Profile of a Book Lover: Cal Gough

alex atkins bookshelf booksOne of the benefits of writing a blog dedicated to lifelong learners and book lovers is that once in a while you have the opportunity to discover another site that also inspires the joy and benefits of reading. One day I received an email notice that The Atlanta Booklover’s Blog reblogged a unique quotation about reading that I had recently posted. My initial reaction was: this person really knows the realm of quotations about books and reading, because this quotation is extremely rare — in fact, up until the time I posted it, it had never existed on the Internet. (Interestingly, quotations about reading — at least good ones — are very difficult to find on the Web. That topic has not been mined very deeply; consequently, most sites recycle the same tired quotations over and over. It’s disappointing really.) Naturally, being curious, I visited the site and was immediately impressed by this impeccably curated site. Creating a truly fascinating curated site, especially as comprehensive as this — is not an easy endeavor. To achieve this level of quality, one has to review hundreds of sites, and sift through thousands of posts, to find content that is truly relevant and meaningful. Unfortunately, there are many —  perhaps far too many — curated sites that simply recycle the same information (sometimes filled with egregious errors) ad nauseum.

The best way to describe The Atlanta Booklover’s Blog is that it is like an expansive card catalog (remember those?) that every time you open a drawer, you discover that it is filled with fascinating information. You close it and open another drawer, and there is more interesting information. And so on and so forth. There are dozens of categories to delight every type of book lover: books about books, book lists, bookish factoids, bookish quotes, etc. You could spend hours exploring all the bookish nooks and crannies, as it were. So who is the person behind this blog that is a wondrous homage to books? Meet Cal Gough, a retired Atlanta-based librarian who created this comprehensive online resource for bibliophiles — young and old — all around the globe (not just Atlanta!). In an exclusive interview with Atkins Bookshelf, Gough shares his lifelong love of books and reading, and generously shares his successful and fulfilling career as a librarian. His passion and reverence for books and libraries — and the compassionate, patient, and understanding people who work there — is insightful and inspiring.

What was the first book you read as a child that inspired your love of books? What were the types of books you enjoyed growing up?

My parents seldom read to me as a child; however, some of the teachers in elementary school read to their classes of fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-graders after lunch most days. So it was those teachers, rather than my parents, who introduced me to books like Johnny Remain and The Secret Garden. The earliest book I remember checking out of the school library myself and loving was a sea adventure story featuring a young boy that was titled Call It Courage– although it was probably the woodcuts in that book that fascinated me more than the inspiring story. In high school, I read – almost exclusively – a lot of science fiction, and got hold of my SF books by joining a mail-order book club. I was especially entranced by books by A.E. van Vogt. The other book-related experiences that I remember as a young person were my weekly walks to and from the nearest public library. At some point I convinced the librarian there to allow me into the adult section. I think it might’ve been the summer before my first or second year of high school that I discovered – and read! – Marx’s Das Capitaland Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams– because I wanted to find out why they were so revered – or disparaged – by so many people.

When did you have your epiphany to become a librarian?

Not until I was mid-way through my introductory course in library school! I had enrolled in Emory’s graduate librarianship program mainly because I wanted to quit the job I had at the time, working in the state government’s administrative offices that coordinated community mental health centers. Having been warned never to quit a job without having another one, and not knowing what I wanted to do next (other than get out of mental health services administration), I decided to take a year off working and get a graduate degree while I figured out how to earn a living in a field I could enjoy. I never imagined wanting to work in a library; at the time I only knew that (a) Emory offered a graduate degree that I could obtain in a year’s time, (b) Emory had found a semi-obscure scholarship that I qualified for that would pay for some of this graduate education, and (c) I figured that, if nothing else, library school would teach me how to find out how to solve all sorts of intellectual puzzles or practical problems that were sure to come up in anyone’s life at some point. What I didn’t count on was falling in love with librarianship. I had excellent instructors and I found very congenial to my idealistic, social-change-seeking temperament the “missionary zeal” aspects that working in a public library offered. Later on, many of my coworkers in the library system where I worked, as well as many of the colleagues who I met through my participation in the American Library Association, told me they thought I would be happier working in a college or university library, but I think I made the right choice in deciding which branch of library work to prepare myself for.

