Imagine waking up one morning to discover that you had appeared on one of your favorite comedy shows. Meet Alan Gunther, library manager of the Smith Hill Library and star of the most recent installment of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. [Watch the 17-minute segment now or the hamster thing won’t make any sense.] Mr. Oliver can probably keep his tear-stained copy of “Eat, Pray, Love” — which he admits to having signed out of the library in 2004 — clearly they had to replace it. But Gunther wants Oliver to know that his $233,000 in overdue fines would really mean a lot to this small community library.
Mr. Gunther agreed to meet with The Dose to explain how his John Oliver appearance came about. In addition to his degree in library science from U.R.I., Providence native Gunther has degrees in studio arts and graphic design from R.I.C. where he also worked on The Anchor, the student-run newspaper. This being Rhode Island, the professional advisor for the paper at that time was . . . musician and humorist Rudy Cheeks.
The following has been edited for clarity and to make me sound smarter.
BC: How long have you been a librarian?
AG: This is nearing my 25th year in the Providence library system. What’s fun about being on John Oliver is that . . . I did get my master’s basically in cartooning and political satire, so it’s kind of fun to have this happen. Comedy and writing and jokes was something I was pursuing at one time.
BC: When were you first contacted? How did this develop?
AG: I was first contacted by HBO’s Vice News in May of 2018. They went through the administration of the library. One of our administrators is on the committee with the census here in Rhode Island and they were meeting as to how to help implement the 2018 census test run (they had picked Providence County). So it was kind of drilled into us that we were the only ones doing it and the libraries were going to be offering these little computers to help people to do it online. We were trained to talk it up and promote the importance of it, etc.
So that is when that interview was done. I think they suggested I do it . . . I guess they felt that I would be someone who was okay with being on camera and okay talking in public.
[Watch the original 4-minute, 2018 Vice News report here: “Nobody knows the census test is running now.”]
BC: The person who first interviewed you came from Vice News?
AG: Vice News, yes. So what I find kind of fun and interesting from this . . . is that he [Oliver] had gone through that footage when he was working on this piece about the census, and said “Oh, I have to use this.” So in a way it’s kind of satisfying to help a comedian set up their joke, kind of nice that he found the humor in a rather awkward question in this situation that I was thrown into.
BC: You represented Providence very well.
AG: But unfortunately the other part, the flip side of the coin, is that it wasn’t a failure in Providence County. If you look at the data, we actually did better than expected with results. Participation was 52.3% . . . the results overall for Providence County was they had more people participating than they expected.
BC: At what point during the test were you interviewed ? Did you end up getting more participation after you spoke with them?
AG: Nobody that disclosed that information to me. The laptop we had set up specifically for that was on the circulation desk. A lot of people did look at it and were curious, and the went okay. Whether they signed up and did it on their own here — I don’t know that. Some people said “Isn’t this the same thing I got in the mail? I did that.”
BC: Did people know that you were going to be on John Oliver?
AG: I don’t think anybody knew I was going to be on that show. We knew about the Vice News; that was planned, so that we were informed of. But this [John Oliver] was a total surprise.
BC: How did you find out?
AG: An email went out from a staff member that must have seen it and said “Hey did you know?” And then other people . . . it went viral kind of quickly. Then people started calling saying “Did you know you are on this?”
BC: You’ve got something to talk about on Thanksgiving.
AG: It’s fun to be on one your favorite shows. I am a regular viewer — I didn’t catch it that night.
And he is promoting something important, with humor which is my kind of humor . . . with a point about how important this is . . . why you need to be involved.
The only thing that I’m thinking about . . . [Oliver] talks about owing the library $232,995 in fines (minus his $5 rebate). I know he’s making that up for comedy’s sake, but my suggestion to John Oliver is “Hey, pay up, because we could really use the money. We could serve so many more people, so many more children, so many issues that we are looking at that we just can’t . . . we never have enough.
There are so many services that we are trying to do. One thing we are trying to do through grants. . . is to get a social worker, because we get so many people with so many problems that we just can’t tackle, we’re just no trained for that.
So this would be my suggestion to John Oliver: You say you owe us this money, let’s see it! Otherwise we will have to tell the public that your “Hamsters Gone Wild” dvd is also still out.
BC: Have you always lived in Providence?
AG: My entire life yeah. I’ve worked at all the public libraries in Providence — this was the best fit.
BC: Is this the type of population the census is concerned about?
AG: Well a lot of neighborhoods have this quality of being a landing ground for new immigrant populations. We are certainly one of those. Just in the years I’ve been here I have seen a lot of shifts in populations.
BC: What groups?
AG: When I was here in the late ’90s most of my patrons were southeast Asian — Laos and Cambodia in particular — and it tends to change. Then Africans are coming in, the Latino population has always been here . . . the African-American population is here and also white families that have been here a long time. It’s a got a fun history of having been an Irish neighborhood once, an Armenian neighborhood once, a Jewish neighborhood once, it’s got all these various histories . . . and there’s still some of that around. When we have cultural events here, or any events really, we get so many different people . . . everybody shows up. It’s what makes working here so interesting.
BC: What else do we need to know about Alan Gunther?
AG: I’m trying to get back into some writing, whether it be children’s books or personal narratives or humorous stories. I just took a class at one of the libraries on short stories. And I have more time now because for the last several years I had, and still have, polycystic kidney disease. I recently got a transplant in December, which is a huge change. When you are going through an illness like that you have to do dialysis, working full time then to dialysis after work three nights a week. So now that I have some time and energy I am trying to get back to some creative endeavors.
At this point I noticed the additional hamster book up on the shelf over Alan’s shoulder which led to more talk of hamsters in Speedos and the interview kind of fell apart.
In conclusion: 1) Complete your census form! Rhode Island is in danger of losing one of its seats in Congress. 2) Be an organ donor.
YOU CAN BE A CENSUS TAKER — extra income|flexible hours|weekly pay|paid training. Go here to apply.
And stop by the Smith Hill library and check out their extensive selection of hamster books, monographs, and periodicals.
Smith Hill Library, 31 Candace Street, (directions)