ROBERT SMITH, host:
Think for a moment of the public library: Ah, quiet stacks, studious patrons, little old librarians with their salt-and-pepper hair pulled back in tight bun, shushing their way through the Dewey Decimal System. At least that's my vision of the library.
Well, wake up folks. Today's librarians aren't just organizing books. They are fighting crime. They're containing chaos. They're acting as police officers.
ALISON STEWART, host:
Are they part of the Justice League?
SMITH: They are.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SMITH: You know, if - when you think about it, they have to deal with all the chaos of a public space in a tightly bound set of library stacks. They're social workers. They're fine enforcers.
We have with us librarian Dan Borchert, and he takes us inside this crazy world in his new memoir, "Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks and Gangstas" - that's Gangstas - "in the Public Library." He joins us now from suburban Los Angeles.
Mr. DON BORCHERT (Author, "Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks and Gangstas in the Public Library"): Hey. Don. Don.
SMITH: Don, sorry about that.
Mr. BORCHERT: That's okay.
SMITH: So what does the library look and sound like when school lets out? You described this chaos.
Mr. BORCHERT: Well, it's very civilized during the day. Before 3 o'clock, it's just the place you'd want to go. And - but around 3 o'clock, we tell our older patrons, you know, maybe it's time to go. It's almost the witching hour. And after 3 o'clock, the doors burst open, and up to 100, 120 kids will come in, and we are - there may be four adults in charge of them all.
SMITH: Now, what happens here? I mean, are parents thinking that this is just free day care?
Mr. BORCHERT: They - I think they don't think about it too much. But, yes, it's free - it's pretty much free day care. And a lot - I mean, the library gets used. We're happy the kids come in. A lot of times, they stumble on a book and accidentally read one, and that's a good thing. A lot of the kids are good kids and they're there to study, but there is an element where it's just, you know, we're free. We're air-conditioned. We're open. We're welcoming. And it's cheaper than - and they're less - they're less apprehensive than having them at home by themselves.
SMITH: Well, this is a theme that runs through your book. I mean, obviously, you are a librarian. You work with librarians. They want to help people. They believe in the healing power of a book. And yet, because you have free and open doors, and the world is what it is, it just attracts a lot of people who, if not want to abuse the system, to at least bend the rules a little bit.
Mr. BORCHERT: Right.
SMITH: And so you tell these stories about - some just horrible stories. You talk about something - you know which one I'm talking about. There's something very nasty when you have to put on gloves and clean up the book drop.
Mr. BORCHERT: Yeah.
SMITH: We'll call it a used sexual aid. Yes.
Mr. BORCHERT: That happened in my first year at the library. One of the pages was assigned to take me around and show me all the ins and outs and where - here's where we keep the key to the restroom, and here's where we hide the, you know, the key to the thermostat.
And one of things she was instructed to do was to show me, well, what do we do in the morning. We put up the flag. Well, we unlock the flag, because it's locked up there or the kids will haul it down and play with it. And we emptied the book drop. So one morning, we went out to empty the book drop and…
SMITH: Keep it clean, Don.
Mr. BORCHERT: Pardon?
SMITH: I said, keep it clean.
Mr. BORCHERT: Oh, yeah.
SMITH: It's family show.
Mr. BORCHERT: I've got that on a notepad in front of me. But we opened up the book drop, and this horrible, horrible smell wasted out, and we kind of thought that maybe a possum had crawled in and died. But it was a rigorously used sex toy.
Mr. BORCHERT: That - you can say that, I guess.
SMITH: I think you can. You know when I think about it…
Mr. BORCHERT: And…
SMITH: …but you can say it.
Mr. BORCHERT: It was - and we were both stunned. And because I was new to the library and nothing like that had ever happened to me, you know, I said, well, we should call the police. This has got to be a crime. And we called the police, and they did show up, but they - and their attitude, and rightfully so, was like what should we do? What would you like us to do? And I kind of felt, well, maybe they should dust it for prints. And they were like, no thanks.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BORCHERT: And…
STEWART: Yeah. I bet they were.
