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Excerpt: 'This Book Is Overdue'

This Book Is Overdue

The Frontier

In tough times, a librarian is a terrible thing to waste.

Down the street from the library in Deadwood, South Dakota, the peace is shattered several times a day by the noise of gunfire — just noise. The guns shoot blanks, part of an historic re-creation to entertain the tourists. Deadwood is a far tamer town than it used to be, and it has been for a good long while. Its library, that emblem of civilization, is already more than a hundred years old, a Carnegie brick structure, small and dignified, with pillars outside and neat wainscoting in. The library director is Jeanette Moodie, a brisk mom in her early forties who earned her professional degree online. She's gathering stray wineglasses from the previous night's reception for readers and authors, in town for the South Dakota Festival of the Book. Moodie points out the portraits of her predecessors that hang in the front room. The first director started this library for her literary ladies' club in 1895, not long after the period that gives the modern town its flavor; she looks like a proper lady, hair piled on her head, tight bodice, a choker around her neck. Moodie is a relative blur. She runs the library and its website, purchases and catalogs the items in its collections, keeps the doors open more than forty hours a week, and hosts programs like the party, all with only parttime help. When she retires, she'll put on one of her neat suits, gold earrings, and rectangular glasses and sit still long enough to be captured for a portrait of her own.

Moodie is also the guardian of a goldmine, the history of a town that relies on history for its identity. She oversees an archive of rare books and genealogical records, which, when they're not being read under her supervision, are kept locked up in the South Dakota Room of the library. Stored in a vault off the children's reading room downstairs are complete sets of local newspapers dating back to 1876 that document Deadwood's colorful past in real time. A warning on the library website puts their contents in a modern context: "remember that political correctness did not exist in 19th-century Deadwood — many terms used ['negro minstrelcy,' for instance, and 'good injun'] are now considered derogatory or slanderous, but are a true reflection of our history."

If you want a gauge of how important this archive is to Deadwood, Moodie will take you into the vault, a virtually impregnable room lined with concrete and secured by a heavy steel door. No fire or earthquake or thief is going to get at the good stuff inside this place. A dehumidifier hums by the door. Newsprint and sepia photos, stored in acid-free, carefully labeled archival boxes, are stacked neatly on shelves around a big worktable. In her spare time, the librarian comes down here to browse the old articles that a consultant has been indexing, systematically listing the subjects and titles of each story for the library's electronic catalog. The town's past lives on in this catalog, linked with all the other libraries in South Dakota. Anyone can log on as a guest, consult the library's index online, and learn that the Black Hills Daily Times published a story in 1882 called "Why Do We Not Have Library & Reading Rooms?" and three years later, "Reading Room and Library Almost Complete," alongside stories like "Accidental Shooting Part of a Free for All" and "Cowboys Shoot Up Resort."

Moodie, like her predecessor a century ago, is essentially organizing the past and making it available to the citizenry, but she's doing so in ways that the librarian of the late 1800s could never have imagined, preserving images of one frontier with the tools of another. What would the proper lady in the portrait make of the current librarian's tasks, the maintenance of the website, for instance, with its ghostly and omniscient reach?

There's another Deadwood library on the digital frontier. This one doesn't resemble the elegant Carnegie building in the real town in South Dakota — it looks instead like a crude wooden storefront — but it, too, evokes the period that characterizes Deadwood, the late 1800s, the gold rush, and the Wild West. The difference is that this library exists solely on the Internet in the virtual world known as Second Life. People at computers around the globe, taking the form of avatars dressed in chaps and boots or long prairie dresses and playing the roles of prospectors, saloon keepers, and ordinary citizens, can visit the library in an historic reenactment of Deadwood in Second Life. They can enter this ramshackle building and, by typing questions in a chat box, ask the librarian what sort of outfit a prostitute would have worn, or where to find information on panning for gold. Or they can browse the collection the librarian has gathered in the form of links to dime novels and other old-time books, available in digital form from sites like Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive.

The librarian, Lena Kjellar, shows up onscreen as a cartoon woman in a bustle skirt. The person behind this avatar was trained to provide Second Life reference services by a real-life reference librarian and is part of an information network anchored by hundreds of professional librarians who flock to this interactive site for fun and stay to volunteer their skills — they figure everyone should be able to use library services, even avatars. In fact, "Lena Kjellar" is a retired electrical engineer and locomotive buff from Illinois named Dave Mewhinney; he feels that taking on a woman's shape in Second Life makes him more approachable.

Somewhere between Jeanette Moodie's frontiers and Lena Kjellar's is the story of a profession in the midst of an occasionally mind-blowing transition. A library is a place to go for a reality check, a bracing dose of literature, or a "true reflection of our history," whether it's a brick-and-mortar building constructed a century ago or a fanciful arrangement of computer codes. The librarian is the organizer, the animating spirit behind it, and the navigator. Her job is to create order out of the confusion of the past, even as she enables us to blast into the future.

From This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson. Copyright 2010 by Marilyn Johnson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, USA. All rights reserved.

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Marilyn Johnson