You don’t need the Dewey Decimal System to find the lone drop of humor at the nation’s rockin’ librarians’ conferences. Just follow the autograph-seekers lined up at the table where a couple of boyish guys put their stamp on books with the efficiency of a main branch checkout desk.

Seattle’s Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum have become what you might call popular – or in a weak, library-infused moment, information-desk darlings, or possibly even stars of the stacks. Which means they’ve been, um, totally booked with public appearances.

With an estimated daily readership of about 30,000, their irreverent Web comic references a world of people who know too well the headaches of dealing with the public in all its forms, capturing its frustrations and absurdities.

“It’s kind of, like, ‘Dilbert’ for librarians,” offers Deena Martinsen, vice chair of Longview (Wash.) Public Library’s board of trustees.

Echoes Chris Skaugset, director of Longview Public Library, whose wife bought him a framed “Unshelved” print for Christmas: “They’re just so tuned to library work,” he says. “You see it every day.”

Its creators call “Unshelved” a sitcom set in a library. It manages to be accessible and funny by tapping the familiarity – who hasn’t been to a library? – and eye-rolling compliance of public service.

The most tech-challenged librarian is put in charge of library technology. An old man refuses to check out a large-print book and ends up torching the smaller-print one when he reads it with a magnifying glass on a sunny day. A disheveled, dirty guy asks for a cookbook as a squirrel escapes from the pack on his back; the librarian asks, “Still need that cookbook?”

Nancy Pearl, Seattle librarian turned literary maven, discovered “Unshelved” after a friend told her the strip had featured her action-figure likeness; she ended up penning the foreword to their second book. “I think what ‘Unshelved’ speaks to, and what my action figure did too, is that we should take our work seriously but shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously,” she says now.

That was no problem for Barnes, a Microsoft employee, or Ambaum, a county librarian (his name is a pen name to keep his professional lives separate, he says). When they first launched, their audience barely numbered 40, mostly family and friends. Then the site, www.unshelved.com, got linked to a library blog and – boom, they had a thousand new fans.

Four years later, they claim thousands of online readers – 90 percent of them actual librarians – with another 250 joining up every week. They’ve self-published three “Unshelved” collections with a fourth due later this month, plus a growing line of T-shirts and other stuff.

With newspapers shrinking both in size and in reach and loyal fans refusing to let old comic strips die, it’s been hard for new strips to move in. The Internet changed all that, and where syndication once seemed the Holy Grail, successful Web-only comics such as Jonathan Rosenberg’s “Goats,” Michael Jantze’s “The Norm” and Jerry Holkins’ “Penny Arcade” have given Barnes and Ambaum hope about going it on their own. They also pocket more by self-publishing.

“If not for the Internet, we would not be doing this strip,” says Barnes, who even sat on a panel at the recent South by Southwest festival in Austin about making such media ventures profitable. The strip has made money ever since the pair published their first book. But “there’s a difference between making a profit and making a living,” says Barnes.

Their success, Barnes says, shows there’s something in marketing to a specific niche.

“It’s awfully handy that these potential fans keep gathering in places we can find them,” Barnes says. “That’s the lesson of the Internet – that no matter what you’re writing there’s always an audience. The hard part is finding them. If you find them, you’ve got them.”

Dewey, who works the young-adult shelves of fictional Mallville Public Library, is the snarky main character, an amalgam of them both. “He says all the things people in service jobs wish they could say,” Barnes says. Fans occasionally profess to have had “a Dewey moment.”

“They’ve got it,” said Jan Hanson, a youth services librarian in Longview. “In a whacked-out sort of way.”

Her most recent Dewey moment? Earlier this year, when someone asked where the tax forms were. Um, she thought, right there, under the huge red-and-white sign that says “tax forms.” Not that she responded quite that way.

“Like we say,” says Tacoma, Wash., librarian Laura Shomshak, “you can lead them to print but you can’t make them read.”

Fans say “Unshelved” captures the job’s frustrations and absurdities. Loralee Armstrong, a children’s specialist at Tacoma’s Wheelock branch, has seen a guy lose his library card in a floppy disk drive. A librarian had told him to use his card to get on the Internet – meaning use the ID number on back.

Armstrong’s favorite strip involved the number of kids who hang out in the library, prompting staff to change the sign to “Mallville Day Care.”

After eight years at Microsoft, where he helped launch the online magazine Slate, Barnes, 39, decided to take some time off to pick up where he’d left off as a “Doonesbury”-reading kid. After he and wife Sara Cole took off on an extended road trip, he tried a strip based on RV subculture, “but it was hard to build up regular characters, because everybody’s always on the move.”

Then he befriended Ambaum, a friend of Cole’s from the University of Washington, where Ambaum, 35, earned his library science degree. Together, they sensed libraries were a font of material: Besides the ready assortment of characters popping in to ask questions, use the Internet or just hang out, libraries offer big-topic issues like city budgets, the homeless or civil liberties and homeland security.

Though they say little of “Unshelved” is based on Ambaum’s job, some admittedly is, like the time he was asked about library computer classes – while he was standing at a urinal. (The question came from a nearby stall.) Another recent strip mirrored reality, in which Dewey, prohibited from using office computers to check personal e-mail, winds up helping clients whenever he tries using the public ones.

“That really hit with me,” says Tacoma’s Shomshak. “I needed to e-file (taxes) and went on my dinner hour to the public computers. I had my library tag on, and one guy just stood there and growled at me.”

While it’s true that 82 percent of librarians are women, according to 2002 U.S. Statistical Abstract figures, Barnes and Ambaum say their tours of conference duty have taught them to forget the cliches. Hair buns are rare; hordes of young librarians wear contacts and not glasses – one reason they chose to feature a male librarian as main character.

“It’s breaking down stereotypes,” agrees county librarian Meredith Selfon, a recent grad of University of Washington information school. “Hopefully now people will see (libraries) as a cool, hip place.”

Still, one of their spiels involves an image of children’s librarians as idealistic souls who jump and clap their hands when they’re happy. “It’s true,” Barnes says. “They all do it. Someone came up to me (after a talk) and said, I just want you to know, ‘I’m a children’s librarian, and I don’t do that.’ So I signed her book and drew the children’s librarian, and she jumped up and clapped her hands. Swear to God.”


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