Unshelved Uncovered

by Jenine Lillian, MLIS Day

Given that the December issue of the Silverfish is spotlighting comics and graphic novels, and due to their overwhelming popularity at the iSchool, I decided to do an interview with the guys of Unshelved. If you haven't seen the strip yet, visit and see what you've been missing. There's a great new Primer on the site so you can feel "in the know" right away.

Unshelved is "the world's only daily comic strip set in a public library" started in 2002 by Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum, two regular guys from Seattle. I had the pleasure of meeting Bill and Gene at the PLA Conference last February, where I became their all-time favorite person in the iSchool (a title I won't let go of easily).

Meet Bill and Gene

Je9: Tell us about yourselves: Where are you from? What's your day job? How does the comic fit in?

Unshelved: Bill was born in New York City and has lived around the world. Years ago he worked at Microsoft and now he's back there again as a product designer. Gene is the pen name of a librarian who works at a public library nearby. They are friends by marriage, Gene having known Bill's wife for many years. We have a bunch of hare brained projects underway, but our day jobs do limit the amount of time we can devote to them. We both manage to squeeze cartooning in between work and family, not always entirely successfully.

The Process

Je9: What did you hope to accomplish when you started out?

Unshelved: Bill wanted to be rich and famous, Gene just wanted to get some regular writing done. We both also wanted to build an audience for future projects.

Je9: How has that changed?

Unshelved: It hasn't made us rich, but it does pay for our respective habits of consumer electronics and action figures. When we walk into a library convention we're sort of famous. And Gene has written every week for the last three years.

Je9: How do you create the strips?

Unshelved: We each write our own strips and then go into one or more rounds of editing with the other person. Every strip is a collaboration. Bill draws the strips, but increasingly Gene provides visual descriptions to help get it started. Bill generally has final say on what's actually published and when because he decides what to draw. But if he doesn't draw a script Gene really likes, Gene gets even.

Je9: Is it all digital?

Unshelved: For varying definitions of "digital". Bill used to draw the strip with pencil and brush ink, but now draws directly on a Wacom Cintiq 18sx display tablet using Alias Sketchbook Pro and touching up with Adobe Photoshop. Gene's handwriting is indecipherable, so, by contract, he's required to use a computer to produce scripts.

Je9: How often do you meet up/confer about themes, style, etc.?

Unshelved: Once or twice a week depending on our schedules, plus occasional "retreats".

Je9: What do you do when you disagree?

Unshelved: If it's a strip it usually goes into the pile. More often than not when we look at it again weeks or months later we can figure out what was wrong and fix it. Once in a while a strip goes to the "Script Doctor" - Bill's wife Sara - for a final vote and/or tweaking. Gene's wife doesn't ever think it's funny so she doesn't get a vote.

Je9: WWDD? (What Would Dewey Do?)

Unshelved: Sit back, sip a strong coffee, read a good comic book.

Je9: How long does it take to complete one strip?

Unshelved: The writing and editing part can take between five minutes and several hours depending on how quickly it emerges and how much we agree on it and whether or not we have to arm wrestle. Drawing a strip takes between 30 minutes and two hours depending on complexity. The hardest strip Bill has ever drawn was the "Groundhog Day" strip from WWDD because the perspective shot was a real challenge. It took about four hours.

Je9: What was the final straw that made you decide you absolutely must go through with your comic strip ideas?

Unshelved: After talking about it for a long time Bill finally quit his job in January of 2001 to cartoon full-time. His initial attempt was a strip based on his family's trip around the country in an RV. When Gene started telling him library stories he realized that was a much more promising concept. It took about six months to get the strip developed.

Je9: Which Unshelved character are you most like?

Unshelved: They all have parts of each of us, but Dewey most often says the things we wish we said. Gene claims he's as nice as Tamara when he works the real-life reference desk.

Je9: Least like?

Unshelved: The police officers who won't leave Dewey alone. By the way, a librarian wrote us to tell us his long and demoralizing story about being hounded from his job by the local police. Life is stranger than art.

Je9: What's your long-term vision for Unshelved?

Unshelved: To reach critical mass so that it can support our food and mortgage habits and we can both do it (and other creative projects) full-time. Although it is still most popular within the library community we never intended Unshelved to be for librarians only. It's "Cheers with Books", a workplace humor comic strip that everyone enjoys but that library workers enjoy just a little bit more. We have a large and ever-increasing audience of civilians who love the strip, and so we have hope that it will eventually take over the world and have lucrative licensing deals at Burger King so that we can help children meet their daily portion of saturated fats.

Je9: How many books have you sold so far?

Unshelved: A surprising number. Our first book Unshelved Volume One is now in its second printing, and What Would Dewey Do? will probably have a second printing next year. You probably won't be too shocked to find out we sell a lot of books to libraries. That got easier when Diamond Book Distributors started distributing our books.

Je9: How many online subscriptions do you currently carry?

Unshelved: As of this morning almost 8000 people read the strip via our email delivery. A bunch more read it directly on the website or via RSS feed or on other sites via our website syndication. And there's an unknown pass-around factor for the books themselves. Reports from libraries tell us that our books have very healthy circulation. Let's just round up and say we have a billion readers.

Je9: What do you have in store for us fans in 2005?

