Quiet, Please (Magill's Literary Annual 2009)
In Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian, author Scott Douglas chronicles his first three years working in a small Anaheim, California, public library. During this time Douglas earned a master’s degree in Library and Information Science (MLIS) from San Jose State University and was promoted from library page, to technician, to librarian. Douglas had not planned to become a librarian; majoring in English literature at college, he had no specific plans for his future. By chance he saw a classified advertisement for a job as a library page, and he applied partly because of his love of books and reading and partly because he had nothing else in mind. During his first few months in the library, an older male library clerk suggested Douglas pursue a professional degree because he was more familiar with new technologies than many librarians and because the clerk felt outnumbered by women on the staff.
Promoted to library technician, Douglas applied to San Jose State’s graduate program and began thinking more seriously about library work. Noting that he started in his new position on September 11, 2001, as the United States was attacked by terrorists, Douglas recounts how various regimes throughout historythe Germans in 1914 Belgium, the Nazis in Poland during World War II, the Taliban in Afghanistanhave destroyed libraries and other cultural artifacts in their attempts to conquer foreign cultures. As a library-school student, he began to notice how people searched for information about the September 11 attacks, and how critical they were (or were not) about what they found. He also noted that historically communities, not librarians, rebuild and reestablish destroyed libraries. This sequence is typical of Douglas’s digressive but entertaining writing style, moving from the personal to a historical observation or extended factoid, then back again to his own story.
Douglas completed a two-year MLIS program, and he is fairly critical of the education he was offered in library school, raising an ongoing argument in librarianship about its professionalization and the value of theory versus practice. Typically, Douglas found much of his formal education would not help him with practical, day-to-day library work (his final project is to write a report about terrorism in Southeast Asia); at the same time, on the job he began to appreciate the skills and knowledge of library workers who did not have professional degrees.
Beginning his career just as personal computers were becoming a staple of library service, Douglas worked with librarians and staff who were unable to make the transition to providing online service or to cope with an influx of young, unruly library patrons who came to use computers. At first library employees knew nothing about computers or the Internet and could only look on as patrons surfed the Internet, used e-mail, and launched programs unfamiliar to anyone on the staff. The library also encountered a new surly attitude on the part of younger patrons and the advent of Internet pornography (Douglas opens his first chapter with a remark about patrons masturbating while viewing Internet pornography, a common situation in libraries allowing public access).
Douglas entered the profession just as libraries were losing patrons to bookstores and Internet resources they could access at home, and he argues that libraries must change radically to compete with these threats. He suggests the classification systems used to arrange library materials should be jettisoned in favor of clearly labeled subject areas typical of bookstores, and he points out that many libraries have fallen behind in making online resources available and providing ways for users to plug in their own laptops and other electronic peripherals.
However, Douglas also believes public libraries serve their communities in ways that cannot be replaced by retail outlets or the Internet. He gives many examples showing how libraries are important in the lives of senior citizens, the mentally disabled, children, teens, the homeless, and immigrant families. Objecting when his library starts giving away free bags of popcorn, Douglas is told that for some children the popcorn will be the largest meal they have that day. Two years later he is ready to...
(The entire section is 1752 words.)
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