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Lessons from the Library Diaries Debacle

You might have heard about a librarian who was fired from her library job a couple of years ago after she tried to publish a book under a pseudonym satirizing and insulting thinly veiled characters based on the library’s patrons. The “fictional” story was a little too close to reality for the library, panic ensued, and the publisher decided to halt publication.

Then the terminated librarian sued the publisher for damages. She won, but just lost on appeal.

It’s a crazy story, but one we can learn a few lessons from if we want to mock our colleagues and patrons at will.

1) If you write a book called The Library Diaries about your real experiences, don’t pretend it’s fiction.

It’s based on people you’ve encountered. It’s got “diaries” right in the title. Dead giveaway.

2) Don’t come out and tell people it’s basically not fiction.

Here’s a quote from the introduction to the book: “After working at a public library in a small, rural Midwestern town (which I will refer to as Denialville, Michigan, throughout this book) for fifteen years, I have encountered strains and variations of crazy I didn’t know existed in such significant portions of our population.”

If you write that, and then go on and write about a bunch of crazy people, everyone will know they’re based on real people. Do fictional books really need introductions anyway?

3) Don’t write about a small town library.

Because in a small town, everyone knows those crazy people and can recognize them. That was one of the problems that led to the publisher ceasing publication. Write about the LA Public Library, you could maybe get away with it.

The author was hoist on her own petard during testimony. “Stern testified that the Ludington library patrons included a man who brought empty gallon jugs to the library to fill with water, a girl who carried a stuffed purple dinosaur, a man who wore three hats at once, and a woman from Norway who had an altercation with this three-hatted man and was arrested as a result,” Kenney added. “‘The Library Diaries’ includes characters with these distinct traits.”

Would it have been that hard to have a woman who brought empty coffee cups, a boy who carried a stuffed puppy dog, and a man who wore three ties? Or better yet to show some actual creativity and come up with some of your own craziness and not just borrow everything directly from other people?

Apparently so.

4) Don’t put a photo of the actual library you’re claiming you’re not writing about on the cover of the book.

Seriously, a photo of the real library was on the cover. I’m assuming the people in the community, even if they haven’t seen the man with three hats, know what the library looks like. She did as bad a job fictionalizing the cover photo as she did the characters. A book called The Library Diaries with a photo of the Ludington Library on the cover pretending to be fiction isn’t much of a deception.

5) When your publisher says you need releases to write about real individuals, don’t claim that’s not what you’re doing at all.

That was the move that let the publisher keep the rights and still not publish the book. Although I don’t think you need releases to write about real people. Reporters do it all the time.

6) If you’re trying to publish under a pseudonym and not get found out, don’t write about your own library.

This is a lesson some bloggers have had to learn the hard way. I can think of two examples of pseudonymous library bloggers who wrote a lot about their libraries and people at the library found out about it. One’s now in hiding and the other inactive.

7) If your only reason for writing a book under a pseudonym is so you can mock your library patrons, maybe you shouldn’t write at all.

Seriously, just go post something over at the Librarians Who Say Mofo blog, vent your spleen, and get back to sanity.

8) And finally, if you want to make fun of people and things in your library, just write a memoir. People have done it. You can get it published, and five years later have it achieve the Amazon rank of “#1,439,184 in Books.” People just can’t get enough of that stuff.

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Comments

  1. Broken Biro says:

    I hadn’t heard about this but it’s of real interest. I’ve had a couple of poems published based on real borrowers at the library where I work, but I don’t ridicule or name names and I figure the chances of them stumbling upon a particular poetry journal are slim, but I know I’m venturing onto shaky ground with poems and stories based in my library. I will bear in mind all you have said!

  2. Nann says:

    Another librarian’s memoir: The World’s Strongest Librarian, by Josh Hanagarne, which includes day-in-the-life incidents.