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Interview with Gene Ambaum of Unshelved
November 16, 2007

By Michelle Wong


Mallville Public Library - no take is reference


Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes co-create Unshelved, a comic strip set in a library (here’s a handy primer to quickly orient you to the world of Mallville Public Library).  Gene  (a pen name) formerly worked as a teen librarian, and now works in staff development for a large library system.  Bill recently left his job at Microsoft to devote more time to Unshelved.

Gene and Bill also sponsor an annual contest called “Pimp My Bookcart” which encourages library staff to go wild in transforming mobile bookcarts into works of crazy art. 

Disclaimer: Because I (Michelle) do not have any audio recording equipment, I opted to do the lo-tech method of taking notes.  So this is not word for word, though I tried to capture the jist of the conversation.  Also, be assured that Gene took a look at the “transcript” to ensure accuracy.

Disclaimer 2: If I didn’t ask standard interview questions, it’s because it’s probably already been asked in one of the many interviews done with the Unshelved guys (“webliography” at end of interview), most notably—well, to us anyway--an earlier interview featured in Silverfish’s December 2004 issue.  Since others have been so thorough, and also since I received a request to not ask the same frequently asked questions from other interviews, I asked a random assortment of questions. 


Silverfish: What books are on your nightstand (or equivalent)?


  • Light by M.J. Harrison
  • I Will Destroy All Civilized Planets by Fletcher Hanks
  • Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff
  • The Janissary Tree
  • Tekkon Kinkreet (go read it!)

Silverfish: How do you choose what to read?

Gene: Nowadays, publishers send us boxes of books, which is extremely cool.  I look at displays in bookstores and libraries (my favorites are the UW Bookstore’s and the Elliot Bay Bookstore staff picks).  I also visit specialized bookstores downtown like the Seattle Mystery Bookshop in Pioneer Square. 

Silverfish: It seems like you ask staff from specialized bookstores for reading recommendations more often than you do public librarians…is this true, and if so, why?

Gene:   Bookstore staff will more readily share their personal opinions about books with you.   Librarians are a little too relucant to tell you that something sucks (unless they’re in the back room).  But, more importlantly, bookstores are more likely to have a recommended book on their shevles.   With libraries, if it’s a really good book, you’ve usually got to wait a while. 

Silverfish: You mentioned in the previous Silverfish-Unshelved interview your fascination with library bathrooms.  Would you tell me more about this?  And would you share a library bathroom story?

Gene: Funny things just seem to happen in library bathrooms.  Gross things too…which is why we generally avoid setting Unshelved strips in the bathroom…we want to maintain a certain newspaper-esque tone, especially since several junior high schools feature our comic on their websites.

As for a specific story, there was one time when a patron notified me that there was a man who was exposed from the waist down in the bathroom, and I had to investigate.  I ran in there like it was an episode of COPS.  But it turns out that he had soiled his undergarments, and had to clean up, but because they were wet he was drying them with the electric hand-dryer.  He wasn’t necessarily trying to offend anyone, just discreetly cleaning up, but it was a quandary because it was still bothersome to other patrons.   Now I think my reaction to that was funny (I kept other people from entering the restroom while he finished, and then explained why that was a bad move and against our code of conduct), but I don’t know how we’d make a good comic out of it.   Maybe I’m fascinated because I sense the germ of a good but unusable idea in there.  (Gene:  I don’t think I used the word quandry, but it’s funny enough that I want to leave it in!)

Silverfish: How do you keep your strip from becoming dark and cynical?

Gene: Bill and I figure that if it’s too dark, it’s not funny anymore.  We’ll call each other on it if the strip is too bitter or nasty. 

Silverfish: How much do you hope to develop the characters in Unshelved?

Gene: Comic strips lend themselves to capturing moments in time…there’s a limitation of the form which doesn’t give much room for development because the time-frame for interactions is very limited.   I think the best you can do is explore and reveal the characters in these small moments, and allow them to develop off-stage.

Silverfish: If you could burn or ban all copies of a book, what would it be?

Gene: It would actually be a DVD called Be Cool, which is the sequel to Get Shorty.  Bill and I (he’s uncomfortable when I go too long without talking about him) saw it in the theater, but walked out because we were disgusted with how poorly executed it was.  It could have been so good….So I would burn the book Be Cool by Elmore Leonard so that it couldn’t be made into that horrendous movie.

Silverfish: Mel, the manager character in Unshelved, has a thing for office supplies.  If you were an office supply, what would you be?

Gene: A paper clip.  No--a thumbtack.

Silverfish: If you could offer a $1 M grant to a public library, what would you specify it be used for?

Gene: Cooking classes.  I’m convinced libraries don’t do enough of these.  They’re a great way to bring people together and they appeal to everyone.

Silverfish: If you could teach a class at the iSchool, what would it be about?

Gene:  Breathing techniques for Relaxation 101.  I learned a few when I took a class to overcome my fear of flying, and they really helped me take a step back when patrons were being mean and nasty.

Silverfish: I believe that many librarians enter the profession wanting to “make a difference.”  Is there a way you think you’ve made a difference as a librarian?

Gene: Just getting to know the kids and staying in touch with them.  Making an effort to know their parents as well.  Even something as simple as talking about comics--there’s one guy who dropped out of high school, and by talking comics with him and waiting for an opening, I was later able to speak with him about looking for a job and encourage him.

Silverfish: What do you and Bill speak about when you are invited to present at libraries?  Are you speaking more as authors, as library/info sci consultants, as motivational speakers, a combo of the above, or something completely different?

Gene: We talk about Unshelved, and by talking about it, we talk about libraries, people who work in libraries, and the weirdnesses we all
have to deal with.   We're primarily entertainers, but we also
function as confessors (we hear people's stories as we sign books).
We also have held conference sessions on graphic novels and customer service.

Silverfish: If you never entered a public library again, do you feel like you have enough material to last you a lifetime?

Gene: Absolutely.  But I'll always go back, I love libraries.

Silverfish: Thank you, Gene!



Unshelved website:

Other interviews with Unshelved guys:

Silverfish (December 2004):

Seattle Times (May 9, 2006):

Library Journal (June 20, 2006):

School Library Journal (June 21, 2006):

Publishers Weekly (Oct 24, 2006):

Comic Book Resources (Oct 18, 2007):

Future of Libraries interview from (undated):

January 11, 2008
Vol. XII Issue 2

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By the numbers: iSchool Spirit of Holiday Giving
iServe’s iKnit program collected: 13 hats, 4 scarves, 4 bags of toiletries/sundries Silverfish’s DAWN House drive collected: $160 in gift cards, 6 toys, 4 coloring pads, 3 sets of art supplies, 3 board/card games, 3 pots and pans, 1 kitchen set, 2 books, 1 watch, 1 coffee maker, 1 roll of wrapping paper, and an unspecified amount of candy

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