Feb 10, 2011

This Book is Overdue! By Marilyn Johnson

This Book is Overdue

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.

Favourite bits:
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.

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.
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

(Have I missed yours?)


  1. Hi Ana! I can't believe that you've been in librarian school for five months already. That's insane. I would love a peek at your reading lists for school!

    I had considered going to grad school for librarian science, but ultimately decided against it *because* of all the new technology. What appealed to me the most was the element of research.

    I frequent my library but there's a lack a human connection there even though it's in an area that has many "town"like qualities.

    From my understanding, our library system in Orlando has been voted as one of the best in the country. We have several libraries in the area AND they home deliver books. I've heard visitors say that they're envious of even the website.

    *shrug* But there's very little HUMAN contact.

  2. I have been intrigued by this too and wondered maybe whether it is a little too popular than some of the professional literature. Do you recommend it for other librarians?

  3. Christina: I do see what you mean about the human angle. It's something that I value too, but with so many services becoming automatic it seems to be disappearing. I can see the case for web-based services, but I see your point too.

    Verity: I think it's a good book for librarians to be aware of, so they can recommend it to people who have no idea what they do :P But it's certainly intended as an introduction for a general audience, so I don't think most librarians will find much that is new here.

  4. I don't think it has ever crossed my mind how much the technological side of the libraries has developed. I imagine that for a lot of people the librarian is the person they look to in order to help them use the computers.
    I love my library and the librarian told me today that I was a good user, as my ticket was full to capacity. I thought I was just being greedy!

  5. This book started me down the path that led me to plan B being library school. You're very right; it's an introduction for people who don't know much about librarians and library science. (Illinois apparently has a wonderful program here in the states where I can also get a Master's in English, but it's in Illinois. The brochure even advertises itself as a Cultural Oasis, meaning that it is located in a Cultural Desert.)

  6. I have read quite a few reviews of this book, but yours was the most thoughtful and level that I have read so far. Being that I am not in library school, I think that this book would be a greatly instructive and interesting read for me, as I am not sure at all what it's like to be a librarian. I know they do more then stamp books and collect overdue payments, but I'd really like to find out more.

  7. I still want to read this, even though these sorts of books obsolesce fairly fast. But still, talking about books and libraries can't be too bad! :--)

  8. I haven't read this book, but one thing that appealed to me when I first heard about it was its kickass cover. I loved the librarian-as-superhero motif!

  9. I agree completely. My library school friends that have read this have had the same reaction. We are in library school because we believe in them and we have been exposed to a lot of the things the author explains. The author does a great job with it, but it's a book I want to hand to every person who ever says, "What's a librarian other than someone who knows the Dewey Decimal system?" It's not really a book for librarians, and it shouldn't be. Here's my review: http://libraryqueue.blogspot.com/2011/01/book-is-overdue-tlc-book-tour.html

  10. I do love the cover of this book at it does sound fairly interesting Ana ,all the best stu

  11. Vivienne: Yes, that's exactly what happens. And don't you ever worry about being greedy! People like you make librarians very very happy.

    Clare: While I hope that your plan A works out, I do think you'd enjoy library school.

    Zibilee: That's exactly why I thought this was a good book even though I didn't get that much out of it personally. It's a great introduction to the topic, which understandable enough not everyone will know about!

    Jill: Very true! I got the hardcover edition for Christmas, but apparently the newer paperback already has an updated epilogue - and it hasn't even been a year yet.

    Steph and Stu: Ha, yes - I very much approve of the superhero garb ;)

    Tricia: Yes, the fact that it's targeted to a general audience is certainly important - and she did a great job with the material! Thanks for your link :)

  12. I had this out from the library, but it was last year and my reading was really bad at that point. It sounds really good, though. I am going to have to try and get it again! Great review!

  13. I'm looking forward to reading this book. I know what you mean about the changes not necessarily being bad. Some do make me sad, though. I can put a book on hold at home, go to my library, pick it up and check it out, all without interacting with a single human being.

  14. It's so sad that many research centers and positions are disappearing, I would have loved to do something in that area.

    It's good to know that you as a future librarian can recommend this book :)

  15. Many of my favorite people are librarians, and I don't know if I've said how glad I am you're going and how much I like hearing about library school.

  16. I was actually thinking this was something different. It still sounds like an interesting read though maybe I won't be buying it for any librarians any time soon.

