were on her way to Easter services. She came in a week after I gave her a copy of the book and brought a large Tupperware container of warm, freshly-made oatmeal walnut cookies. I took this as a good sign that she liked what I had written. She asked me to notify her if and when I published subsequent work, and insinuated there would be more baked goods if I kept her in the loop. One of the senior librarians I wrote about went into an on-line blog and defended what I had written to some anonymous detractors – and she didn’t have to do that.

Lydia, who I call the Renaissance Patron in the book, came in and talked to me at length about the whole publishing process. She was interested in everything. Writing is one of the things she always wished she could do, but the sight of a blank sheet of paper made her freeze up and her creativity stall. She said she had taken the book I gave her, read it, and sent it to a friend in Arizona. Then she went to a local bookstore and bought another. I told her I would have given her a second copy, but she waved the idea away with a look of utter disgust. “You have to make a few bucks off this thing,” she said. She’s trying to look out for me.

She said that early in the book’s release, another library patron named Henry followed her out into the parking lot as she left the library. Henry is a middle-aged man of limited means who lives in subsidized housing near the library, and he has been coming to the library almost every day for the past ten years to sit in a warm and quiet place, unbothered, to do the daily crossword puzzle. He is also in the book. He hadn’t read the book yet, but he had heard plenty. He suggested to Lydia they join forces and sue both me and my publisher, for a variety of reasons they could flesh out as time went by.

Lydia said she didn’t even break stride to listen to Henry’s plan. She gave him a disapproving look and said: “Henry, maybe its time you goddamn got over yourself.” And off she went to catch her bus on the corner to take her to work. Henry was stunned. He came back into the building, went to his regular seat, and continued working on the day’s crossword puzzle. He seems to have taken her advice, and has said nothing more about a lawsuit.

The response on the internet has also been surprisingly positive. It seems the situations and dilemmas of working in a public library are pretty much universal. Library personnel around the country find this a kind of relief. It is good to know these problems are everywhere and are not ours alone. Shared misery is very comforting.

There have been a few over-the-top, super vitriolic comments here and there, and these are always anonymous. Such is the medium. If you can’t be mean-spirited in cyberspace, where can you be? I work in a library. I know this. It doesn’t bother me. In any case, I’ve done something I’ve been trying to do since I was sixteen: get published. My library carries my book, and so do many others. It’s a pretty good feeling.

Photo by Cary Jordahl.

Don Borchert, a library assistant for the City of Torrance, is the author of “Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks and Gangstas in the Public Library.” (Virgin Books, USA).