Returning Overdue on Time

Day 113

It's been several weeks since I posted about something actually on my blog list, but I'm back, this time to talk about Marilyn Johnson's "This Book is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All." While I'm not sure I'm quite the target audience, I found it a very fun and sometimes compelling read, and I zipped through it. I didn't have to worry about the irony of returning a book with this title late.

The cover of "This Book is Overdue!" which features an illustration of a woman in glasses and a superhero cape bursting forth from a pile of books.
The book's basic thesis is that librarianship is essential to society, and needed for the future – but not just any librarianship, specifically the active, interactive, sometimes radical librarianship that forms this new wave that Johnson explores and describes. She talks about librarians who get out there and are active in their communities, not just as people but as librarians. They help connect people to resources whether it's for a fantasy game or a political protest. Many of the stories she tells are basically about an emerging librarian counter-culture or subculture, such as the many sarcastic librarian bloggers and the book-cart dancing antics that library conferences are supposedly full of. The book was written in 2010, when the idea of a large number of people from one profession blogging about the good, bad, and ugly of their work was a bit more novel than it is today, and in fact librarians were early adopters of the blog phenomenon.

I recall hearing about competitive book cart dance numbers in a New York Times magazine fluff piece once. Johnson saw it in person, and was duly impressed. It does sound worth watching, but I know a lot of librarians and don't know anyone who has seen this in person, making me think it's not as huge a phenomenon as the journalists, Johnson included, would have us believe. In fact, this is my main complaint about the book. In a number of areas, it does what so many short fluff pieces in a vaguely news-y magazine would do, but doesn't do it better or more cohesively for being all on one topic, in one book. It feels like Johnson is doing an exposé, if a positive one, on some weird subculture she has discovered, and the point is almost for the reader to gawk. Like an NPR short on Burning Man, it got a little awkward sometimes.

On the other hand, I knew I wasn't quite the target audience for this book, because I'm already very much a believer in libraries. My mom is a reference librarian, I worked in my college library's interlibrary loan department for four years, and as a historian and a bit of a research geek, I'm no stranger to being a library patron. And then there's the fact that I hang out with archivists on a fairly regular basis in professional settings, and the fact that my social circle is geeky and weird. Johnson spends a lot of time exclaiming over the wildness and weirdness of a subculture she was unfamiliar with, but it is familiar to me. Tattooed librarians! Librarians who have sarcastic blogs! I have befriended a children's librarian with rainbow hair and a nose ring while discussing the lasting impact of second-wave feminism over margaritas. I follow the museum equivalent of most of those blogs,
A somewhat blurry shot of paperbacks on a shelf, some stacked on top of one another, with a small pink shelf label which says "cheeky books."
Just for fun -- a picture I snapped while
visiting Dublin years ago, because I liked
this bookstore's section labels.
and alt culture and libraries hasn't seemed like a contrast to me since the 90s.

Despite the mild culture clash, I enjoyed and recommend the book. There are a couple of chapters that were very compelling, and both these meatier chapters and the lighter ones work together to support the book's thesis. I do agree with Johnson's assessment that librarianship is important because it serves all kinds of societal and personal needs that books or the internet alone can't meet. She's by far not the only one to put this idea forward, but she is probably one of the few people who are not librarians or library administrators to actively make this case. The chapter on librarians fighting the far-reaching arms of the Patriot Act was fascinating. I was somewhat aware that there were libraries challenging the act, which the federal government could use to search a person's library history, but I didn't know the full story. As it turns out, many of the major players were under a strict gag rule for years, so no amount of following the story at the time could have revealed what Johnson discusses in her interviews with these librarians. 

I also really appreciated the passages on the tricky decisions around culling library books and on creating archives to preserve certain special works in perpetuity. As Johnson put simply, "Librarians were finders. Archivists were keepers." But one of the best parts of the book is that it's a loving salute to information -- and well-organized, accessible information. We live in the information age, but librarians are some of the best guides, and Johnson gets it.


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