  17. I didn't think this was going to be super informative, so much as, I don't know, fun and interesting in the way that it is fun and interesting to read about people's jobs. So I will probably still read it, but I will depend on you to tell me information about librarianing.

  18. Kelly: I hope you have better luck with it than you've been having with my recs lately :P

    Kathy: I know exactly what you mean. On the bright side, it frees staff for more important tasks. But at the same time, it can make for a pretty cold and impersonal library experience.

    Bina: Me too, but it's really difficult, especially in the humanities. We've had this conversation before, I think :P

    Jeanne: That is great to hear :D I should post about it more, actually.

    Ladytink: Yeah, might be better not to :P Then again, it might be a book they want to have - especially in hardcover, all the better to hit people who dismiss their jobs in the head with ;) [Most convoluted sentence ever, I know :P]

    Jenny: It IS fun that way. I wish someone would write a similar book about editors, actually :P

  19. Do they give you the cape upon graduation from library school? :) Sounds like a great book for us non-librarians to read.

  20. I know libraries have a very important job but I don't know the details and this book will really help. I understand how you might find it less informative though.

  21. Wow! Five months have gone by so quickly. This book sounds interesting, and for a non-librarian like me it would probably be quite informative. :-)

  22. Hey there! I'm also in library school and am in my second semester. It's always nice to find another LIS student. We read this book first thing last Fall. Although I'd already read it, I think it was a nice way to ease people back into school while giving them an overview of how the field is changing.

  23. Interesting review, Ana! This looks like a wonderful book! I think libraries are very important as disseminators of knowledge, but, unfortunately, in this time where the byte-sized information is more valued and digital books and e-readers have arrived, libraries are getting devalued.

    Thanks for this wonderful review!

  24. LifetimeReader: I very much hope so ;)

    Violet: It was really a very personal reaction - a result of hearing about this topic every day for five months now :P I do think the book does what it set out to do very well.

    Stephanie: Time does fly! I'll be done before I know it. Kind of scary, really :P

    Chelle: What a great way to start the course!

    Vishy: I really don't think digital books and e-readers have to be at odds with each other. I know it happens sometimes, but there's nothing inevitable about it. I fully believe we can be one big happy family :P

  25. You know, I think I'd enjoy this book a great deal. I'm absolutely amazed how much I've learned from simple observation over the last year and a half, from just being at the library 2 hours every week while Annie volunteers. I think I very much had that stereotypical view of a librarian's job before, but I've had the chance to witness how very skewed that view is.

    But Ana, I have the perfect job for you here...as the teen librarian at our library! Not that the current teen librarian isn't great, but oh how I could see you being amazing and making a difference in that position!!! (Yes, this really is another one of the things I daydream about.)

  26. I loved what you said Ana - "I fully believe we (=digital books, e-readers, normal books, libraries)can be one big happy family" :)

  27. This book has been on my radar since I heard the NPR interview with the author. I think I'll have to go pick it up next time I'm the library.

    I hope you are liking library school so far. I graduated with my library degree 2 years ago and its been an adventure ever since. As soon as you can, get an internship. I definitely learned more working in the library than in the classes, but the classes do lay a good foundation for getting around the library system.

    Good luck!

  28. Thank you for the "shout out" for my review of this one. I was so ignorant about what a librarian's job is and that is so ironic given how much I love and use my library. I really loved this book. It opened my eyes and made me even more in love with my library, if that is possible.

  29. Debi: *daydreams along with you*

    Vishy: I have faith that it will happen!

    Nari: I feel very lucky, because my MA course actually includes an intership! They find placements for those of us without previous library experience. Mine started two weeks ago and I'm loving it so far. You're right - there are things you really only learn by doing!

    Kathleen: That makes me happy, as I imagine that it's exactly what the book aims to do :D

  30. this certainly sounds like an interesting read. I'm planning to go to library school as well. Just getting my BA first. :)


  31. Very glad to hear you're thinking of joining our ranks, Lauren :-)

  32. Here, Here to the continued importance of libraries and librarians. Like you, I'm not reassured by anything that I read about libraries, or the book industry in general, that the future of libraries and bookstores will be what I am used to, but that doesn't stop me from wanting to support them, champion them, and see them outlast the short-sightedness that is currently putting them in jeopardy.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.