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Ryan Claringbole

The director of the Monona (Wisconsin) Public Library says libraries are alive and well, the stereotype of the shushing librarian is overblown and O.J. Simpson and David Berkowitz will not be invited to promote their books.

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There are obvious Quazes, somewhat obvious Quazes and Quazes that materialize from nowhere.

An obvious Quaz is someone who is sorta famous. Michael Dukakis. John Oates. Tommy Shaw. Punky Brewster’s pal.

A somewhat obvious Quaz is someone with a weird job. A juggling marathoner. A phone sex operator. The guy who makes balloon animals at a diner.

And today’s Quaz, well … today’s Quaz sorta materialized from nowhere. Or, put different, I thought it’d be fascinating to host a librarian, and I found a perfect one via Twitter. His name is Ryan Claringbole, he works at the director of the Monona (Wisconsin) Public Library, he hates the perception that folks in his field spend most of their days saying, “Shhhhh!” He reads and reads and reads; doesn’t fear the rise of the eBook; would never host O.J. Simpson for an event.

Anyhow, he’s not selling anything. Not trying to sway your opinion. You can follow Ryan on Twitter here.

He’s a librarian. And he kicks ass …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Ryan, you’re the director of the Monona Public Library in Monona, Wisconsin, and I’m about to ask a question that might break your heart. But, well, do libraries still matter? What I mean is—five or six years ago, my kids were ALL about the library. Now they never want to go. They read almost everything online, on a Kindle. They research papers online. I mean, you know the drill. So, again, do libraries still matter? And are you at all worried about society turning away from them?

RYAN CLARINGBOLE: This is a question that is asked often, and I’m not really sure why. Libraries are still what they have always been about: access to information. Libraries are where early childhood literacy starts and is reinforced. It’s where people discover stories for the first time. Adults don’t just get their books at the library, but learn computer literacy, get help searching and applying for jobs, learn about local history, have access to digitization equipment, take a genealogy program, etc. Libraries are also moving more towards giving communities the opportunity to create content instead of consume it. Focus on writing workshops, video and photo editing equipment, video game design, and much, much more. You mentioned Kindle. One thing many people are still learning is that almost every single public library offers ebooks to be “checked out.” This especially can be helpful for the elderly community who has relied on libraries stocking large print books for many years, and can now check out books and change the font size to be as big as needed with the gadgets their kids got them. Oh and the library more often than not will help them use the device: set up their email,  notifications, and more.

Regarding if they matter, remember so many people can’t afford to purchase books, newspapers, movies, music, and, most importantly, Internet access. I can tell you that libraries’ Wi-Fi use is off the charts. Those individuals that don’t have access to these things at home need libraries more than ever as more and more services are only accessible online. They are also the second most trusted public institution in America, next to firefighters. You mentioned how your children no longer use the libraries. It’s possible they don’t know the programs that are offered right now, or maybe they really have nothing to do with the library, but when if they have children I have a feeling they’ll be back, and when they walk through those doors with their kids all of those memories will come back to them, and they will smile.

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J.P.: Along those lines—do you see libraries adjusting? Adapting? In the way Barnes & Noble now sells toys and electronics and such, so libraries need to re-think the way they approach things?

R.C.: Absolutely. Libraries have been adjusting throughout their existence. A few years ago, back when I was in grad school, I read the book Clerk’s Tale: Young Men and Moral Life in Nineteenth-Century America (it’s actually an interesting book, I promise). It was a nonfiction book about young men who grew up on farms and in smaller villages and moved to the big city to pursue the American dream and ended up working as clerks. There was a section in the book about public libraries. It was a place where these young clerks and others came to learn, but more importantly, came to talk to one another about philosophy, politics, history, whatever was on their mind. It was the place they would go to to hear people lecture on topics or do an author reading. What I’m getting at is it wasn’t a place of silence. It was nosy. It was a place for people to come and share ideas. Sometime in the mid 20th century libraries changed and became a place of silence. It was when the shushing librarian stereotype was born. In the late 20th century libraries started embracing technology more and provided PCs and dial-up service for their patrons to access the Internet. During this time they also helped people set up their first email accounts. Over the last few years libraries are providing different services like the content creation I mentioned above. I think the quiet libraries of the 1950s would be very surprised to see today’s libraries offering writing workshops and showing how a 3D printer works. Libraries are also changing in other ways. Look at the article that was recently printed about the Philadelphia Public Library and how staff are using NARCAN on those who overdosed in or near the library. The Ferguson Public Library was a safe haven for its community members during the protests in 2014. Libraries are always thinking how best to serve the community, and that will never stop.