Tell us about your undergraduate education. What classes did you enjoy? What was your major?

I double-majored in Philosophy and Psychology (and minored in the History of Christianity) at Mercer University, a small liberal arts college in Macon, Georgia. This was in the late-1960s: an exciting time to be a college student because it was going on in the country during those years. My time at Mercer were definitely the most stimulating and formative four years of my life, and it was during my senior year there that I got married. There is hardly a day that goes by that I don’t have some flashback about something I learned, something I learned to care about,  or someone I met at Mercer who made a big impact on how I looked at the world; certainly my values and idealism and expectations for myself were forged there.

After college, where did you work?

After graduation (and a celebratory summer trip to Europe), my wife and I moved to Atlanta to find jobs. After several mortifying interviews with various corporate firms (trying to land a job that somehow involved writing), I decided – out of desperation to start earning money and because there was no corporate dress code! – to take a job as an attendant on the night shift in a regional mental hospital operated by Georgia’s state government. From there I worked my way up the career ladder there in that hospital’s alcohol and drug addiction treatment unit. Eventually, I was hired as the hospital’s Public Information Officer, then took a promotion in the state government’s community mental health coordination office. It was while working in that job that I decided to get out of the mental health treatment biz and escaped into grad school at Emory. Incidentally, my years of working directly and indirectly with mentally ill people was great training for my years working at the service desk of an urban public library: my career as a librarian coincided with the epidemic of urban homelessness in this country, and many homeless people suffer from mental problems and a lot of them use public libraries. I always felt less intimidated by, and perhaps occasionally more useful to, our library’s homeless users than the people I worked with who hadn’t had much exposure to mentally ill people.

Tell us about your career at the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System. What were some of your specific duties and roles? What did you enjoy the most? What did you enjoy the least? Some of the exhibits you were proudest of?

I spent my entire library career with AFPLS. My first job there was a several-years stint in the library system’s extremely stimulating/stressful and wildly unpredictable Telephone Reference Department. My supervisor was an unusually talented librarian and I learned a great deal from her in terms of honing efficient ready reference skills (our goal was to answer questions received over the phone – these were pre-Internet days – within 10 minutes). From there, I was hired into the Central Library’s Arts/Humanities Department, then later was transferred into the Sciences, Business & Government Department. In both departments, I was responsible for building specific collections as well as working at those departments’ reference desks. My favorite experiences during those years were very different from each other. On the one hand, I very much enjoyed writing research guides on various often-asked-about subjects, or writing reference desk policy and procedure manuals; I also very much enjoyed becoming an expert in some field I knew little about and buying books that would strengthen the Central Library’s collections in those areas. My collection-building abilities got noticed by the person then in charge of the system’s Collection Development Unit, and she eventually recruited me to coordinate adult collections system-wide. That era – before a reorganization of the library’s administration resulted in many of us working at Central being “exiled” to branch libraries located all over our 85-mile-long county – was my favorite time working at AFPLS. Besides training approximately 100 selectors located throughout the system in how to better and more responsibly select materials for the adult readers in their communities, I published a monthly newsletter for those selectors and completed several intensive collection-building projects or useful tools for selectors. (One of my favorite projects was a catalog of the differences among the various travel guide series published by English-language publishers.) All through those years, and afterwards when I worked at two different branch libraries (either as manager or assistant manager or acting manager), I continued to undertake specific collection-building projects. Some of my favorites were creating selection lists (and/or making purchases) for classics in science, classics in nature writing, science fiction classics, film classics for branch’s DVD collections, classics in various music genres for a branch’s music CD collection, expanding a branch’s collection of home décor books, and improving the GLBTQ+ collection housed at one of the branches I worked in. My love of creating library exhibits started early in my career, and I enjoyed doing those frequently up until I retired. While working at Central (even when I was working in the system’s Collection Management Unit there), I put together a lot of exhibits in the Central Library’s lobby, the most extensive being an exhibit marking the centennial of Oscar Wilde’s trial. While I remember doing annual book displays for National Gay & Lesbian History Month, probably my single most favorite exhibits in Central’s lobby were the ones about the joys of reading and about the history of tea!

