Gina Sheridan: “I Work at a Public Library”

As a life-long patron and former employee of the public library system, I was delighted to discover the work of Gina Sheridan, whose wonderful book and blog, I Work at a Public Library, has provided me hour upon hour of fun and wonder. Sheridan’s pithy, off-beat, quirky accounts of the incidents and exchanges that take place in what she refers to as a “neutral place” range from the poignant to the hilarious and make for fascinating reading no matter who you are. What’s more, I was thrilled to find out that Gina is a former pupil and current colleague of my great friend Jeff Weddle, who is an associate professor of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alabama. Gina graciously agreed to answer a few questions about her life and work so I could share.

A bit about me: I grew up in a St. Louis suburb, the middle of five kids. I have an older sister, an older brother, and a younger sister and a younger brother. I’ve always found this sort of special. My mom was always trying to kill herself (and still hasn’t succeeded) so we grew up fast. The girl siblings made it out smart and happy, and the boys made it out alive but damaged. I got married at 19 because it meant a fresh start and it seemed like the thing to do at the time. We lasted seven years. My brain exploded at college as I learned more about the world and its occupants, and he was kind but couldn’t keep up. I moved to Savannah, GA for fun for a couple of years before graduate school in Tuscaloosa, AL. My first professional librarian position was in Fresno, CA where I met husbear and started I Work at a Public Library because I wanted to try out Tumblr and was in awe of almost every person I met at the library. Even though I’ve been writing since I was young, first bad poetry and then so many blogs! I never sought to be a published author; it was such a fluke how it happened.

You say you “curate” the stories, which I find a curious way to say you compile and edit the stories. Describe the process of submission to blog, in other words, the stories you receive, where do they come from (geographically), what are your criteria for acceptance, and while you say “Most are offered without comment …” what sorts of stories do you find need or deserve some sort of comment?

I love the word curate because I collect the stories from all sorts of places, not just the submission button on the blog. Sometimes I find a great story on a friend’s Facebook page. Sometimes it’s a story told in passing at work. Yesterday, one came by snail mail! Sometimes people will text or email me a snippet of a story and I have to carefully flesh it out for it to make sense and appeal to a general audience. Often it’s something I personally experience. But there are times I start typing it up and realize it’s not quite right, or won’t mean enough to anyone other than me. Those are the ones that are hard to explain. Many of the submissions I receive (perhaps 40% of them) are way off base, something I’ll discuss in another answer below.

The stories come from all over the world–I’m surprised how many submissions I get from people in Canada and Australia in particular. Most are from current or retired library workers, but I get some messages and stories from library users who have had weird or funny or touching experiences at the library.

I like to offer up the stories objectively, without comment or judgment for the most part. I do this so that readers can get a picture of events that actually take place without my opinions murking it up. However, the “bullies” tag is inherently subjective and a few others sprinkled here and there provide commentary on how I feel about the subject or situation. When I share a link to Facebook, it often accompanies a sentiment. There are times I can’t help myself.

Do you find that people are confused by the things you (and I) find amusing about library patrons? Do you ever get any feedback from people who find the blog offensive in any way, for instance condescending?

99% of the Tumblr interactions are overwhelmingly positive. The same is true of the interactions on the associated Facebook page and Twitter feed. There have been very few negative comments or reactions. While I try to avoid my own book reviews, I did catch a few of the IWAAPL book that expressed things like, “I could’ve written this.” or “This could’ve happened anywhere, not just a library.” or “What is so special about these stories?” or “Libraries are WAY worse than this watered down bullshit.” Those sorts of things. And I agree! But that’s what I find so cool about the subject. It’s not unique. I love paying attention to my surroundings and the people I meet. Sometimes you look up and see something brilliant in the mundane. Not everyone does, though. I think most people who don’t get it just stay away or keep quiet–in any case, I don’t hear from them!

Yes, the characters are colorful and often entertaining, but what do you mean by “their jackets are dusty, subtext confusing, and even if they don’t fit in anywhere else in life, all of them belong at the library.” I think this is charmingly intriguing, and would like as full an explanation as you feel you can provide.

The American public library is one of very few places in the world where everyone is truly welcome. As long as you abide by a few simple (common sense) rules, you can stay from open to close, you don’t have to make a purchase, no one will ask for your membership card or judge what you are reading (or not reading). All of this means that public libraries attract all sorts of people, of course. And this includes employees! Some of the quirkiest people I know are librarians. Librarians aren’t just cardigans and margaritas, people!

Here’s a question I’m sure you get all the time: Where did you get the idea for I Work at a Public Library?