J.P.: You write reviews for Library Journal, generally in the genres of true crime, memoir and graphic novels. And I wonder—do you feel guilty/bad/shitty when you dislike a book and have to slam it? I mean, as a librarian you surely have some ideas about the difficulties of writing. So how do you deal with bashing another’s work?

R.C.: I … guess bashing isn’t the word I’d use. I do Xpress reviews for Library Journal, which I still struggle with at times because I and other reviewers have to review the book in roughly 200 words. Any reviewer could be asked this question, but I also assume that those that create something—art, films, music, books, etc.—know that not everyone will like it. There are many reasons why a book would be loved by one person and not enjoyed by another. You’re right, I’d like to think I have some ideas how difficult writing is because I’ve tried it and am awful at it! Atrocious. I can’t even complete a draft, let alone produce something published. But that doesn’t mean everyone needs to love it. As far as Readers Advisory that librarians often do, we don’t go into a long soliloquy on how horrible a book is. We offer suggestions on books that either we read or heard about that we think is a good match for that particular reader. There are best selling authors that I do not enjoy, but I will still recommend their books to someone if I feel that person would enjoy it.

J.P.: Do you feel like there’s a general type of person who becomes a librarian? Are there common personality traits? Approaches to life? Does one need to be adept at saying, “Shhh” and “You owe 50 cents”?

R.C.: First, I have to quick take this opportunity to plead for the elimination of the shushing librarian stereotype. It happens about .02% as often as people think. The common trait that people who work in libraries share is wanting to help others. It’s a public service position, and one that is not known to pay that much or provide acclaim. But it’s an opportunity to help every type of person, any age, in multiple ways. It also will depend on if someone wants to work primarily with children with story times or programs, or with adults with classes, programs, or just making sure they are finding what they wanted. People who work in libraries care about the community that the library serves. I think many assume librarians are quiet, anti-social, and have as many cats as they do cardigans. Not so. Many different types of people with different interests. There are even librarians who don’t like to read, but that doesn’t matter because 1) they still know how to help those who are looking for something good to read and, more importantly, 2) libraries are much, much, much more than just books.

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J.P.: Back in the day you were a barista at Barriques in Madison. That’s a job that rivets me, because I can’t imagine truly caring whether someone gets soy milk or almond. What was the gig like? Is it fun? Awful? Patience-testing?

R.C.: Being a barista was a lot of fun. Barriques is a local business with many locations in the Madison area, so you get that community vibe. My coworkers were great, smart, and funny, and we sometimes got competitive on what’s the best number for pulling espresso shots (for the record, it’s 25). Does it test one’s patiences? Absolutely. It’s food service. I had been a waiter for 3-4 years prior to being a barista, and had learned how to be patient. People can be extremely picky about very unique things, and they feel that since they paid for the drink they can dictate every step of the process. Fair enough. But most of the time you get to know the regulars. You start making their drink before they even order. You ask them about their family, what they did over the weekend. It’s not for everyone, but neither is most jobs. It can be a lot of fun, and I do believe everyone should work a food service job at least once in their life for 6 months, and you can do a lot worse than working in a coffee shop.

J.P.: What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen happen in a library? Details please …

R.C.: I’m struggling answering this question. Working in a library you will have every encounter with people you can think of, but it’s not necessarily strange. It’s what their life is like, and often they can’t either control the circumstances or themselves. I did have an interesting project in my career when I helped oversee six prisoners who helped the library move book furniture that was purchased from a Borders bookstore after it closed from one airplane hangar to another. The furniture was going to be used in an upcoming building project, and the airplane hangars was an inspired choice for storage, but needed to consolidate to one location instead of two. The city had a contract with the prison to help with projects, and I was chosen to help out, though my position at the time was working on digital services. The most surreal moment was driving a full van and telling them I will turn the van around if things don’t settle down after a rousing debate over who did the best work.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

R.C.: I had the wonderful opportunity, along with a colleague, to help provide a structured, safe setting for librarians to go through an intense year of professional development. It was an incredible experience watching a room full of people who are dedicated to helping their community discover their potential. It was an incredible experience. A close second was when I helped two women who were in their late 60s with some technology. Their children gave them Microsoft Surface tablets for Christmas, and they needed some help working through it. We scheduled one-on-ones (twos) every other week for one hour session to go through the tablet and it’s abilities step by step. At this time I was moving back to Wisconsin, and when I told them that I was leaving, they made me these amazing peanut butter marshmallow treats, and they told me how much I helped them.