SMITH: You know, here in New York, they actually lock the book drops, and it never occurred to me - I'm like that defeats the purpose of a book drop to…
(Soundbite of laughter)
SMITH: …have - to keep it behind bars, and now I think I understand.
Mr. BORCHERT: Well, we used to have a book drop - instead of a book drop, we had a slot that actually went inside the library. But kids were - or not kids, but who knows? People were lighting things on fire and then dropping inside, hoping to set the library on fire.
SMITH: Well, speaking of crimes and misdemeanors, there was even a drug ring operating out of your public bathroom for a while. How did that work?
Mr. BORCHERT: Well, it worked profitably for months. We had two guys come in in the morning, and they would - this is what we found out afterward. They would read the funnies. They would wander around for a while, catch up on the news. And they would put an old burlap or some kind of sack in the trash can out front. And then after about a half hour, they'd go out to the sack, and there would be - somebody would put money in it.
Then they'd come back into the library, go into the men's restroom where they had secreted behind the ventilation - in the ventilation duct, a big stash of drugs. And then they would take out the appropriate amount of drugs, and then take it and put it into the burlap sack or knapsack. And then that was the end of the transaction. And they did that day after day, until the police came in and arrested them.
SMITH: Now, we should make this clear. It's not like you just have a bad branch. Is that right?
Mr. BORCHERT: No. No. No.
SMITH: I mean, you've talked to the other librarians here, right?
Mr. BORCHERT: I did. As a matter of fact, if you go online to a library, like, there's many librarian blogs where this kind of thing happens - and funnier happens with regularity throughout libraries in the United States. But just not - I mean, it's not like you go in there and it's a hotbed of activity day after day. This happens with regularity, but not too often.
SMITH: Well, you know, it does seem in your book that there is something about a public library that seems to attract obsessives and some criminal sociopaths, people with mental issues that they want to play out. Why is that?
Mr. BORCHERT: I think it's because that the library, at its best, is a really - is a welcoming place. You know, there are no requirements to walk in the door. We don't judge. I mean, there are procedure setups so homeless can get library cards, even though they have no fixed address. First-generation immigrants are welcomed to better themselves and learn the language. So it's - so anything that's that welcoming will attract.
SMITH: But at the same time, there are limits. I didn't know that librarians could be pushed past their limits. But time and time again in your book, you talk about even quiet shushing librarians who lose their marbles.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SMITH: And you, yourself, almost came to blows with a patron. I mean, you're kind of the enforcer at this library.
Mr. BORCHERT: I'm the - at my branch, for many years, I was the only one that had children. And so I didn't try to bond with the kids as a peer because I thought that's madness. That's, you know, you're playing into their hands.
So I was - I came at them as a parental authority I'd say, you know, I would say, knock off the noise or take it outside. I tried not to get emotional about it, but I wasn't trying to be their pal. But we did have several instances where - and this, like again, like I said, it doesn't happen too often, but we'll have patrons that actually will come in and want to fight.
SMITH: Well, you know, listen. You admit in your book that you came to this because that was a cushy, civil service job. You never went into…
Mr. BORCHERT: Did I say that?
SMITH: Kind of.
Mr. BORCHERT: Okay.
SMITH: And you never went to get your library degree. And you have all of these issues you face. But, quickly, like, you do seem to actually love this job.
Mr. BORCHERT: I actually do. As a matter of fact, I've been offered laterals or promotions to other branches, but I really enjoy the branch I'm at just because, you know, there - look, there's one group of patrons that come in during the day - and I mentioned them in the book. We have one woman that brings us baked goods. Yeah. That's very old school. And we have people that know our names, and it's a very - it's community.
SMITH: Sounds great.
Mr. BORCHERT: And then at 3 o'clock, from 3 to about 6, it's just like a hockey game. So there is - so you can't get too comfortable in any one position. There's always something going on in my branch.
SMITH: Well, Don Borchert is a hockey referee and librarian in suburban Los Angeles and author of the book "Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks and Gangstas in the Public Library."
Thanks a lot.
Mr. BORCHERT: Thank you.
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