Friday, May 9, 2008

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Library

Speakers: Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum

Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum are the creators of Unshelved, a comic strip about the various absurdities that take place on a daily basis in libraries.
After a rousing game of hit-the-beachball, Michael Colford introduced Bill and Gene. Bill spoke first, referring to himself as "the civillian" and Gene as "the Librarian". He next called for volunteers (with the incentive of free books) for an exercise called the "Unshelved Library Simulator". Audience volunteers were selected to represent an array of library regulars, from crying babies to drunk homeless people to bickering husbands and wives. Bill next had the rest of the audience stomp (to represent foot traffic) and tap their fingers (to represent typing). After a few cacophonous moments, the Powerpoint presentation flashed a giant "SSSSHHHHHH!" on the screen, quickly quieting the clamor, thus recreating the comic strip above.
Bill described Unshelved in Hollywood pitch form as Cheers with books. According to Bill, he acted as the filter to weed out Gene's library related "in jokes", until he himself began to get the "in jokes".
They next went on to describe the cast of characters that populate Unshelved. The main protagonist, Dewey, is a cynical youth services librarian. Bill described him as a mixture of himself and Gene, carrying character traits of both. Colleen, the reference librarian, is from a "kinder, gentler era" of librarianship, one which Gene refers to as the "bibliolithic era". She, of course, is the technology librarian. Mel is the branch manager, who introduces a new policy every week, only to have it fail by the end of the week. Tamara is the children's librarian, who functions as the idealist to Dewey's hard cynic. Buddy is a man in a beaver suit (not a monkey, contrary to poular belief), who came about when Bill and Gene tried to imagine the worst summer reading program they could. They came up with a beaver, matched with the phrase "Chew on a Good Book". Ned, a patron obsessed with civil liberties, wanders around the library naked. Merv, a young adult patron, loves everything about the library but the books. The Cataloger was a difficult character for Bill and Gene to create, yet they were spurred on by countless letters from catalogers who felt underrepresented. They finally settled on a mysterious character who gets all of her work done, yet no one ever sees her do anything but knit.
Bill and Gene initially tried to put book recommendations into the strip but couldn't find a way to make it seem natural. They finally began to create a weekly, full-color strip in which the characters act out the plot of the featured book. This gives the creators a way to actively promote books they feel deserve exposure to their audience.
Another problem faced early on was how to deal with the lack of homeless characters, considering their ubiquitous presence in many libraries. Bill eventually created Lambert, a homeless man who lives in the library ceiling (this was based on a true story from a library near Gene's own). Lambert is a tall, skinny man wearing lots of clothing who eventually leaves his home in the library to live underneath a freeway overpass instead (apparently it is quieter there).
Bill and Gene stressed the overall theme of their presentation as "You are not alone". Unshelved shows us a reflection of our own everyday reality, in turn allowing us to feel more of a sense of community amongst our colleagues and other libraries.

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