This Book is Overdue! by Marilyn Johnson
I always encourage fellow readers to do two things in the digital age–support your local independent bookstore and thoroughly abuse your library privileges. As someone who comes home with wonderfully heavy piles of rented books every week, I tend to scoff at people who declare that digital readers are the future (not until you can buy a ten dollar waterproof Kindle) and I’m always a bit befuddled by people who don’t taken advantage of their library systems. So when Marilyn Johnson’s This Book is Overdue came across my field of view, a book that celebrates the modern librarian, I knew I had to read it.
This Book is Overdue! is the culmination of plenty of research into the current state of affairs regarding librarians, who are no longer stuffy old ladies who shush the rambunctious, but defenders and purveyors of knowledge to all who ask, be it taking their impressive research skills to the street to help demonstrators (and inventing the precursor to Twitter in the process!) or changing traditional cataloging systems to help the hypothetical reader. The dawn of the digital age doesn’t mean the end of librarians; in fact, it’s librarians who are going to rescue us from the information overload the digital age brings.
Johnson organizes This Book is Overdue! into twelve chapters–the first eleven could stand alone as interesting articles in their own right, but they’re similar enough and flow enough together that it’s different than a mere collection of articles, a la The Case for Books. The table of contents actually has charming little summaries for each chapter, which I quite liked. Part of the reason I’m not terrifically fond of nonfiction books is the fact that if there’s not a specifically overarching idea–like a biography or a travelogue–it can feel a little meandering or pointless. There are parts that can fail the dreaded “So what?” test. This Book is Overdue! manages to keep it together until about chapter nine, which, while not perfect, is actually a lot better than most nonfiction books I’ve been reading lately.
Johnson is at her best when looking at how librarians are keeping pace with the digital revolution. When told to turn over computer records by their patrons by the FBI, with nary a warrant in sight, a group of librarians known as the Connecticut Four stood up for their patrons’ right to privacy and protested the Patriot Act. Librarians previously thought to be quiet and stoic start snarky blogs to complain about patrons and review books. During the 2008 Republican National Convention, librarians take to the street to help protesters protest efficiently and peacefully. The book is well worth the rental just for the seventh chapter about Radical Reference. This is where we see the ideal librarians of today–people dedicated to information, correct, useful, and pertinent information (Johnson dismisses the easily changed Wikipedia at the start), being available to everyone. To be a librarian is not to simply man the circulation desk; it’s to be the first line of defense in the republic of letters against the forces that would keep you ignorant. It’s fascinating stuff, and will definitely make you appreciate the librarians in your lives.
Around the chapter on Second Life, the focus switches from librarians in the digital age to libraries in the digital age–a small but wildly important difference. We see how big libraries are in Second Life, the conflict between specialized librarians and library boards who want more circulation and visitors, and the archiving of papers for libraries. It’s still quite interesting–I especially liked the chapter on archiving, especially in the digital age. While writers who work on typewriters have their drafts at their fingertips, digital drafts can be lost to time if the author doesn’t think to save it as a different file. But these chapters are different from the first eight chapters, which hurts the book’s flow a little. But those first eight chapters are so good that you don’t particularly mind.
Johnson usually manages the right balance for a narrator in a non-fiction book, in my opinion–not totally absent, but the focus is undoubtedly on the subject at hand. This does, however, falter. Johnson spends a bit too much time worrying about the gender of a librarian she’s only met in virtual reality (who turns out to be genderqueer), which rubbed me the wrong way–it was a lovely opportunity to mention the gender neutral pronouns, but it was wasted in pronoun anxiety. When she heads over to the American Kennel Club Library, she implies she doesn’t like dogs and mentions she’d rather be in a more prestigious library. It’s not a huge thing, to be honest, but it is there and it did bug me a little.
Bottom line: This Book is Overdue! focuses on how librarians work in the digital age, taking information to the streets and protecting their patrons with all the savvy of digital natives with a thirst for organizing information. While the last few chapters focus on libraries (a small but crucial distinction) and Johnson occasionally falters in her usually pitch perfect observational tone, this book is still a great and informative read to all those who love libraries, librarians, and all they stand for.
I rented this book from the public library.