What are some of your fondest memories of working there?

The first two-thirds of my 30-year career at AFPLS was mostly very positive. I was lucky to have numerous supervisors I respected, daily duties I enjoyed, and long-term collection-building projects that were exciting. Even when my career path was aborted during a horrific era in the library’s history that resulted in a five-year-long federal race discrimination lawsuit against library administrators, library trustees, and county government enablers involved in that discrimination, my involuntary exile from the Central Library to one of its 33 branch libraries – luckily, to the branch that just happened to be the one serving the neighborhood I live in – turned out to be productive and interesting, despite the appalling circumstances the entire library system was embroiled in at the time, and for so long a time afterwards. Equally interesting in a different way was a later (also unsought) transfer to another branch library when its manager retired. I was very fortunate to work under talented supervisors for most of my career (there were a few awful exceptions, but only a few), and I was working among many  intelligent, competent, and committed colleagues. I would have probably continued working for several more years if I’d believed the library system could have fully recovered from the aftermath of the catastrophe that overtook it midway through my career there.  

When did you retire?

Almost seven years ago, in March 2013.  I haven’t missed the daily wage-earner grind one bit, although I do miss my frequent interactions with certain colleagues (most of whom are now also retired). It was gratifying to know that most days I was helping connect certain library users with materials they wanted or needed. An example of what I don’t miss: the chronic problems resulting from so many homeless people using libraries for safety and shelter. I also miss the opportunity to create book displays and opportunities to improve library collections.

As an Emory alumni, you have borrowing privileges at Emory University’s graduate library. Tell us about what impresses you about that library and its collection.

I’ve been a patron of Emory’s graduate library ever since I discovered some of its treasures while I was a librarianship student at Emory in 1979. Because of my unusual reading interests, I find more of the books I want to read at Emory’s library than in the collections of the two county library systems I have borrowing privileges with. I love the fact that you can renew a book from Emory’s library as many times as you want (providing no one else has asked for it). For books on my (alas, way-too-long) list of books I hope to read that Emory’s graduate library doesn’t own (and especially for the relatively obscure novels I hope to read), I order them through my public library’s Interlibrary Loan service (which I can access online) and I pick up those books at, and return them to, one of the three public library branches near me.

What philosophy (or quotation or proverb) has guided you throughout your life?

“Everything in moderation” is probably the single most useful precept I’ve used to make many of my decisions. As a philosophy lover and an idealist, I’d like to believe that I can think my way out of any challenge confronting me, or reason my way through any decision I need to make, or eventually understand the larger scheme of how the universe (and the Earthlings in it) operate, but the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve begun to wonder whether people’s behavior, including mine, is more often than not dictated bytemperamentrather than by beliefs or a belief system. My recent study of the Enneagram (a personality-typing system I’ve long been fascinated by) seems to be confirming this notion that my rational thoughts are often rationalizations or are stories I tell myself to justify certain default thought-patterns or reactions or attitudes that were set a long time ago

Over the course of your career, what are some of the biggest changes you have seen in libraries (their evolution; their use by students, by educators, researchers; interesting technological innovations)?

The invention of the Internet – and the use of it by librarians and library users alike – is, to my mind, the most far-reaching technological change in both providing and accessing library services that’s occurred during my lifetime. I still believe, however, that the single most valuable thing about public libraries today is something that’s always been true in this country: they are open to everyone and you aren’t expected to fork over money to be there or to borrow its materials or resources. The perennial weakness of most public libraries is that they are too small or insufficiently funded to accommodate large collections; most branch libraries are forced to keep on hand only the most likely-to-be-popular materials – which often means what’s been most recently published – despite whatever perennial wisdom or practical information might be contained in a not-recently-published, infrequently-asked-for, or under-marketed item. That’s why I think Interlibrary Loan – whenever and as long as users can use it free of charge – is the single most useful service offered by public libraries. The strength of most collegelibraries is that the pressure to discard infrequently-asked-for items is not so great, because their buildings (or off-campus storage units) are so much larger than the space available to public libraries.

