Interview with Don Borchert, author of 'Free For All: Oddballs, Geeks and Gangstas'

freeforallIt is National Library Week and there is no better time to put libraries at the forefront of public consciousness as cities like L.A. cut services in the face of looming budget deficits and an ailing economy. Indeed, news has come out that the LA Public Library has ceased purchasing new books and plans to start charging a $1 fee for inter-library loans come July 1st. This charge may not seem like much, but it adds up once you realize that many branches do not have copies of their own, forcing patrons to either drive to another branch or opt for an inter-library loan. My friends Kim Cooper and Richard Schave have launched the Save the Los Angeles Public Library campaign, which urges city officials to rethink the plan and consider alternatives to meet the budget shortfall.

Libraries are more than just structures for housing books. They provide space for communities to gather, shelter the homeless and under supervised children, and offer literacy services to those who cannot read. However, these institutions cannot exist without dedicated librarians and staffers to manage and disseminate information.

Thankfully, library workers are doing more to educate the public about what they do and the importance of their role in American society. Last year, Ann Seidel released her film, The Hollywood Librarian, an entertaining look at librarians through film. Closer to home, Don Borchert wrote about his experiences working at a library in Torrance in his book, Free For All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library. He kindly submitted to the following email interview:

What inspired you to write your book?

I've been writing since I was about six years old. I wrote for the school newspaper in junior high school and in high school, and wrote a few articles for the Ohio State Lantern in college - until I was thrown out of the school of journalism. It was the 60's. I was a rebel.

I also used to write what one science-fiction magazine editor called 'superb plotless scenarios' which might have been a compliment, but didn't get me published. I didn't understand it. It worked for Borges, why not me?

Anyway, a few years ago, I was working on an outline for what I thought would have been a dynamite book for kids - all about the Peloponnesian Wars, but I put it aside. I knew you were supposed to write about what you know, but this was not one of these areas. Then it dawned on me that I could write about the library. I thought it would be fascinating - it's so different than the perception you might get when you walk in, look around, and go: nice quiet place. I wasn't sure that I'd ever be able to convince an agent or a publisher, but it felt very good to write and get down on paper. Cheap therapy.

How has your story challenged or confirmed public perception of library professionals?

I think my book describes a situation where library professionals, like it or not, better be ready to do a wide range of jobs completely unrelated to their job description. The public often has the idea that librarians sit and read books for a living, and at the end of the day, turn off the lights and lock up. It can be a little more complex, a little more stressful than that.

I took a hit on the Internet recently when I described most librarians as not particularly ambitious. I'll still stand by this generalization. A good librarian is many things, hard-working, conscientious, but I don't see ambition as being any part of that mix. You don't go to library school for a few years knowing you're going to move into a position at the end of it that has a definite starting salary and once-a-year performance reviews because you're insanely ambitious. If you believe this, you've probably never met anyone who IS ambitious.

Why do you think publishers are now open to publishing the stories of librarians and information technology professionals?

I'm not sure that a corner has been turned or a particular door has been thrown open wide in this regard. I think my book was published because it found the right agent, the right publisher, and has an interesting voice. Any occupation has the ability to turn into a fascinating read if its well done. Heat by Bill Buford is a great book about what its like to be a sous-chef in a three-star kitchen. The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer is the memoirs of someone working in a Long Island bar.

Another book may come out about libraries and librarians and utterly tank. The subject matter is only a component.

Do you still work in a library?

I have two answers for this one. One - I still work in the same branch library I started at thirteen years ago. I get a nice feel for the community I live in, and I get to see kids grow up, mature and move on. It's very satisfying. Two - I have three children of my own. Raising children is a very expensive proposition. Having enough money for this endeavor is a good thing. I'm clinging to the middle class quite nicely.

What do you wear to work and why?

I wear a nice shirt and a nice pair of pants. In the summer, I have a variety of Hawaiian shirts that my wife really wishes I would throw away. Some libraries demand their menfolk wear shirts and ties, sports coats. Ours doesn't, and I don't.

Has Google and web-research databases made life easier or harder for library workers?

Both. Getting your information on the Internet is a double-edged sword, and everyone working in a library is aware of this. Instantly, you cut out the need for having a library filled with scholarly, ponderous books on a variety of subjects. On the other hand, there's no guarantee that the information you find on the Internet HAS to be accurate. If you're looking for Elvis Presley's birthdate, it might be a five-minute hunt through the stacks, or a ten-second click on the Internet. On the Internet, however, you might find a half-dozen different answers.

How does your library system celebrate Library Week

In my particular branch library, this will be a relatively low-profile event. The juvenile librarian might bring in some classes and urge the kids to sign up for library cards. We'll be urging the regular patrons to check out books, which we do anyway. A much more exciting week in the library comes around at the end of September, when we commemorate Banned Books week. It's a celebration of free speech. A lot of people are absolutely stunned when they realize books like 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' by Hemingway, 'Civil Disobedience' by Thoreau, 'Catcher in the Rye' by Salinger, and 'The Lorax' by Dr Seuss have at one time or another all been banned books. And we wont even get into Harry Potter.

Do you think Library Week has been reduced solely to the Banned Books and First Amendment campaigns? What should the public get out of Library Week?

The idea of banned books gives the library a little emotional resonance, which is good because it makes people pay attention. I think people in this country are used to the idea of a free public library, and so take it for granted. It becomes invisible. But what other institution is as accessible, as valuable, and as welcoming as the public library? We cater to older people trying to figure out their options, little kids doing their school reports, and first-generation immigrants trying to get a handle on things. Its just that there's very little glamor associated with it.

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