In tough times, a librarian is a terrible thing to waste.As you can easily guess from the title, This Book is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All is a book about libraries and librarians and the continued importance of their role in a changing world – a very timely topic, if for unfortunate reasons. Marilyn Johnson, a journalist with a passion for libraries, tackles what else librarians do besides the traditional activities that most people tend to associate with the profession. This includes guiding users through the increasingly complex world of information and communication technologies, helping them find the information they need when they need it, providing reference services both face-to-face (and even during street protests – why not?) and in a web environment, teaching information literacy to students in developing nations so they can get degrees online, standing up for freedom of speech and the right to privacy, as in the case of the famous John Doe librarians, and so on.
Personally I found This Book is Overdue a little less informative than I was expecting, but then again, I’ve been in library school for five months now. Being familiar with all of this must mean I already have at least one foot in the library world, right? Surely that’s not a bad thing. This also means, of course, that other readers will not necessarily feel as I did. To anyone who imagines that a librarian’s main occupation is to stamp books, this book will be a revelation. There’s also the fact that This Book is Overdue is quite short: what Marilyn Johnson is trying to do here is to provide a brief overview of the contemporary library world, rather than to discuss any particular aspect of it at length. The result is a little on the superficial side, and even slightly unfocused at times, but I still found it ultimately successful
I quite liked the personal angle of This Book is Overdue: Johnson focuses on who the librarians she interviews are as people, on their creativity, on their originality, and on their ideals – both when it comes to their professional performance and to more personal endeavours like blogging or making zines. She also pokes fun at the many librarian stereotypes floating around, and ultimately defies them all by the sheer number of diverse, real human beings she portrays.
In addition to this, I really appreciated the way Johnson balanced the more traditional side of librarianship with the huge role information technology has come to play in the profession. Clearly the new is not here to replace the old, and those who can only see new technologies as threats to traditional literary culture are helping far less than they believe. On the other had, Johnson tells the unfortunate story of the New York Public Library, where a worldwide renowned research library gave place to an all-new sparkly and shiny media centre. The media centre wasn’t a bad thing in itself – far from it. But it’s saddening that its creation came at the expense of something else, with a different function and a different purpose. In an ideal world, the two would exist side by side.
This Book is Overdue is not a book that reassured me that the aspects of librarianship that appeal to me the most are still going to exist in the future, but then again, it’s not entirely fair to expect it to do that. It did reassure me that there’s an extraordinary amount of diversity and creativity in what contemporary librarians do, and that’s certainly no small thing. Johnson’s book may not be about to replace Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night as my favourite book about libraries – the level of thoughtfulness cannot even be compared – but it’s an interesting and necessary book, especially at this time.
A library is a place to go for a reality check, a bracing dose of literature, or a “true reflection of our history”, whether it’s a brick-and-mortal building constructed a century ago or a fanciful arrangement of computer codes. The librarian is the organiser, the animating spirit behind it, and the navigator. Her job is to create order out of the confusion of the past, even as she enables us to blast into the future.Other opinions: The Literary Omnivore, Book-a-Rama, Fizzy Thoughts, Ready When You Are CB, The Captive Reader, Estella’s Revenge, Reading Through Life, 1330v, Boarding in My Forties, Library Queue
In tight economic times, with libraries sliding farther and farther down the list of priorities, we risk the loss of their ideals, intelligence, and knowledge, not to mention their commitment to access for all—librarians consider free access to information the foundation of democracy, and they’re right. Librarians are essential players in the information revolution because they level that field. They enable those without money or education to read and learn the same things as the billionaire or the Ph.D.
Who knows how many people are invisible because their stories don’t fit our categories?
Library cataloguers try to describe things neutrally and avoid cultural bias. They also try to sidestep the roles that open up and swallow our questions when we can’t find what we’re looking for—what Berman calls “bibliocide by cataloguing”. Subject headings, search terms, keywords—if the searcher can’t figure out the right term, the one that triggers the jackpot of information, she’s lost. In her memoir One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets, Bliss Broyard described going to the Boston Public Library to look for stories about people like her father, the critic Anatole Broyard, who had been born Creole but passed for white. Passing—that’s the term she searched for in the card catalogue, but she found only Passing (Football), Miscegenation, and Mulatto, none of which led to stories of people who had been born one race and lived another. As far as she could tell, the world of the early 1990s was devoid of books about racial passing. Broyard thought she was an outsider, unconnected to anything in the vast world of written literature. Now there’s a subject heading in the Library of Congress called Passing (Identity) that marks the path to Bloss Broyard’s book, among all the others.
(Have I missed yours?)