Dispatches From a Public Librarian: Technology Gaps and Library Fights

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Continuing with Techland’s mini-celebration of Library Week, I chatted with Scott Douglas, author of hilarious McSweeny’s column Dispatches from a Public Librarian, which later became a book published in 2008 ($16.50, Amazon). Who better to talk to about the plight of the everyday librarian, who is – sometimes comically – a bridge between information and those who aren’t so great at accessing it? And no, he can’t fix your computer.

(More on Techland: A Nerd’s Guide to the Dewey Decimal System)

AT: What’s it like being the keeper of the computer lab at a public library?

SD: Well it’s frustrating, especially now because libraries are busier than ever. I’ve worked at libraries for 10 years and I’ve never seen them this busy, but at the same time we’re cutting staff and hours so there just aren’t enough people to help them. There are more people who keep coming in who need computer help who are trying to find jobs and stuff.

AT: What do people need help with the most?

SD: It’s a lot of basic stuff. People usually need help with resume-related stuff. There’s one career center they can go to in Anaheim and can get help there, but it’s not enough. You can’t really see the digital divide until you go into a library. Then you realize, this is where the people who don’t know how to use computers are.

Sometimes people will come up and ask us for Yahoo’s person number, thinking that they even have one because they want us to call Yahoo up and tell them what’s wrong with their computer. It’s usually something really dumb, like they’re signed into someone else’s account because someone else didn’t log out. Usually, they start cursing Yahoo and saying that they’re stealing their email. The other day, a lady put all of her email in the spam folder because she didn’t know how to create a new folder. She came back two days later and she wanted Hotmail’s number because Hotmail deleted her mail. She didn’t understand that they automatically delete the spam mail after a couple days.

AT: Does anyone ever ask you to fix anything?

SD: They come in with their computers sometimes. They want us to look at it if it’s started slowing down or if it has a virus and I try to help them as much as possible without actually touching it because we don’t want anyone to say that we broke their computer.

AT: You guys are like half-librarians/half-Apple Geniuses.

SD: We’re better than Apple Geniuses. We fix PCs, too.

AT: In New York, librarians are hardcore here. They’re almost cop-like. It’s a little terrifying. Ever feel like more of a security guard than book guy?

SD: Absolutely. You have more peacekeeping duties than actual reference questions. It’s probably better in smaller towns, but you end up trying to be a cop or figuring out when the cops need to be called.

AT: Do you call them a lot?

SD: Not a lot. Usually when we have fights break out over really dumb things.

AT: Normally librarians aren’t the brawniest of folks, what do you do when a fight breaks out in the library?

SD: We’ve been working out more. We have gyms in the back.  No. Usually, we try to never handle it alone.

AT: Strength in numbers. I’ve never understand why a librarian isn’t a cover for more superheroes.

SD: Well there was that TNT movie, The Librarian, but he wasn’t very good.

(Writer’s Note: I had never heard about the movie and stopped looking at the plot summary when I read the film’s tag line: “Overdue for adventure?”)

AT: So what’s your take on e-books?

SD: Well we don’t really deal with them at the branch much because it’s a bit of a lower income area, but I have a Kindle and I have an iPad and I like them. I think they’re great for magazines. I like them for trashy books – books you don’t really want to have around. More like Tom Clancy-type books, not David Foster Wallace books, which I like to put on my bookshelf and make everyone think that I’m smart.

AT: What are the books you don’t want anyone to know that you have?

SD: The dumber books: the mass-market paperbacks that you read on the plane.

AT: Your entire Dan Brown collection?

SD: (Laughs) Yeah. I really do like the iPad though for magazines. I probably have about five magazine subscriptions and my wife has another 10 and most just end up being thrown away. It’s nice to have something you don’t have to worry about wasting paper for.

AT: Do you have any good sci-fi recommendations?

SD: I know Uglies has been really popular. It’s a YA book, where at a certain age you become a Pretty. Everyone in the world is pretty and one person decides they don’t want to be pretty. That one’s kind of interesting.

AT: So Library Week should focus us on our library programs, and right now funding is being cut. Why is it important for this to stop?

SD: It’s not just that they’re cutting staff, but they’re cutting hours, too. The hours are important because people get off of work at 5:30 or 6 and the library closes at 7 or 8. They have maybe an hour to get everything they need done. And now we’re opening later, too. It’s pretty much nation wide.

One of the reasons Carnegie gave money to fund libraries was to get them to stay open later. Originally, about 100 years ago when public libraries first became big, some public libraries would try to close early to prevent the working class from coming in. They would close at 5 and all of the rich people would get to go in because they didn’t work.