Thursday, January 22, 2015

Unshelved, Vol. 1 by Barnes & Ambaum

I will not talk about the art in this book. There's an introduction where the two authors -- the pseudonymous librarian Gene Ambaum, who writes it, and the actually-named Bill Barnes, who draws it -- ask all their readers to be gentle, and all but admit that they're no good at what they do. (They're wrong, but that's a separate issue.) So I'll just say that Barnes has an early-Dilbert kind of style, which works for the strip, and suggest that anyone looking for Alex Toth should know better than to start with a library-themed webcomic.

As for the rest of you: well, if you're a librarian, I'm sure you know about Unshelved already; I gather it's an institution in the field, though maybe more so with the young whipper-snappers than the aged curmudgeons. On the other hand, it's been around for more than a decade now, so those original whipper-snappers have probably been ground down most of the way to curmudgeon-dom by long hours at the reference desk by now. In any case, this is from a librarian, about librarians, and at least partially for an audience of librarians -- so it's as authentic as it's possible to be.

The central character is Dewey, a young man who works (as little as possible, at least in these early strips) at the Mallville Central Library. As usual for a workplace comedy, he's quickly surrounded by a group of distinctive oddballs: Colleen, the romance-loving grumpy old curmudgeon; Marv, the kid who hates books but spends all his time hanging out in the library; Tamara, the energetic children's librarian who loves the letter T; Ned, the libertarian lawyer who hangs out naked; and Buddy, the summer reading mascot in a beaver costume who soon becomes a page...still in the beaver costume. There are some continuities -- the summer reading sequence in particular -- but it's mostly a slice-of-life strip, concentrating on the foibles of library customers, many of which will be familiar to anyone who's ever worked retail.

Unshelved, Vol. 1 collects what seem to be the earliest strips of this series -- by my count, there are 364 strips in the book, which would be about 16 months if it were updating five days a week back then -- and came out in book form in April 2003, apparently very soon after the last of these strips appeared online. The technology is a little outdated, and I bet some of the librarians' concerns are as well, but most of the jokes and observations here are evergreen, and it's all still both amusing and true, even for this non-librarian.

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