Surviving The Public: Unshelved


“Are you a librarian? Do you know any librarians?”

It’s not a frightening twilight zone interrogation scene, it’s the Surviving The Public panel at the New York Comic Con, put on by the webcomic (and more) Unshelved.

Despite the small number of actual librarians in attendance, it turns out that like Kevin Bacon, pretty much everyone knew one librarian. I wonder if it’s the same, ultra popular librarian… A question for another time. The panel consisted of the two authors of Unshelved, Bill Barnes & Gene Ambaum, as they offered tips and sympathy through their comic strip, on the topic of dealing with the difficult people who make up “the public”. If you’ve ever had to serve “the public” you understand.

The panel began with Gene warming up the crowd through a guided visualization. “It’s a sunny day in the library, the mortgage crisis is over, your presidential candidate hasn’t embarrassed himself lately, the library levy have passed, everything is quiet, not chaotic, people are asking good questions at the library, you are the librarian, people have asked you for book recommendations and when you recommend a book you like they actually check it out and take it home, it’s an astonishing thing…People are reading all the signs you have posted, no one has asked you where the bathroom is, nobody’s talking on a cell phone, everyone is happy, the kids are playing quietly, it is a perfect day. And then, she walks in.”


Gene went on (with the aid of sound effects, first a quiet forest and then a ringing alarm) to craft the worst customer ever narrative around the image, telling how she’s cut the line, she’s being rude and worst of all when she talks to your manager, she’ll sound completely sane. “She is the person we’re talking about.”

Gene first talked about “The Stinky Cheese Man”, a codename used for talking about the man in front of him without his knowledge. “The Stinky Cheese Man” would come in constantly with internet start up (bad) ideas, the worst being an “internet sandwich shop” which remains a mystery to both panel and audience. He not only wanted help finding the information, he’d want Gene to do everything, and would never look at the information provided, instead asking for others to do it for him. Gene’s torment was ended when the man finally decided that Gene was the problem and asked for another librarian’s help. He ended up working his way through the entire staff, then finally running out of employees to get fed up with he disappeared.

Gene spoke about his own experiences training librarians about how to make things go smoothly and not lose their temper at bad customers.

Bill then introduced a stop motion slide show following the history of difficult people, starting with amoebas and working it’s way up through the middle ages. In each brief animated scene, the difficult customer was simply dealt with a quick burst of violence. “When we started forming civilizations, people started organizing, and then difficult people realized that they could organize together, and suddenly they weren’t so easily dealt with.” he narrated, before a scene of two stupid customers falling in love at the Returns counter of a department store.

The audience was then introduced to Dewey, the Young Adult Librarian at the strip’s fictional library. Dewey is the sarcastic one, who answers dumb questions with dumb answers (or dumb questions). In my own experience working retail, I could attest to a lot of the moments captured in some of the Unshelved strips. “That’s going to play, right?” is something a scary number of people ask me, while I’m renting them out a DVD. “No”, I reply, “We only rent DVDs that are broken here.” They have a moment where they’re not sure whether or not I’m mocking them or being… Come to think of it, I don’t know how they don’t get that I’m mocking them. But I don’t have any co-workers, so most of these moments go unappreciated.

A “Dewey Moment” is when you want to say something that would probably get you fired.

“If you are fictional, you too can get away with that” Bill said after what was an almost legalese sounding disclaimed of “Don’t Do What Dewey Does”.

The audience was then asked to refrain the laughable, archaic notion, “The customer is always right.”

Following a truly flat echo from the audience, Bill said, “You guys sound dead inside.”

The crowd burst into laughter, but just as the voices began to die down, I heard from the row behind me a man say rather matter-of-factly, “We are.”

That bummed me out a little. Especially considering I don’t know how he knew that I was also dead inside.


Gene proposed an edit, “The customer is seldom right.” which the audience chanted back with much more emphasis.

“The more wrong someone is the more insistent they are that they’re right.”

Each brief segment provided prologue and interlude to strips, illustrating the aforementioned point hilariously and wonderfully.

The librarian’s power to remove fees, a feat not often enjoyed by government agencies was laughed about.

One of the big, practical solutions proposed by the pair was killing with kindness and the notion of “reply[ing] to the content, not the tone” which is brilliant in it’s simplicity. An angry customer who received a damaged package of books from Unshelved wrote an angry, mean email, which was met with a kind resending of new books, and an apologetic letter. The angry customer was mollified immediately.

“Assume positive intent, no matter how bad the person’s behavior is, when they’re in front of you…you just look at them and go, ‘They mean well’.” Gene said.

“If they don’t mean well, it’s very satisfying some times to pretend that they do.” Bill said before revealing a group of answers for mean spirited jabs that will make you feel better and not give away your discontent. If they say “You’re a liar”, he went on, “I reveal that as a lonely child stories were my only friends.”

Also discussed was when it’s ok to break policy. No one is allowed to check out library books under someone else’s name, because of an urban legend sounding story involving a husband who checked out the books his wife had on hold and discovered a book on divorce. But that sensible policy might not be worth stringently enforcing when it’s a wife trying to check out books to photocopy chapters for her husband in Iraq who’s working on a degree, although as the story went on this woman had to do just about everything possible in existence to finally get the “Ok”.

Bill and Gene provided a humorous look at some of the problems that all people who serve the public encounter, both through their strips and personal anecdotes. The crowd of librarians (and friends of librarians) had a great time, learned a little and laughed a lot.

About Rich Johnston

Chief writer and founder of Bleeding Cool. Father of two. Comic book clairvoyant. Political cartoonist.

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