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Lively at the library.

Byline: Swati Pandey Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES - Drunks in tutus, drugs in the bathroom and chick fights in the parking lot don't sound like the stuff of a librarian's memoir, but Don Borchert's book has them all.

In "Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library," Borchert culls the strangest stories from his 13 years as an assistant librarian in a small branch library in Torrance, Calif., southwest of downtown Los Angeles.

With wry humor, "Free for All" (Virgin, 240 pages, $24.95) offers an insider's look at how a would-be sanctuary has become, as his title suggests, a catch-all gathering place where devoted readers are joined by Internet-savvy latchkey kids, semi-homeless misfits and everybody in between.

The result has librarians talking - some not so nicely - about changes in their image and their place of work.

"Everyone knows about the library, but they just see it from the front," Borchert, 58, said recently over lunch near his branch. He is soft-spoken and white-haired, with wire-rim glasses, and seems to have the patience of a man who has answered countless patron queries over the years.

"There's so much else happening that's probably universal to libraries, which is what I wanted to put down on paper."

Librarians are praising the book for busting some of the stereotypes of their profession - although some say Borchert does not go far enough.

One is Scott Douglas, who writes the popular Web column "Dispatches From a Public Librarian" for McSweeney's Internet Tendency. He also is the author of the upcoming book "Quiet Please."

He objects to Borchert's claim that librarians are natural introverts. As Douglas wrote on his blog, the stereotype "may be true of librarians 50 years ago, but it's certainly not true today!" Douglas blames Hollywood - movies such as "It's a Wonderful Life," in which Mary Bailey is doomed to be a librarian had her husband never lived, much to his horror.

Then there are librarians who are upset mostly that Borchert is being called a librarian at all - the term technically applies only to people who have a master's degree in the field. Borchert doesn't.

"It is a sensitive area for some people. A lot of fields have this sort of caste system," American Library Association President Loriene Roy said. "But to the public, anyone in the library is a librarian."

Roy noted that the professional aspect of the field does help attract recruits.

In the past decade, as more graduate programs have been launched and Internet access has become available at nearly every public library, younger people are entering the increasingly tech-friendly field.

Librarian bloggers - such as the Liberry blog and the Live Journal community dedicated to librarians - have long provided insight of the Borchert kind into the library world.

"I hope if they stereotype us as anything now," Douglas said, "it would be as hip, young and idealistic. That'll be the librarian of the future."

Younger librarians, plus younger patrons, mean a changing library. More libraries also are creating bookstore atmospheres by adding cafes and dropping the Dewey Decimal System for topical categories.

Three in four, according to Roy, offer free video gaming events, and of the patrons who attend those programs, well more than half return to the library for other types of events.

Fears that technology - and the younger crowd that has come of age with it - would push the library into irrelevancy haven't been realized.

A recent Pew Internet & American Life Project study found that more than 20 percent of Americans ages 18 to 30 have turned to a library for information about health, jobs, government benefits and other issues, compared with 12 percent of the general population. Pew also found that library usage actually declines with age.

Still, Borchert has blunt remarks for people younger than 18 and the grown-ups who treat the library as a drop-off day-care center.

"We have kids who would almost convince you that, yes, there is evil in the world," Borchert said. But, he noted, they have their reasons for misbehaving. "If I were that age, I could do an hour in the library, and after that, you start thinking things like, `Will this burn?'?"

Theresa Babiar, a former colleague of Borchert's who features prominently in his book and is a youth librarian at the main branch in Torrance, had another explanation.

"Students are just becoming more assertive about what they want, and they question authority more," she said.

Babiar mentioned that the Internet played a role in kids' bending library rules, too.

"For them it's a social tool, and they don't use it quietly. They call their friends over and talk," she said.

But as Borchert's book shows, being loud is the least offense. A chair was thrown at Borchert.

Douglas and Roy have both received death threats.

"In a public setting there's always some danger," Roy said. "But most kids are pretty good."

Kids aren't Borchert's only target - he's not shy about assessing his colleagues or the system in which they work. Of unions, he writes, "It was a solidarity thing ... an adorable, romantic notion that neither side seems to believe."

He casually dismisses the idea that a burka worn by a newly hired colleague encourages conservative sexual mores. "I didn't think she had a real handle on the American male ego and the lengths a male will go to fantasize," Borchert explained. "For example, phone sex. There's very little contact going on there, and it's a billion-dollar industry. ... Men are pigs, I think we all know this by now."

Of a black janitor whom Borchert's editors worried he portrayed too cartoonishly, Borchert said, "That's who he is. He does this to himself."

Borchert added, "If I seem to be denigrating anyone, I don't intend it. So far, the reactions have all been positive."

That might have something to do with Borchert's genuine compassion for the people who create a sense of community within the library. Borchert shows schmaltz-free empathy for young regulars who develop relationships with librarians.

Some of those ties last for years, as Borchert realized at his first reading. Three young women in attendance recalled coming to the same branch, nearly two decades earlier, to listen to then-volunteer Borchert play the accordion.

Do the changes at libraries mean curtains for a place devoted to books and quiet? Borchert is unfazed.

"Some see libraries as fragile," he said. "But the library of 20 years ago was nothing like the library of today, and will be nothing like the library of five years from now. They're changing, and we just don't know what they're becoming."
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Title Annotation:Books
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 3, 2008
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