Gene Ambaum - Future of Libraries Interview

Gene Ambaum, along with Bill Barnes, is the co-creator of the librarian comic strip Unshelved, but Gene isn't his real name. Could you tell us how Gene came into being, and how Unshelved was created?

Gene is my middle name. Ambaum is the closest street to where I grew up (in Burien, outside Seattle) that has a name. Hence, Gene Ambaum. (Gene was also my father's name, so it's taken some adjustment to be able to answer to it when someone calls me Gene).

Bill and I are a couple of comics geeks. He had always wanted to do a comic strip and had been working on one when we started hanging out (his wife Sara, my friend from college, set us up on man dates). I kept telling him stories about working in the library. We started talking about collaborating. We went to the San Diego Comic Con and the Pro Con (which was still running back then) together in 2001 and thought, "we can do this." We started creating Unshelved on the plane on the way home.

What is Unshelved doing to promote the use of libraries?

It's not our intention to promote libraries or library use, but by creating characters and a narrative in the setting, I think it has the effect of doing both.

You also promote books through the comic strip and it actually works.

Bill and I both love to read, and we thought that we could use the strip as a vehicle to promote books that we like. We made a few painful false starts, but now we feel like the Sunday Book Club strips are a good starting point for what we would like to do. When I was a teen librarian, I would spend a lot of time preparing for booktalks that I might give to a few hundred students, if I was lucky. This is a way for me to let more people know about the books I care about, but at their pace. I love the fact that readers can file these away for later or just come and visit our website when looking for the next book to read -- going in to talk to teens, I felt like I either hit them at the right moment or the opportunity was lost.

Do you see your comic as a marketing tool for libraries?

Some libraries use individual strips that way, but that's not our overall intention in creating Unshelved.

It seems Unshelved has developed a cult following, and Gene a rock-star status. Or at the very least, you and Bill have created something that could be described as a "community" around Unshelved. Why is this important to libraries and librarians today and in the future?

I think the closest I come to being a rock star is playing Guitar Hero II. And that's only when I wear a wig.

For me, Unshelved is a way to step back from what I'm doing at the library, particularly when it's difficult, and laugh at the situation and myself. It seems to fill that function for other people, too. Sometimes this leads me to new ways of doing things or handling situations in the library, but mostly it's stress relief. And I think we can all use less stress. (Man, that's a terrible sentence.)

You've said that the weirder a story in one of your comics is, the more likely it is to be a true story. What's one of the weirdest stories that's been turned into a comic strip?

Buddy the Book Beaver is real.

A lot of Web 2.0 technology is making its way into libraries. Besides just being online, how does Unshelved work with Web 2.0 technologies?

Well, you can subscribe via RSS, we allow syndication on noncommercial sites, and we have a blog (and soon some form of community indexing, though Bill is reworking the website before we can launch that).

Judging by the way people consume your comic, can you extrapolate any lessons or trends about the direction of how librarians and library-users will organize and consume other kinds of data and information now and in the near future?

Online, online online. And, increasingly, outside the library.

Any additional thoughts?

If you've got the time, go read a book by Mike Carey. His output is incredibly varied - I just raced through his first prose novel, The Devil You Know, followed his "Lucifer" graphic novel series to its spectacular end, and enjoyed the two books of his in DC's MINX line. Incredible stuff.

Thanks Gene for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us. Be sure to check out Unshelved News or their daily comic strip.

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