Free For All by Don Borchert


Given my book addiction and natural affinity for libraries, I have often thought about a career as a librarian. But I could never see myself spending the time to get the degree, and the pay isn’t great, so it remained just a unrealized possibility; but one that still knocks around the back of my brain on occasion.

Not surprisingly then, when Free For All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library came my way I thought: “Hey, here is my chance to get some insight into the life of a librarian.”

Here is the publisher copy for the book:

Not long ago, the public library was a place for the bookish, the eggheaded, and the studious–often seeking refuge from a loud, irrational, crude, outside world. Today, libraries have become free-for-all entertainment complexes filled with rowdy teens, deviants, drugs, and even sex toys. Lockdowns and chaperones are often necessary.

What happened?

Don Borchert was a short-order cook, door-to-door salesman, telemarketer, and Christmas-tree-chopper before landing a job in a California library. He never could have predicted his encounters with the colorful kooks, touching adolescents, threatening bullies, and tricksters who fill the pages of this hilarious memoir.

In Free for All, Borchert offers readers a ringside seat for the unlikely spectacle of mayhem and absurdity that is business as usual at the public library. You’ll see cops bust drug dealers who’ve set up shop in the men’s restroom, witness a burka-wearing employee suffer a curse-ridden nervous breakdown, and meet a lonely, neglected kid who grew up in the library and still sends postcards to his surrogate parents–the librarians. In fact, from the first page of this comic debut to the last, you’ll learn everything about the world of the modern-day library that you never expected.

Despite this description, what I found was more reflections on the social space of an institution, and the community it serves, then a day in the life of a librarian. Sure, Borchert recounts various stories and episodes of his job, but what makes it interesting is how he captures the role of the library in his community and the people that make up that community. For example, I was stuck by how much school life impacts the library. School children and their schedule play a huge role in the library’s day-to-day activities and the work of the librarians.

What makes the book an easy and interesting read is the way Borchert’s style balances realism, humor, compassion, and cynicism. for example, he uses humor to poke fun at the bureaucratic nature of state and local government even though his paycheck comes from the city; he is able to laugh about the odd people that patronize and work at libraries without sounding overly judgmental or harsh; and he is able to see that some kids are trouble without losing his compassion or becoming darkly cynical.

Free for All isn’t one of those Wow! books that blow you away or that you immediately want to tell your friends about. Instead it is a good natured and humorous look at a profession and institution that many of us are vaguely familiar with but from a limited perspective. Borchert offers his perspective on not only the unconventional activities that happen in and around the library; but also how he found himself working there and the role the library plays within the larger community.

Not being a librarian I don’t know how typical these kind of stories are, or whether they are of interest to those in the profession, but I enjoyed reading them; and I gained a better appreciation for the community function of the local library. I would think that anyone who has spent considerable time in a library would enjoy Free For All.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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