What is one of your most serendipitous discoveries in the libraries collections (finding a fascinating book that you never knew existed)?

Gosh, there’ve been so many! One I remember well is coming across a book one day when I was shelving a cartful of books at the last branch library where I worked. It was a short but absolutely riveting book by Eugene C. Harter titled The Lost Colony of the Confederacy, about the thousands of southerners who left the United States after the U.S. Civil War and migrated to Brazil in an attempt to re-establish their pre-war “way of life” there. And who knew that Jimmy Carter (in 1972, when he was Georgia’s governor) visited the remains of the colony and made a speech there to the colony’s descendants?

In the digital age, where so much information is available at an individual’s fingertips, why are librarians still relevant, still important?

Libraries are the only non-commercial institutions promoting literacy and reading as both an educational and leisure activity, and encouraging and enabling independentcasual or serious research, and that provide such a wide range of (free, portable) how-to information – whether that information takes the form of a self-help book that you don’t need a machine to read, a cookbook that you don’t need a machine to read, or a printed, easy-to-consult book on how to file for a divorce without hiring a lawyer. Public libraries also make available (usually free of charge) meeting spaces for community groups, including informal interest groups (like book clubs or, say, stamp collectors’ clubs). Public libraries remain relatively safe havens for kids, with staff members paid to supplement (or replace) the efforts of busy parents to teach very young children how to read and/or to regularly entertain kids by telling aloud stories from books. Public libraries pay employees to help people find whatever information – from tax forms to family tree resources – that they’re looking for or wondering about, and without regard to the social status of the person seeking that help. And some librarians can help citizens deal with or sort through the firehose of data and misinformation that the Internet can overwhelm an Internet user with, and/or provide a curious individual with a less-unwieldy starting point for learning about something that the Internet usually does not offer.

What do you think libraries will be like in 50 years?

I have no idea. Public libraries have weathered many previous social upheavals and evolving social structures, and I suspect they’ll continue to do so. My biggest worry is that government or academic bureaucrats will continue their periodic, short-sighted efforts to privatize, outsource, or under-fund library collections and/or services. So far, attempts to do that have been resisted by library users, sometimes successfully.

What books (reference or otherwise) should every household have?

In my opinion, most reference books – especially ones containing lists, statistics, or indexable factoids, are ideal candidates, from both a financial and a practical viewpoint, for converting to online databases. The problem is that a machine (a computer) is required to use a database, and database owners often charge a fee to use them. Hence the vital role of the library in setting aside funds to license those databases for the benefit of the library’s users. Because reference books must be constantly repurchased if they are to contain the most recently-available information, I don’t advise buying any of them for personal, in-home use – assuming you have convenient access to a public library system – especially one with a good telephone (or online) reference service. The only printed “reference book” I would hate to do without myself would be the always-reliable Joy of Cooking – not to imply that cookery is a hobby of mine, as it isn’t.

Being well-educated and being well-read are too different things. If you had to recommend a few books that college students should read, according to your experience, what 3-5 books should be on that list?

I’m not an educator so don’t feel qualified to answer this. I do suspect that college-age people are not very receptive to reading anything very important, especially anything very long. With the acknowledgement that I am probably an iconoclastic reader (and rebel) I do wish that I had read a lot earlier than I did such not-short-but definitely life-changing books like A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn or From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Presentby Jacques Barzun, or Doubt: A Historyby Jennifer Michael Hecht.

What is the most cherished book you own and tell us the story behind that selection?

