Thursday, May 14, 2015

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

Dances frivolously around its subject
I’m currently working toward an MLS degree in the hopes of becoming a librarian. When I found out about Marilyn Johnson’s 2011 book, This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, I was excited to read it. I was hoping it would provide a behind-the-scenes look at the profession and some serious examination of the issues facing librarians today. The subtitle implies that the book will cover some of the important work being done by librarians and information professionals, while perhaps also indulging in some welcome boosterism for an often underappreciated profession. While Johnson is an avid cheerleader for libraries and approaches her subject with enthusiasm, overall I was disappointed with her take on librarianship.

There is a long-standing stereotype of librarians as frumpy nerds, and Johnson is hell-bent on dispelling that erroneous notion. Unfortunately, her way of going about this is to devote an inordinate amount of words to the physical appearance and social lives of librarians, trying to convince us that they’re cool. They have tattoos! And mod retro haircuts! They wear sexy clothes and cat’s-eye glasses! They throw wild theme parties and eat funky food and let their freak flags fly! What it all adds up to is an annoying and distracting catalog of quirks. In an interminably long chapter on the social network Second Life, Johnson lovingly describes the hairdo and accessories of each and every avatar, yet fails to convince the reader that anything of value or of use is taking place in this virtual world. Another chapter on librarian bloggers makes these professionals sound like a bunch of petty, feuding high schoolers. Librarians aren’t nerds; we get it already. What’s really cool about librarians is the important work that they do, and often while reading Johnson’s book you wonder if these hip librarians are getting anything done at all.

When she does focus on the work, the results are mixed. A chapter about a library system undergoing a software migration, for example, is about as exciting as it sounds. Thankfully, there are some bright points. In Chapter 5, she interviews the Connecticut Four, a group of librarians who refused to release patron borrowing records to the federal government, in knowing violation of the USA PATRIOT Act. Chapter 6 covers a program by librarians at St. John’s University to train their counterparts from third world countries. These chapters were both pretty good, but it wasn’t really until Chapters 10 and 11 (out of 12) that I felt like I was getting the book I had hoped for. In Chapter 10 she delves into the backstage workings of the New York Public Library and weighs the pros and cons of recent changes they’ve made in their organization and practices. Chapter 11 examines the profession of archivism. With so much information, what’s worth preserving, who’s going to preserve it, and how does it get preserved? These two chapters quite thoughtfully investigate the kinds of real-life issues and problems that librarians are faced with every day.

Despite my complaints, I’m glad Johnson wrote this book because the general public needs to know more about what exactly librarians do. I wonder, though, how many nonlibrarians will read it. Professional librarians will enjoy Johnson’s positive take on their field, but won’t gain much new information from it. The ideal audience seems to be wannabe librarians like me. Johnson’s latest book, Lives in Ruins, tackles another fascinating subject, archaeology. I was looking forward to diving into that one, but after reading This Book is Overdue! I’m now worried it’ll just be a book about a bunch of hip, quirky nonconformists who only happen to be archaeologists.
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