Saturday, November 17, 2007

Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library

Don Borchert's book, Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library, might have a limited audience, but it's limited to anyone who ever worked in a public library. Buy it for your co-workers. Give it to grad students planning to get a Library Science degree. You might even want to buy it for governing bodies who think public libraries are nice, quiet places where nothing ever happens. Borchert tells the truth about the reality of public libraries.

Borchert introduces library staff as "invariably professional, courteous and unobtrusive." They're almost always educated in "Library Science, a degree as arcane as alchemy or predicting the future by reading the entrails of a recently slaughtered lamb." Yet, on a daily basis, the library staff deals with hiring decisions that went wrong, unruly kids, gang wars, drunks and drug dealers, and racial problems. At the same time, they have regular patrons who enjoy the books and computers. There's the pleasure of a group of third graders and children getting their first library card, storytimes, the volunteers and patrons who share their pleasure in the library. Anyone who has worked in a library for any length of time will nod with recognition at the stories of the large number of keys in the library, and the acknowledgement of the hard work of the pages.

Free for All captures all of the highs and lows, frustrations and joys of working in a public library. Don Borchert has written the story that everyone in libraries knew should be told. We've all said, "We ought to write a book. No one would believe what really happens in a library." Borchert just let the cat out of the bag.

Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library by Don Borchert. Virgin Books, ©2007, ISBN 9781905264124 (hardcover), 237p.


Kay said...

My, my, my. Sounds like one I need to get, read and nod my head at. Working in a library is never dull. You never know what will come up next and the pages are the hardest working people by far. It's a tough job. Thanks for sharing!

Lesa said...

Kay, I was very disappointed at a couple reviews I saw on B&N and Amazon who seemed upset that the author wasn't a librarian. All I can say is, for those who are snobs, and don't realize how much he's doing that is a "librarian's" job, they reinforce that image I've never agreed with. I have my MLS, and I'm proud of it. But, two of the best "librarians" I ever worked with, one in children's services, and one in reference, never had their MLS, and they were as good as, and better than many I've worked with with had the degree. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. For me, he painted an accurate portrait.

Maria said...

I will have to check it out. And then add my own little stories...because I do have some humdingers!!!! Libraries only Look Sedate!

I thought that snobbery over the MLS degree was just a local thing at my library! I didn't realize it was something all over. Now I feel better.

Lesa said...

No, Maria, I hate to say it's all over. So, to heck with the snobs.

It's a good book that will remind you of any public library you've worked in.

Kay said...

You know, Lesa, I went and looked at those reviews on Amazon and 2 of the individuals who rated the book a "1" had only written this one review. The other one has not written very many, 5 or 6 maybe, and she was very uncomplimentary about most of the the books that she reviewed. I will say that I have come to the time in my life when I don't continue reading a book (usually) if I don't like it, so my reviews are mostly positive. I don't really get writing such a nasty review. Different strokes I guess.

Also, I don't have my MLS. I do work in a library and I do handle all our new materials and I do run our book group (and an additional one in January) and I do recommend books and field reference questions and handle the desk, etc., etc. But, I'm not a librarian. I'm a Library Administrative Assistant (Clerk). Some people have some attitude about the titles and some do not. Guess it's pretty common. I absoluately know that I am in the right job though and my aim is to help as many patrons as I can find just the right book for them and I like to think I am fairly successful at that. I have great respect for all of you with the MLS but I'm not about to go back to school now. I would miss so much reading time! Ha!

Lesa said...


Thanks for checking on the reviews. I thought they were a little nasty in tone.

You summed up your job beautifully. And, to tell you the truth, some of us with Masters, as shown in this book, get too far into the administration, and get away from the reasons we went into the profession. You're still doing what you love, and that's perfect.

Scott Douglas said...

I was looking at the negative reviews, and I don't think they were saying only a real librarian should write the book. I think they just felt mislead. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t say I agree with them, but they seemed fair (likewise the positive reviews seem fair too, so I say just read the book and be your own judge!). I will say one thing about the book that I don’t like, and that’s the cover! Does anyone even use due date slips still! Maybe I only go to modern libraries, but I haven’t seen them in years.

I honestly wasn't too impressed by the excerpt I read online over at the Wall Street journal (, but I'm sure there are plenty of others out their who disagree. Regardless I'm still going to read the book, because it's about libraries and who doesn't love that!

I must shamelessly add that my own memoir about libraries is coming out in April from Da Capo Books. It's called "Quiet, Please" (ISBN: 0786720913).

Lesa said...

Hi Scott,

I do agree about the date due slip. And, I didn't get the impression that the author's library has used them since he worked there. Of course, he might not have had any say in the cover.

Good luck with your book when it comes out!

Scott Douglas said...

Since you enjoyed the book, you probably would enjoy the article on him in USA Today (

Although I must say I really didn't like his comment about librarians..."Librarians, Borchert says, tend 'not to be overly ambitious people. Not extroverts. It's a way for some people to hide. But that doesn't mean they're not good people.'" What a stereotype! Most librarians I know are about the most assertive people around!

Lesa said...

Thanks, Scott.

Yes, you're right. Definitely a stereotype. If he's been working in libraries for 12 years, I wonder how he came up with that idea!