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

Last January, the Maplewood, New Jersey, public library announced that it would shut its doors on weekday afternoons because the staff couldn’t handle the rowdy kids who stormed the building after school. This decision met such fierce opposition that the library quickly reversed itself.

Readers who sent coverage of the controversy to The New York Times‘ list of most-emailed articles might have chuckled to themselves, “C’mon! How bad can a bunch of suburban middle-schoolers possibly be?” They will find their answer, and more, in Don Borchert’s memoir Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library, which offers an insider view of life within those book-lined walls. Borchert, who for many years lived hand-to-mouth working a series of odd jobs, found that the civil service was the perfect home for someone whose professed lack of ambition kept bumping up against his need to support a family. For 12 years he has been an assistant librarian at a branch library outside of Los Angeles.

Early on, Borchert gives an indication of the kind of characters who will populate his funny, breezy book. “The library is the dullest place in the world — 91 percent of the time,” he writes. “It also attracts the homeless, the mentally ill, occasional pedophiles, Internet junkies, unattended children down to the age of two, con artists, thieves, beggars, cultish homeschoolers, and people who are in general angry with every level of state and federal government. Most of these people decide to fill out an application and get a library card.”

Unruly adolescents show up in force, too. Borchert’s library, like the one in Maplewood, happens to be across the street from a middle school. He describes with dread the “witching hour,” which “coincides with the last school bell of the day, when streams of bored, wild, slightly resigned kids pour in who have been told to wait in the library until their parents pull into the parking lot and honk their horns.”

Borchert sees himself as a “non-nurturing librarian,” the “go-to guy who is willing to be hated and vilified in the name of the library.” So the loud kids who fight, spit, vandalize, and steal are shown the door. But beneath Borchert’s rough exterior is a softie of sorts, and in many cases he humanizes the “bad kids” while slyly indicting the parents who’ve mistaken the library for free day care.

Take Kevin. After throwing him out for the umpteenth time, Borchert asks the teenager why he doesn’t just go home.

“Mom doesn’t get there until about six-thirty,” he said.

“Don’t you have a key?”

“Hah. Right. No. My stepfather says if I want a key, I should get my own place. Sometimes I get there and his car is out front, he’s inside, and he won’t even answer the door. He’s a jerk pretty much.”

Damn this stupid kid, I thought. He is no longer two-dimensional.

After Kevin is kicked out of his house, he moves in with his grandmother and turns himself around. Eventually he joins the Navy, and before being posted off of Japan, he visits the library for the last time, ostensibly to try to sell his car. “What he really came in for, though, he says — would anyone like his address, maybe write to him while he is out of the country? Let him know what was going on at the library? Sure, we say.”

Damn this stupid author. He is no longer just trying to make me laugh.

More touching anecdotes follow, like the one about the older woman who bakes for the staff because she has no one else to bake for, or the fifth-grader who runs to the library when her stepfather is beating her mother because it’s “the only place she felt safe.” But some of Borchert’s best passages involve people who are far from sympathetic. If you’ve ever held a job that requires interaction with the public, you’ll find something queasily familiar in his depiction of routine exchanges that start out normally enough and suddenly go bad:

The woman picked up the book she was thinking of checking out and asked me if I had read it. No, I said. There are many books in the library I have never read…. She moved back a step as if I had thrown a bucket of cold water at her. You haven’t read the book? she replied. Then how can you tell me about it? I told her I could look in the bibliographic record for the book in the computer and tell her all about it…, but that there were many books in the library I hadn’t read. She flinched again. You don’t even read books? What kind of idiot are you? They should hire someone who reads — not you!

The exchange is all the more farcical given that the book is an obscure self-help title — it’s not as if Borchert is copping to never having read The Great Gatsby.

Borchert isn’t only interested in avenging himself on negligent parents and unpleasant patrons — he wants to explain a few things about librarians, too. To wit, the guardians of the circulation desk can easily be charmed into waiving fees (“What do we care — we’re librarians!”) but have “less of a sense of camaraderie and goodwill when it comes to damaged, ravaged, and mutilated books.”

Indeed, Librarians don’t like being lied to, and according to Borchert, they often are. Apparently, a common ploy involves withholding an address on a library card application by claiming, “I can’t get mail where I live.” The author drily notes, “This statement, too, makes us suspect, because as far as we know, the mail goes everywhere. When we are lied to in the first tentative moments of the relationship, we know it will end in tears, accusations, and large fines.”

Librarians are a pragmatic bunch who oppose censorship yet occasionally toss books in the trash. “The public is always stunned when they learn that a public library periodically and rigorously pulls books off the shelves and either sells them for a few bucks or throws them away,” he writes. “They think we treat each book like an eternal flame. If we did that, however, we’d quickly run out of room and have to stop buying new books.”

Borchert’s author tour to promote Free for All will hit bookstores and libraries in places such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and…Maplewood, New Jersey. No doubt he and the librarians there will have plenty to talk about.