I have been looking forward to This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson since February, when I first came across it in The New Yorker. A book about 21st Century librarians embracing the many new technologies available and adapting those technologies to suit their (and our) needs within libraries? How could I resist? Why would I want to? Given my love for books, libraries, and information systems (I know, that’s weird isn’t it?) this was destined to appeal to me from the start.
And I wanted to love it. I was determined to. It seemed like the kind of book that I should instantly love, that I would cling to and consume in one sitting. It didn’t quite work out that way.
I think the main problem was a lack of focus: it is ostensibly about how technology is changing librarianship and the strongest parts of the book deal with just that. The chapter on the Connecticut Four (who sued the government to keep library patrons’ records private) was a fascinating examination of civil liberties and the librarians’ devotion to discretion. Johnson persuasively argued that, yes, in the age of Google librarians are still necessary – anyone can use an internet search engine but do they know what to search for? Librarians are trained to ask clarifying questions to determine what it is specifically that the patron wants to know and they have the vocabulary and knowledge to run the right searches in the right places. The chapter examining the relationship between librarians and IT staff was anecdotal and a little weak, but it certainly stressed its importance. As Johnson says, “this is the greatest and most fraught romance of modern society, the marriage between the IT staff and those who depend on them” (p. 39).
But then, for much of the book, Johnson seems distracted by novelty and strays from her purpose. Almost forty pages are devoted to Second Life librarians. Yes, I agree it’s amazing that there are people building libraries in a virtual world, answering questions and providing information (though I think I’m amazed in a far different way than Johnson) but I also want to know why this is significant. Virtual librarians are available, they have a presence, but how great is their reach? How many people are using their services and what are the practical long-term implications of this style of service? Johnson is equally titillated by a new generation of hipster librarians, anarchist librarians and tattooed librarians. Look! So new, so completely unlike the stereotypical librarian! They embrace technology! (Of course they do, they’re children of the 80s. They don’t remember what life was like before computers). They’re rebels with a cause!
Oh dear. And yet even as she’s saying this, she’s also making sweeping generalizations like:
If you had to divide the world into creeps and assholes, as writer Susin Shapiro once did, librarians would be creeps. By and large, they’re cat people, not dog people. Librarians’ favorite wall decorations are posters of the goofy ‘LOLcats,’ adorable cat pictures with misspelled legends: I Can Has Cheezburger? Or drunk dial kitteh callin u at 2 am. Is it the misspellings that crack them up? (p. 124)
Could there be a crueler stereotype?
All of this seems particularly odd (and slightly unkind) given that so many of the librarians that Johnson interviewed and mentioned are rather old school: men and women in their forties and fifties who embrace technology but, at the same time, don’t view it as the be all and end all of their profession. People like David Smith, ‘Librarian to the Stars,’ who know that customer service is their real focus, connecting people with the right materials, however that may happen.
There’s also a strange chapter on preserving archival materials. Interesting enough I suppose, but this is a book about librarians, not archivists, and Johnson is careful to point out that, yes, they are in fact different professions, with different mindsets (librarians are finders, archivists keepers). So why was this chapter still included?
Despite waiting patiently, Johnson never persuasively made the case that these new-wave, technology-embracing librarians will in fact “save us all.” She paints a fascinating portrait of the profession during an interesting and perhaps transformational point in its history but doesn’t dare to draw any real conclusions from these changes or, even after all this research, give opinions of her own on where librarianship is heading and what skills will be needed. And I think that was the biggest problem for me: so much of the book felt like it was degrading the old at the expense of the new. Yet most of the older librarians she came across embrace new technology, new ways of getting and organizing information. “Good librarians are natural intelligence operatives,” Johnson says. “They possess all of the skills and characteristics required for that work: curiosity, wide-ranging knowledge, good memories, organizational and analytical aptitude, and discretion” (p. 6). A wonderful description and one that surely applies to a myriad of personalities – be they anarchists, hipsters, or old fuddy-duddies in flannels.
The Darien Statement on the Library and Librarians – an inspiring mission statement sketching out “the role librarians should play in defining the future of libraries.”
Librarian Blogs – links to all of the blogging librarians Johnson mentions in the book, ranging from the technological to the humourous.