I’ve been blogging for many years. Blogs are a free and easy place to collect things and find community. I used to have a “Quotes of the Week” blog where I shared funny things I heard throughout the week, with a complete lack of context. I also have “Here, Hold This” which contain iPhone photos of my husband holding miscellaneous items. IWAAPL was a place I could collect the library stories that amazed and touched me. Plus, I wanted to try out the new-at-the-time platform called Tumblr. I didn’t realize it would become popular and I never imagined it would turn into a book deal. Several years in, an agent contacted me on Twitter and it was only a couple of months later that a publisher offered us a contract. It really was the right combination of people at the right time–I call it a fluke because there are so many other blogs out there with way more readers than I have.

Sure, your stories illustrate the “quirkiness” of humanity, but what else? What else do they have to say about the human condition, particularly in terms of the thirst for knowledge, or the need for information?

Some people come to the library because they don’t have many other places to go, or people to talk to. Some are indeed thirsty for knowledge and aren’t at all afraid to ask any question under the sun. People feel pretty safe at the library and library workers love to be busy and helpful answering questions others may scoff at. But working with the general public can be difficult at times. When someone is exhibiting poor behavior, I see it as a challenge–how can I deescalate the situation? How can I smooth things over so the person and the staff member is happier than when I found them? I tell my staff, “Start with yes and always err on the side of customer service.” That seems to work pretty well, but some people carry their baggage with them everywhere and nothing helps.

The biggest surprise to me is the response from library workers, young and old, just starting out or retired, professional or paraprofessional. The stories give them hope, validation, humor they can relate to, nostalgia. Radical librarian Sanford Berman and I are pen pals because he happened upon my book! He sends me clippings of old newsletters and sends me notes on the backs of grocery lists. I cherish our correspondence very much.

Be honest and tell me you do get submissions that you consider inappropriate for your blog. What sorts of submissions would fall under this category? Accounts of child abuse, perhaps? Criminal activity of other sorts?

Nothing that dramatic! The worst sorts of submissions I receive have a huge slant toward the negative. Some people just don’t “get” the vibe I’m going for. They want to vent about “crazy people” or their co-workers or boss. These are stories of poor customer service. Some are mean-spirited or could be perceived that way. That’s not cool with me (and frankly, it’s boring).

What sort of reception has your blog received among librarians? Are you a celebrity at conventions? (Weddle once told me that librarians will hold meetings/conferences at the drop of a hat, and as a former librarian, I know he’s right.)

No! I’m so not a celebrity. There are so many rockstar librarians actually making a difference in the industry–Jason Broughton, Taneya Gethers, David Lee King, Scott Bonner, Melissa Jacobs, Patrick Sweeney. These guys are change agents and library advocates, I’m just a blogger!

Is “Cuckoo Carol” a real person, or is she an amalgamation of assorted nuts you have known? (I suspect the latter, btw … )

Carol is a real person named Meg. She was such a character who kept me on my toes. The nickname came from her–“Just call me cuckoo!” she once said to me. When the book was coming out, I gave her a call at the library where I knew her (because I knew she’d be there–she was there for 10+ hours per day. I even knew where she’d be sitting so they could go get her and tell her she had a phone call). Here’s how the conversation went:

Me: “Meg, it’s Gina, the librarian who used to work there. Do you remember me?”
Meg: “No! Is this a sales call?”
Me: “No, no, nothing like that. Listen, I remember you fondly. Anyway, I’m writing a book about funny things that happen at the library. You’re in it. Are you cool with that? Do you want to read the stories ahead of time? You are basically going to star in a chapter.”
Meg: “That’s the story of my life!”
And she hung up.

You confess that most of the stories are in your book, I Work at a Public Library. How has the book been received?

About 75% of the stories in the book were new (never published on the site). I just checked: the site has 850 stories to date! The book is not at all a runaway bestseller or anything like that. It’s a great bathroom read and makes a good gift for library lovers and book people. I’m proud the book is out there in the world.

How do you view the role of librarians in society now? Petty bureaucrats or guardians of the public trust?

Librarians of today are space makers, community teachers, innovators, change agents, information helpers. We help people find jobs, get their mind off their troubles, learn to read, learn to love to read, and we offer free classes and lectures and performances. In St. Louis during the Ferguson turmoil, both protesters and non-protesters felt safe coming into the library to find some respite, get a drink of water, charge their cell phones, use a computer, etc. It’s a neutral place that is much needed today.

Photo by Inti St. Clair
Photo by Inti St. Clair

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