It is maddening (and possibly misleading) to name only one most-cherished book, as what’s going on in one’s life when one stumbles upon a particular book can lend that book its special importance. Look Homeward, Angelby Thomas Wolfe was a book an early mentor of mine in high school gave me to read when I was 17. Reading it was enthralling, probably because my mentor assured me that I resembled its main character, and because 17 is probably the ideal age anyoneshould read Look Homeward, Angel. The role in my adolescent life of that mentor (which was to morph into a life-long friendship that ended only when she died two years ago) infused Look Homeward, Angelwith an aura and an importance that’s unique among the other books I own (including others I also cherish for different reasons).

How many books are in your collection?

Until you asked, I’d never counted them! To my surprise, I own approximately 1,250 books. For as avid a reader as I am, that’s probably an extremely modest-sized personal library, especially since I’m a homeowner rather than an apartment-dweller. On the other hand, my library career enabled several decades worth of borrowingfrom librariesmost of the books I’ve read; the books I own I either want to have around to (theoretically) re-read, or to (theoretically) loan out to friends. About half my books are stored in floor-to-ceiling bookcases that dominate my living room; the hundreds of tiny knickknacks I also keep in those bookcases results in the other half of my personal library overflowing into other rooms: my guest room houses four completely filled large bookcases, and I’ve crammed my 65 (neglected) cookbooks into shelves in my kitchen. Given my lifelong reading habits – and this is not something I am not proud of – most of my books are nonfiction. The largest subject-specific nonfiction collections are 140 interior decoration books, a nearly-equal number of books about gardening, 90 books about my favorite places to travel (most of them about England, Italy, Provence, or Greece), those 65 (mostly neglected) cookbooks, 40 books about calligraphy (along with gardening, one of my hobbies), and books by and about Virginia Woolf (or her circle) or by and about Oscar Wilde.

What are some of the notable bookstores in Atlanta? What are some of your favorite places and why?

Unlike, say, even many small towns in the New England states, Atlanta is not known for its excellent or venerable bookstores. Atlanta’s largest and best-curated bookstore (Oxford Books) went out of business decades ago. The city still has a few independently-owned bookstores, but they are relatively small; the numerous big-box Barnes & Nobles are the easiest to find – despite how difficult it can be to browse in them, to find anything in particular in any of them, or to locate a staff member who is knowledgeable enough about his/her store’s stock to help you. (Thank goodness for Atlanta’s libraries – especially for me, since current bestsellers, especially the fiction bestsellers, are the leastlikely category of books I want to read.) If I wasn’t able to rely so heavily on Interlibrary Loan, I’d probably be a more frequent customer of Atlanta Vintage Books, which I like because of the sheer size of its (mostly used) book collection, the old-fashioned atmosphere created by its labyrinthine layout, and its friendly and knowledgeable staff.

What was one of your most serendipitous book finds in a bookstore?

I happen to love books about language and books about the history of typography. A book along those lines I’d never have found without browsing at the local Half-Price Books bookstore near me was Michael Rosen’s Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story. Ditto an even more recent browsing-based find at Half-Price Books: ABC Et Cetera: The Life & Times of the Roman Alphabetby Alexander and Nicholas Humez.

Your blog, The Atlanta Booklover’s Blog, is an incredible resource for booklovers — a true labor of love. Would it be correct to call it a carefully curated site? Tell us about your inspiration for your blog. When did you start it? About how many separate entries exist on that site?

