This Book is Overdue! (A Review)
December 20, 2012 - David McConkey
“You're reading a book about librarians? Couldn't you find anything
else more boring?”
That was the joking response I once got when I mentioned that I was reading This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson. Actually, Johnson does a great job of making the topic of librarians quite fascinating.
This book would be of most interest to librarians or those in related fields. But it has something to say to all of us struggling with the weight of the information age.
This Book Is Overdue! has an interesting genesis and that is how I found the book as well. Johnson’s first book was about obituary writers, The Dead Beat. My discovery of that book – and my enjoyment in reading it – occurred when developing my obituary writing website. (Johnson has since written a third book, Lives in Ruins, about archeologists.)
“I became interested in librarians while researching my first book, about obituaries,” Johnson explains. “With the exception of a few showy characters,” she continues, “the most engaging obit subjects were librarians.”
Just think about that – some of the most intriguing people in town work at the library!
Johnson follows her sense of wonder about librarians, and explores their work as they navigate our ever-rich information world. Johnson combines folksy vignettes of librarians at work with thoughtful discussions of the issues involved.
Woven throughout her book is her theme of how librarians are forging ahead to keep pace with the current rush of information. “The profession that had once been the quiet gatekeeper to discreet palaces of knowledge is now wrestling a raucous, multi-headed, madly multiplying beast of exploding information and information delivery systems.”
Her message: even with Google and the Internet, librarians are still needed. “Who can we trust? In a world where information itself is a free-for-all, with traditional news sources going bankrupt and publishers in trouble, we need librarians more than ever.”
The author is an unabashed fan of librarians. Their “values are as sound as Girl Scouts’: truth, free speech, and universal literacy,” she enthuses. “Librarians are essential players in the information revolution. They enable those without money or education to read and learn the same things as the billionaire and the PhD.”
In the course of the book, she follows librarians to wherever they work. That ends up being in small towns, in the huge libraries of New York City, on the streets, in the virtual Internet world of Second Life, through blogs and social media, on the cutting edge of social change, and in fighting the U.S. government in the post-Sept. 11 environment of the Patriot Act.
She also touches on “the often forgotten edges of library work, the archivists.” Amidst a flood of information, she salutes the “heroic archivists, librarians, cybrarians, and computer scientists determined to save the world, or at least a corner of it, whether it appears on an elusive flickering web page or a sheet of dead wood.”
But what information is worth saving, and how to save it? The task is big: Johnson points out that the U.S. government alone generates a mountain of electronic records and 1 billion pieces of paper every day. And there is a new urgency to figure this out in the digital age. “Whole chapters of contemporary history are disappearing into the ether as e-mails get trashed and web pages are taken down and people die without sharing their passwords.”
She mentions the controversy of whether to save the original printed documents, like old newspapers, or instead convert them to other formats - like electronic or microfilm. (This issue is taken up in the book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper.)
For those actually dealing with these stuffy old pages, she shares a useful tip: a fabric softener dryer sheet can be used to remove the musty odor from old books and papers.
Johnson also puts in a plea for individuals to save their stories, at the very least for their own families. “If we are helping build or create something, save a town landmark, fight for freedom, launch a field of study; if we survive a disaster or witness a miracle – if we do anything with our life besides watch television – we might want to document it somehow and save the evidence,” she says. “We are all living history, and it’s hard to say now what will be important in the future. One thing’s certain, though: if we throw it out, it’s gone.”
Another concern is the very survival of many libraries in a time of government cutbacks to counter exploding deficits. (A related issue faced in Canada and other jurisdictions are governments that seem especially opposed to learning and knowledge and the associated investment in personnel and infrastructure.)
Johnson concludes we best revise our stereotype about libraries and their role today. “There is a perception that libraries are archaic, dead, outdated, and that everything is now on the Internet, in digital form.”
But if This Book Is Overdue! is an argument for the place for libraries and librarians in the electronic age, the author is also passionate about the old fashioned printed book and it’s comfortable, familiar settings.
“We’ll always need brick-and-mortar libraries,” she writes. “We’ll always need printed books that don’t mutate the way digital books do; we’ll always need places to display books, auditoriums for book talks, circles for story time . . . ”
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