So I’m a mystery/humor writer and I take my inspiration where I can find it. My first book, Josh Whoever, started from a Steely Dan song, and my third book, Play Nice, came from watching my daughter playing soccer against bigger, rougher boys and being told to “play nice” (by the other teams’ parents, of course.)
A couple of years ago I was writing in a library. Libraries are great places to write. They’re reasonably quiet places filled with books and polite, kind people who will help you look something up.
And that’s all that I thought a modern library was.
A couple of the nice, sweet librarians happened to have murderously tough last names. How funny. So I started writing a silly little book about sweet librarians who steal and kill and run all the crime in their city. Ha ha.
But while I was writing this story, I was also talking to the librarians about what they actually did. As helpful as they were to me, I could rarely get more than a few uninterrupted minutes with any of them. In mid-conversation, they would spot someone who looked confused, and jump up to help. A homeless man coming in from the cold? Take him and find a comfortable spot. A woman with a medical problem but no money for a doctor? Explain that the library couldn’t give medical advice, but then say, “but let’s see what we can do.” Find a book or an online article on what ailed her, get her the number of a free clinic. Legal help. Business help. And the biggest and possibly most common in any library: people walking in almost in tears because they needed a job and didn’t know how to start, until a librarian would take them by the hand and show them how to find job listings, how to write a resume, how to… do anything they needed to be successful.
The Eagles said it years ago: “Everything, all the time.” That’s what librarians do today.
I commented to a librarian one day about how nice it must be to work with books all day and she gave me the sweet smile that you give to a particularly slow child and said, “Mike, it’s been days since I’ve touched a book.”
The idea of a library as just a building with books is gone with the wind (I promise, that’s my only book pun.) Libraries have become the tip of the spear in the war on ignorance, the war on poverty, the war on… every front in every battle that people are fighting. One librarian stopped me cold with this observation: the library is the only place left in America that anyone can go to, anytime, and consult with a professional for free. And, no matter how bizarre the question, the librarian will drop whatever they’re doing, smile sweetly and say, “Let’s see what we can do.”
The more I talked to these incredibly knowledgeable and polite people, the more I heard an undercurrent. It took me a while to identify the emotion behind the smile, but they were mad. Not mad because they were generally paid near-minimum wage salaries for work that required long hours and a master’s degree, but mad because it is so hard to get support from the very people they are helping. Small libraries are closing left and right, and larger ones often are dreadfully underfunded. Who needs a library now that we have Amazon?
We all do. Those of us who want a world based on facts and knowledge do. Any of us who might ever need help from the only professionals who train to help find the answers to any question, anytime, need libraries and librarians.
So I tore up my first draft. And I got Mad with a capital M. MAD Librarian is still a light, funny book about a librarian who steals. But now she steals for her library, and she steals for you and me. She steals because she’s mad. Maybe we should be, too.
A final note. When I talked to the director of a large library foundation about MAD Librarian, she looked at the cover and said, “I want bumper stickers of that.” I laughed, but we made stickers. If you want some, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll be glad to send you some. Free, with a smile. Kind of like a librarian would do.