Free For All by Don Borchert was an entertaining read. Borchert is an assistant librarian in a Los Angeles County Library. The book sort of condenses into a year the crazy things that go on in a public library. His is at a community branch, small, and across the street from a school. While the first story he told involved human feces, his library is remarkably free from such incidents. I have the impression that libraries each have their own sort of personality. It is a good thing that visitors to the Central library in Minneapolis are not aware of half of what goes on there. Most are too dazzled by how beautiful it is, and that is how it should be.
Borchert’s library is filled with kids who have nowhere else to go after school. As a result the staff have to deal with gang fights in the parking lot as well as bored and rowdy teenagers indoors. But it’s not all bad, some of the kids delightful. But there a plenty of stories about the kids that are heartbreaking. Like the one about a girl whose mother was being beaten by her boyfriend. The girl ran the few blocks to the library because she didn’t know where else to go and because the library was the only place she felt safe.
A good many of Borchert’s stories are funny. Some made me laugh out loud. One of my favorite stories was when the children’s librarian had an event in which animals were present–turtles, bugs, lizards, and a marmoset. The animals were a hit with the kids. It was a big crowd and they went home happy. The children’s librarian went home and soon was at the emergency room with a severe allergic reaction. As near as they could figure, she was allergic to the marmoset. She was so worried that the kids who had been at the library were having allergic reactions too, she kept making her husband go look in the waiting room for children covered in rashes. She spent two days in the hospital. The whole library had to be cleaned from top to bottom and the carpets shampooed before she could return to work. She never had another event with animals after that.
There are stories about patrons who change their names so they can get new library cards because they had so many fines on their old one they weren’t allowed to check out materials. There are stories about the “regulars” like the guy who believes in alien abductions and is certain there is a huge government cover up. Almost as entertaining as patrons are the library staff. My career goal is to work in an academic library, but I am sure academic library staff are as, um, unique, as public library staff.
Free For All was fun, light reading. Eventually the cussing I had mentioned when I first began the book shuffled to the sidelines. Borchert laughs as much at himself as he does at those he writes about and he has an engaging style. And like any good librarian, he cites every book he mentions in a bibliography. He also includes lists of favorite books from his coworkers. I wouldn’t say Free For All was worthy of any prizes, but if you are in the mood for something goofy, this book might do the trick.