Friday, July 2, 2010

This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All

By Marilyn Johnson
New York, Harper Collins, 2010

Week 27      Non-fiction

The American Library Association met last week at a convention center across the street from NPR’s Washington headquarters. Twice they did stories about the convention that I happened to catch on the All Things Considered afternoon news show. The first one concerned the journalist’s guilt over a book overdue from the DC library for three years. The second concerned an event at the convention where book cart drill teams from various libraries competed for honors.

I happened to be reading This Book is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All and was appalled at the stereotypes perpetuated by these news reports. The hair-pulled back, glasses on the nose, frumpily dressed librarian is way a thing of the past, as Marilyn Johnson can attest to in her look at the modern library and modern librarians. The new library is digital, up-to-the-minute, and innovative. The new librarians are tattooed, wired, and witty. More than anything, they are totally connected to information. And Johnson witnesses to this as she travels across the country meeting and learning about all types of libraries and librarians.

Johnson wrote this book in response to another book she wrote called The Dead Beat, which was a discussion of obituaries and those who write them. Johnson, herself, used to be an obituary journalist. As she wrote and read, she discovered that some of the most interesting obituaries belonged to librarians. Who were these people? Why had they led such interesting lives?

I have long maintained that if you wanted to know a person committed to civil liberties, meet a librarian. Johnson confirms this in a chapter in which she discusses four Connecticut librarians who refused to turn over usage records to the FBI and challenged the Patriot Act in court. “So here was the case in a nutshell: quiet librarians who wanted to keep quiet about their patrons’ records were told to give up those records and to remain quiet about it. The librarians fought to be heard, and finally they were. Now for the rest of their lives, they would be noisy, in defense of keeping quiet."

She writes about librarians who run a reference desk for patrons of “Second Life,” librarians who blog, librarians who train students from third world countries to automate schools and libraries, librarians who help the homeless access email, government records and Social Security, as well as those librarians who are digitalizing and archiving important records and historical documents.

It is kind of a meandering journey through the new world of libraries, but I learned quite a lot about what I have been missing since I retired—like accessing DIIGO, a great resource for highlighting and making notes on websites (for research projects). Above all, it made me remember why I became a librarian in the first place, and why I love helping clients find the information they need.

Would the average reader like this book? I think so. It is an interesting journey into an area that most people know only one aspect and have only one stereotypical opinion. And oh, what a different world this book presents! It certainly makes you look at the reference librarian at your public library in a totally different light. If the journalist worrying about his overdue book had just read This Book is Overdue before he filed his story, he would have been asking the librarians he interviewed totally different questions than how to avoid the huge fine he had encumbered.

Johnson closes by saying: “I was under the librarians’ protection. Civil servants and servants of civility, they had my back. They would be whatever they need to be that day: information professionals, teachers, police, community organizers, computer technicians, historians, confidantes, clerks, social workers, storytellers…”

Here is a review of the book from the New York Times:
and an interview with the author on The New Yorker blog:
Here is Marilyn Johnson’s website:

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