This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians Can Save Us All

Johnson, Marilyn

The author quotes former ALA president Patricia Wilson Berger in her epigraph "Show me a computer expert who gives a damn, and I'll show you a librarian." I wouldn't say all librarians give a damn or that no non-librarian computer geeks don't, but I do think that sentiment is an appropriate way to launch into Johnson's 250 page mash note to librarians. What she likes about us is what I like about us—that we are dedicated to our user population and to our professional ethics. That unlike many other experts, our mission involves educating people and providing access to self-education tools without being snotty about it. At least to your face.

As it turns out, although it was the computer expertiness of librarians that made Johnson notice us, many of the librarians and library projects she profiles in this book are stronger in "give a damn."

Before I really get started, I need to contemplate for a moment that Johnson got interested in librarians, because in researching her previous book The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiff, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries she fell in love with librarians through their obituaries. She is a loving and generous writer, but we have to admit a little quirky, right?

Now I will proceed, at ridiculous length (But you should see the first draft!), to harvest my margin notes:

  • Henriette Avram! Did you know the lead programming brain behind MARC belonged to a female? Complain about MARC if you will, but it was pretty revolutionary stuff back in the day. Another hot H librarian I learned more about from reading this book, Hypatia of Alexandria

  • So often people wax on about libraries being so great, vs. librarians. As if the former could really be anything without the labor of the latter. Not Johnson, and I appreciate that! You'll want to just kiss her for this quote, "So when I hear this snarky question (and I hear it everywhere): Are librarians obsolete in the Age of Google? All I can say is, are you kidding? Librarians are more important than ever. Google and Yahoo! and Bing and WolframAlpha can help you find answers to your questions, sometimes brilliantly; but if you don't know how to phrase those questions, no search engine can help provide the answers. It can't explain in simple language how e-mails (let alone the rules of capitalization!) work, or how to navigate government websites. You can only get so far without human help." p.20

  • The chapter about the Connecticut library workers who fought the USA PATRIOT Act is quite moving. She quotes Ann Beeson from the ACLU "Congress won't follow laws, the president won't follow laws, the FBI won't follow laws, but we still have our librarians." And as with the "tired old lady" saw about Rosa Parks she gets that the librarians' success wasn't an accident, "I thought of Rosa Parks, who had not been the first person of color to refuse to sit in the back of the bus but the first who refused to sit in the back and was also able to mount a long legal challenge. "You were prepared," I said [to the Connecticut Four].
    "We were prepared."
    That's so hottt!!!

  • In the How to Change the World chapter she posits the idea of librarians as intellectual missionaries, Kathryn Shaughnessy, in particular for her work with the Global Development and Social Justice masters at St. Johns.

  • Here's where the disclaimer I should have mentioned up front comes in. Chapter 7, To the Ramparts, is pretty much about my projects, Radical Reference and the Barnard Library Zine Collection. Her description of our initial meeting cracks me up, "Our conversation had a conspiratorial feel, heightened by the fact that we were keeping our voices low in deference to the students and librarians on the other side of the door. 'Death to ignorance!' Freedman might have been whispering. 'Power to the people! Pssst! Catalog the revolution!'"

    She gives me a teasing hard time about not trusting her at first, but she did what few writers have the balls or the integrity to do, she trusted me with the galley of the book and integrated many if not all of my corrections and suggestions. I think Marilyn fell in love not just with the profession as a whole, but with each of her individual subjects. It was nice to feel so appreciated, cuz sorry Rodney, it's librarians who corner the market on no respect!

  • Johnson eats up library geekery and has a blast with the librarian Second Life crew. I gotta say, though, if I had written this book, I would have skipped Second Life and spent more time on Jessamyn West and her role in street/desert reference and online communities.

  • Speaking of things I might have liked to see addressed in greater detail, is people of color in librarianship. Johnson mentions the legendary E.J. Josey, inspiration and mentor to generations of African-American librarians, on p. 204 and reveals that the library profession is "only 5 percent and 3 percent Latino." She asks why and answers "There is so much education required, and so little pay and prestige for the work." True, but there's a lot more to say about race, not to mention gender, class, and sexual preference in librarianship. I do believe that If Johnson's publisher would have let her write another 200 pages, she would have gotten to all of that stuff, and more.

  • After much over-the-top librarian crushiness, Johnson does shed a little light on some not so nice places, but she has the kindness to do so while also praising the same institution that is fucking itself and its millions of users over. That institution is the same one with which I have a love/hate relationship, the New York Public Library. Johnson loves their digital projects, but also the 100-year-old pneumatic tubes that page their book requests. She laments retirement incentives that encouraged middle-aged subject specialists to leave and exposes NYPL for being the lowest paying library in an American Libraries survey. She takes on uncritical populism, "Phrases like 'children flocking to story hour' go down like hot chocolate any day. .. You might not notice that a world-class research library had just agreed to make room for children, teenagers, and DVDs; and unless you were a writer you might not notice that writers hadn't made the list of patrons the library was eager to see coming through the door."

    The writers bit may speak to self-interest, but Johnson is right. Different libraries have different jobs. We can't all have story hour, and we shouldn't. One remaining librarian complains, "When the Arabic-language cataloger retires, we will be without an Arabic-language librarian. We've already lost Persian, Korean, and a number of the languages of India. I don't see them being replaced, ever." p.198. If NYPL isn't going to take responsibility for this type of work, then what public library is? In a literary capital like New York, having a "world-class research library" that prioritizes writers at least a little is a reasonable idea.

    Luckily Johnson has made herself 150,000 friends (cached version of the page because regular link broken) in bookish places around the United States and can get dedicated help from all of her interviewees.
    Speaking of dedication from Johnson's interviewees, they show the same dedication to their jobs, probably more than their institutions deserve. Writing of an NYPL librarian who is staying, despite the dire new circumstances, "If I left now, it would be a disaster. I have all this institutional knowledge, and this is a crucial transitional period. Things would disappear, be misplaced, get lost or dumped." p.200 This librarian cares more about the stuff and the scholars who will use it than a retirement incentive from an institution that underpaid and underappreciated him for his entire career.

  • There is one thing that really irks about this book. There's no index. I complained about this to Ms. Johnson, and she said she'd try to index the book herself and post the index to her website. Stay tuned for that.

UPDATE: There is now an index available online.

Jan 16 2010


#1 Barbara

"If NYPL isn't going to take responsibility for this type of work, then what public library is?"
Um.... Queensborough? Don't they catalog a lot of South Asian material? (Not that it should let NYPL off the hook....)

I can't wait to read this!

What a funny captcha - "was preppy." I don't think that applies to any of us here.

#2 jenna

I do think Queensborough is covering all things international quite thoroughly, but for popular, not research use. I may be mistaken on that. Sometimes I think that Queens is too focused on circ numbers and emulating Barnes & Noble, but that's their mission, and they've stuck to it and done it well, and their services for immigrants are really special.

#3 index editor

Ooh, her obit book has been sitting my shelf, but now I want to read this first!

p.s. Does this not have an index because the publisher expected more ebook sales? I know indexes are expensive, but that's just inexcusable in my . . . book.