I started the blog ten years ago, back when I was still working as a librarian, as yet another way to connect my branch library’s frequent users with the treasures of the library system and to celebrate the joys of reading. After I retired, I realized I still wanted some sort of platform to share with others not only the joys of the reading life, but various book-related tools or factoids I was reading about on the Internet. So I continued posting to the Atlanta Booklover’s Blog. (I’d included the “Atlanta” part of the blog’s name when I hoped it might eventually become part of the library system’s website, but that never happened.)  Since starting the blog in 2009,I’ve managed to post over 800 items in 70 categories – mostly links to articles or images I’ve gleaned from the book-related blogs that I list in the blog’s blogroll; I also post links to articles and images I notice from the websites I follow via Facebook. What I post at the Booklover’s Blog is just about anything I think a “bookish” person like myself might be interested in being alerted to or amused by. What I don’t post are notices about or reviews of particular books. (There are plenty of Internet sites that review new books – and even a few, thank goodness, that review non-newbooks.) I also maintain at the Booklover’s Blog several Internet-based resources for avid readers: a “booklover’s toolkit,” which is essentially an index of Internet hyperlinks based on a list of such sites that I compiled during my days as a library collection development specialist; a separate set of links to book-related images; a collection of quotations about books, libraries, and reading and readers; and a list of fiction and nonfiction “books about books.” Keeping my blogroll and these other semi-permanent resources up to date is the most challenging task connected with the blog. And I am woefully behind what I hoped would be a weekly posting to the blog of recent or semi-recent “news” or articles of interest to booklovers. (At the moment I’ve got a backlog of at least 50 items I’ve seen on Facebook that are waiting for me to review for possible posting at the Booklover’s Blog.) According to my blog software’s statistics, my most-often-used category is, by far, “The Reading Life.” In second place, and in approximately equal numbers, are items I’ve indexed as “Books vs. Screens,” “Home Libraries,” “Bookish Humor,” “Bookcases,” “Bookstores,” “Bookshelves,” “Public Libraries,” “Booklists,” “[Newly-Discovered] Tools for Booklovers,” and “[Newly-Discovered] Bookish Quotations.”

As you have collected all this information, what factoids, quotations, or new insights have been the most notable or memorable for you?

I’ve been surprised to see, over the years, how support for public libraries remains persistent and widespread, despite the periodic predatory schemes of government funders at all levels. Probably the most unnerving information I’ve gleaned over the years have been the calculations various people have made to determine how many – i.e., how dishearteningly few– books it is possible for a typical human to read in a lifetime: the “Too Many Books, Too Little Time” dilemma facing all booklovers.

What is a disappointment or frustration working on the Atlanta Booklover’s Blog?

The fact that not more people know about it, decide to follow it, or write comments. I’ll probably continue my “evangelizing” regardless, but I certainly envisioned the project would be more interactive than it’s turned out to be so far.My hunch is that having the word “Atlanta” in the name of my blog prevents some potential readers (anyone who doesn’t live in Atlanta) from investigating it. Nevertheless, I really appreciate bloggers who include The Atlanta Booklover’s Blog on their own blogs’ blogrolls. Meanwhile, I still get a kick out of ferreting out and posting links to articles and images I think booklovers like myself might enjoy along with whatever book(s) they happen to be reading at the moment.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Words for Book Lovers
The Most Amazing Private Library in the World
Profile of a Book Lover: Gary Hoover
Profile of a Book Lover: William Gladstone
Profile of a Book Lover: Rebecca Goldstein
Profile of a Book Lover: Sylvester Stallone
Confessions of a Book Scout: Old Bookstore Have Been the Hunting Grounds of My Life
Confessions of a Bibliophile: J. Kevin Graffagnino
The Man Who Launched 75,000 Libraries

4 thoughts on “Profile of a Book Lover: Cal Gough

  1. This is beautiful. This kind of discovery and interaction and sharing demonstrates the healthy, happy, ‘learning’ dimensions of internet-citizenship.

    • Amen, brother. Sadly, this is territory is largely un-mined. Many bloggers (even the bright, thoughtful ones) believe community is built by just “liking” items and not engaging in meaningful discourse — whether in comments (that has its limitations) or emails. So few really take that incredible serendipitous opportunity. Cheers. Alex

  2. Thanks for posting this interview, Alex. Being interviewed was an interesting experience, and I really appreciate your kind remarks about the blog, and the fact that you took the time to explore its various nooks and crannies. I look forward to continuing to follow your blog, and will aspire to eventually post as often as you do!

    • Hi Cal: You are very welcome. I am glad our paths crossed. The interviews I conduct reinforce the notion that every person has an important story — and journey — to share that can be so inspirational. Thank you for taking the time to share your journey of discovery. Cheers. Alex

Join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.