The lowest was when I tried to put on a program that was important to me as it was one of my first programs. There was failure after failure on my part in terms of the prep, and when it finally was offered there were not very many people who attended. It was low since it was my first (but not last) big “failure” in my profession, but the next day I had opportunities to keep helping others and to learn from my coworkers.

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J.P.: How do you feel about the move toward digital everything? What I mean is—is reading reading? Or do you think it matters, the act of holding a book, turning pages, the texture, the paper, etc?

R.C.: The death of the codex is slightly exaggerated. Based on what I’ve read, the digital book phenomenon is starting to plateau, and physical books are slowly climbing back up again. People now have an option on the format they want to read, either physical book, digital book, audio book, or all of the above. There are some great things with digital. People can have dozens of books on one device, which helps for travels. They can increase the font to a size they prefer. But to address your other question, reading is indeed reading. Reading is even more than reading. Reading a paperback book in your hands? Reading. Reading on a Kindle? Reading. Listening to an audiobook in the car? Reading. Reading longform articles on your laptop? Reading. There are things I enjoy about reading a physical book. The smell, holding the pages, visibly seeing how much of the book is left, which somehow, when I’m over halfway through a book I read faster.

J.P.: Donald Trump is president, and it seems like we’re an increasingly dumb, incurious nation. We fall for bullshit disguised as “news.” We don’t believe in climate change, but we do believe in angels. We care more about the Dodgers than flooding in India. Ryan, what’s going on here?

R.C.: It can be frustrating. I get frustrated. But is it any different than other moments in history? Politics in the 1800s had pamphlets discussing opponents in the most vile ways possible. People were opening harming and killing other people more than they are now. I think people lean towards distractions. Sports are there for people to focus on something that is not truly important in their lives, but can be fun. Is that wrong? I’m not one to say. Every day I get nervous reading the news. I look at the country in a new way, but at the same time it’s a county that has always had a rather horrible history. We’ve accomplished great things while doing horrible things. We are continuing the process. However, this doesn’t make it ok. Disregarding facts for no reason is frustrating! This is why libraries are so important, though. It is access to information for everyone. Every. One.

J.P.: Tell me about the most important person in the history of your life, please.

R.C.: You won’t like this answer and probably most people, but most of my positive traits come from my friends, family, and others I’ve met. I love learning, and I don’t believe learning is just in lecture or books. It happens to me most through conversation with others.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH RYAN CLARINGBOLE

• “Ryan Claringbole” sounds like a middle reliever for the Padres. What’s the story of your last name?: I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t done much research into my name and heritage. I can tell you that Claringbole is an English name, and, I believe, there are less than 30 Claringbole in the United States.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Mark Chmura, Corn Pops, Laura Hillenbrand, Kid Rock, Cam Newton, Rollie Fingers, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Stanley Kubrick, bowling, encyclopedias: Stanley Kubrick, encyclopedias (only if you count Wikipedia), Laura Hillenbrand, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Corn Pops, Cam Newton, bowling, Rollie Fingers, Kid Rock, Mark Chmura

• Three memories from your first date: Nervous. Palms sweaty. Clumsy as all hell.

• One question you would ask David Cassidy were he here right now: Hello, my name is Ryan. Who are you?

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes. Very rough turbulence. Focused on a good memory.

• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Sheila E? What’s the result?: Her. No way in hell I’m hitting a woman.

• Five reasons one should make Monona his/her next vacation destination?: Wonderful community. Great small business. Beautiful parks and lake. Right next to Madison which is a fantastic small city. And, of course, visiting the library!

• What are three words you overuse?: Literally (but correctly), wonderful, what

Bill Cosby, O.J. Simpson and David Berkowitz all want to do signings at your library. You have to pick one. Who do you go with?: None of them. But if I have to pick, Bill Cosby. But nothing prevents me from inviting as many speakers and activists I can find talking about the importance on speaking out about sexual assault and supporting victims of sexual assault, making sure he’s on the opposite side of the building.

• Five all-time favorite books?: With the caveat that they are my all-time favorite right this moment, in no particular order: Catcher in the Rye, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Devil in the White City, Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Between the World and Me. I will make a quick pitch to two books I finished recently. A Gentleman in Moscow is fantastic, and The Hate U Give is a book everyone should read.

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