Librarians don’t often receive the kind of ‘pat on the back’ that other professionals get from recipients of their services; here in book form is the appreciation that information professionals have long needed and long deserved, Marilyn Johnson’s THIS BOOK IS OVERDUE How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, (ISBN: 9780061431609; Harper; On Sale: 2/2/2010).
While researching her 2006 title “The Dead Beat” (a fascinating and often hilarious study of the art of the obituary writer), Johnson came to the conclusion that librarians and archivists were nothing less than some of the finest professionals—not to mention the most interesting people–that she would ever come to know. They were knowledgeable, sure, but more than that, they were always looking to be of assistance. Name another profession where people actively and regularly want to volunteer their help...you might be hard-pressed to find the equivalent level of service in other fields.
Her book credits librarians of the past who have changed the way people use libraries (Frederick Kilgour, founder of OCLC) and Henriette Avram (mother of MARC), and older librarians at the forefront of changes in the library profession, such as Sanford Berman who fomented the cataloging revolution. But mostly she tells us about the librarians of today...those whose continuing fascination with knowledge and its organization extend beyond the boundaries of their workplaces.
“The most visible change to librarianship in the past generation is maybe the simplest: librarians have left the building. Waiting behind the reference desk for patrons to approach is old-fashioned. Passive is passé. If people who needed library services are in the streets, that’s where some librarians vowed to be.”
This excerpt refers to the members of Radical Reference, who began their work during the Republican National Convention in New York City in 2004, and continue to “support activist communities, progressive organizations, and independent journalists by providing professional research support, education and access to information.”
If you’re a blog reader (and what librarian isn’t?), you will recognize many of the librarians Johnson describes: The Shifted Librarian, Librarian.net, The Free Range Librarian, The Annoyed Librarian, David Lee King, Tame the Web, Library Avenger, Obnoxious Librarian from Hades, The Librarian in Black and more.
“Librarians were the last people I’d expect to make noise on a social network. And yet in the last decade or so, librarians turned clamorous. Blogs turned out to be a natural medium for these inveterate browsers and bibliographers to post their links. Unedited and unmonitored, blogs represented a kind of free expression that librarians traditional supported and celebrated, but had not taken the opportunity to practice.”
Sometimes the objects of these polite info professionals scorn are the patrons they serve with such dedication. Johnson makes no bones about blogging entries that describe the outrageous behavior of some library users: smuggling in soda bottles, breaking the photocopier, whining about non-compliant computers and yes, even flinging poop into the book return. Not to mention some of the more peculiar requests for information:
‘Where can I find a book on bootyism?’ Check Google for bootyism and you’ll find out all you ever wanted to know about booty shaking; Google didn’t prompt, as it occasionally does with presumptive misspellings, “Are you sure you don’t mean...?” But librarians were trained to prompt till they figured it out: Ah, not bootyism, Buddhism.
Johnson begins her research at her local library, the Chappaqua Public Library in Westchester County NY, where she witnesses the typical frustrations of network migration, but she also takes us to St. John’s campus in Rome, Italy, where students from around the world learn how to reach across continents with rss, skype, flickr and refworks. She visits with George Christian of the Library Connection in Connecticut, where three librarians showed extraordinary courage protecting their patrons privacy on the Internet. She follows librarians attending an ALA Conference in Washington, DC where after absorbing sackfuls of information about current methods in LIS, they blow off steam and show their style with some ingenious book cart drills.
Following many of the same major stories posted on LISNews, but with the finely-tuned ability of an investigative journalist, Johnson shows us the stories behind the story and the vibrant and unique personalities behind the buns, beards, tattoos and cardigan sweaters. She reminds us of the valor of librarians everywhere, who after literacy, find their most important goal to be protecting their patrons privacy. The library world can be as quaint as a village green or as expansive as the world-wide web, but no matter where your search leads you, you will always find your way with the help of the colorful, curious, and dedicated denizens of the world of LIS described in THIS BOOK IS OVERDUE.