Unshelved: In terms of the strip we don't plan that far ahead. In fact, we have consistently failed to implement any of the long term plot arcs we have discussed. In terms of the site, we hope to finally roll out the full-text indexed archive of the strips we've been planning forever. We'd really really like to do a full-size full-color Sunday strip (actually we'd like to do every strip in color) but it depends on how much time Bill can put into it now that he has a day job again.

Je9: Is syndication in the works? Promotional campaigns through libraries or ALA merchandising?

Unshelved: The syndication thing has reached a nice homeostasis - they don't want us and we don't want them. We have lots of ideas about getting Unshelved in front of more people, but nothing is written in stone yet.

Je9: How many conferences have you gone to so far? Are they bizarre, fun, challenging?

Unshelved: Seven or eight. They are often bizarre (especially San Diego's Comic Con), usually fun, and always challenging. We both love the energy of meeting fans at shows, and our readers are very evangelistic - they drag over friends and the occasional stranger to meet us and buy our books.

Je9: Did you ever, in your wildest dreams, think you'd become this popular? That you'd become heroes for library issues? (Especially, for young adult librarians who are male.) What has it done to/for you?

Unshelved: Well, to put it in perspective, we're only middling popular as webcomics go. Strips like PVP and Sluggy Freelance have many times our readership. But that said we are dumbfounded to have grown so popular so quickly. We are also lucky in that our readers buy books, which is the engine that drives our business, such as it is. This small measure of fame has made us both slightly more self-confident. We don't see ourselves as heroes for anyone, but many people have told us that our strips help them understand both the value and craziness of libraries, and we're proud of that.

Je9: If you could do anything you wanted with the strip, what would it be? Is there anything you'd like to tackle through it that you've avoided (due to controversy, etc.)?

Unshelved: If we've avoided controversial issues it's only because we didn't have anything funny or insightful to say about them. Because we're not syndicated we get to do anything we want. We keep it clean because we made a decision to appeal to a wide audience. And because Bill is stubbornly unwilling to use the bathroom for a setting (despite all the interesting things that happen there in a public library).

Je9: Share any Unshelved insider dirt if you'd like...

Unshelved: Bill has a love/hate relationship with drawing the strip. It's a self-esteem thing. He procrastinates as much as humanly possible (sometimes more). Gene is afraid of flying, which is why Bill does most of the conferences. Bill is an ex-vegetarian. Gene hates cataloging (but appreciates those who can do it).


Je9: Who is your favorite cartoonist?

Bill: Garry Trudeau is my long-time fave. I really admire Michael Jantze of The Norm for the way he innovates while staying in constraints of a basic newspaper layout. And these days Darby Conley of Get Fuzzy makes me laugh the hardest.

Gene: I don't read many comic strips. I love Mike Mignola's Hellboy graphic novels (yeah thick, dark lines). The funniest comics ever are the Barry Ween books by Juddy Winick.

Je9: Favorite cartoon character (not Unshelved)?

Bill: It varies. Right now it's Satchel from Get Fuzzy. But then I'm a dog person.

Gene: Miyamoto Usagi from Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo books. He's a wandering samurai, he's a rabbit. Need I say more?

Bill: Oh yeah, he's my favorite too.

Je9: Did you grow up reading comics books and comic strips or did this form just appeal to you?

Unshelved: Both of us did. We had the worst taste in comic books. We both still have boxes with complete collections of things like Arak Son of Thunder and Blue Devil. Stuff you can't give away.

Je9: What was the first book you read on your own as a child? How old were you?

Bill: The first one I remember was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, but I'm sure it wasn't the first one. My sister taught me to read when I was three.

Gene: No idea. But I remember reading the entire Prydain series in a day or two, probably in the third grade. After realizing I could read big books quickly, I read most of the stuff in my elementary school library (which had a great section on the occult, including several books on werewolves, and an old copy of the excellent Jacob Two Two Meets the Hooded Fang).

Je9: If you had superhero powers, what would they be and what would you use them for?

Bill: Right now the power that would come in most handy would be not needing sleep. Or possibly splitting myself up like Triplicate Girl (who of course became Duo Damsel when one of her bodies was killed) so I could do more things at once.

Gene: The power to repel rude people? I'd settle for emitting EM radiation, being a living cell phone jammer.

Je9: What is your favorite book of all time?

Bill: What Mad Universe. Crazy wonderful pulp genius. No miniseries currently envisioned.

Gene: The Wizard of Earthsea. I'm terrified about the miniseries coming out on TV this December.

Je9: If you were a library book, what Dewey section would you be in?

Bill: Yeah, yeah, everyone asks this question. Come on, give us a new one.

Gene: 612.36


Je9: Do you ever switch roles as author and artist and/or do a strip about you two working on Unshelved?

Unshelved: We switch roles every year on Bill's birthday when Gene draws the strip Go look in awe at Gene's sleestack. At the end of WWDD (pp. 126-127) is a strip about how we create the strip.

Je9: Re. going to all those library conferences: Tell us about the strangest, funniest and most surprising thing to happen at a library conference.

Bill: Meeting Jenine was scary. She's like a force of nature. Like a hurricane. Or a mudslide.

Gene: The guy dressed as Gandalf (nice guy) who told me about going to furry cons (I can't honestly remember what he dresses up as, but I'm thinking big, blue bunny).

Shameless Plug

We have one simple request: let everyone in the world know about Unshelved. Once people find it they tend to like it. It's just a matter of getting the word out. Oh, and buy our books. The third one comes out this spring.

*comic strips used with the authors' permission from


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Page last updated: December 9, 2004