Tuesday, March 23, 2010

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

Marilyn Johnson wrote a book called "The Dead Beat" about obituaries. Nothing extraordinary about that - except that she dealt with librarians enough that she fell in love with them. And decided to write about them.

The book isn't really a story per se, more little vignettes of Johnson and her dealings with librarians in different settings. The one thing they all have in common is a love of knowledge and a desire to catalog it somehow. After all, as Johnson points out, there is so much data available that we suffer from a sort of "information sickness"; librarians can help make sense of it all (and they know were to find the correct information, the factual data, as opposed to just doing a Google search).

One of the ways that libraries and their employees help sort and store all this data is through technology, specifically computers. Johnson discusses the two factions in the library world, those that embrace all new technological advances, and those that don't even want to touch the things. She follows a library going through an "upgrade" in their operating system, and the frustration felt by both library staff and the tech support team trying to help them. She looks at some of the blogs now being written by library employees, some serious, some not and how this new form of communication is helping other library employees get new ideas (and sometimes laugh at the things they have to deal with working with the public). She details the case that went to court recently in which a small group of librarians took on the government, fighting to keep their patrons' records private, and the toll it took on all involved (a very scary chapter - the Patriot Act is thrown around with the weight of "this is right, and if you defy us, you're against all that is American).

I loved the chapter on the group known as Radical Reference, library employees who take to the street during political conventions and such, letting people know what streets are closed, where public bathrooms are available - and where the cops are cracking down on protesters. They have their cell phones and Internet access, and they're not afraid to use them! Also interesting were the library employees who have avatars in Second Life, setting up virtual libraries and disseminating information to all who need it. Certainly helps break down the stereotype of the quiet, sweater and crepe-soled shoe wearing, shushing librarian!

Sadly, not everything is stable and good in the world of libraries. Just as the New York Public Library debuts wonderful online resources for their patrons, they close down reference rooms that store vast amounts of arcane knowledge. And in the chapter "What's Worth Saving?", Johnson laments that not everything is considered "essential" when deciding what should be cataloged and kept. I understand where she's coming from, but as someone who works in a small branch, I can say without remorse that you just cannot keep everything. Space is a premium for us, and we routinely weed items that are no longer circulating. Fear not - if they're still in good shape, they go to our annual Book Sale run by our Friends of the Library, and those proceeds help us in so many ways.

While I enjoyed this book (especially the small section about poop and "rogue turds"!), I often felt left behind. Yes, I am all about libraries, but no, I am not one of those library professionals who has completely embraced all this electronic. I still don't own a cell phone. I don't text. I don't Tweet (mostly because I can't keep it short, as you know if you're a regular fan of this blog!). I don't spend much time on a computer, and don't even own one of my own (another good argument for public Internet access). And as someone on the front lines, I can honestly say that there a lot of people who don't have all this technology either. My branch is in a poorer community, one with great unemployment, including older people who not only don't own PCs, they've no idea what email is or how to set up an account. These are truly the people we serve, and as such, we rely on our "hardware" more than our software. Luckily, there's a place for this, too, as Johnson quotes near the end of her book. I'll close out this review with her quote, which I think pretty much says it all.

"We'll always need printed books that don't mutate the way digital books do; we'll always need places to display books, auditoriums for book talks, circles for story time; we'll always need brick-and-mortar libraries."

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