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How Librarians Can Save The World

This Book Is Overdue

Say the word "librarian," and most people conjure up a frumpy, bespectacled woman shushing people — Marion the Librarian. The image is outdated, Marilyn Johnson argues in her impassioned celebration of librarians and archivists, cleverly titled This Book Is Overdue. Johnson is a former magazine editor and the author of The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries — another wittily titled appreciation of another underappreciated art. She is no stranger to research — and just how helpful a good librarian can be in navigating the overwhelming, "madly multiplying beast of exploding information."

Time was you went to the library to borrow a book or research a term paper. Now, people visit libraries to use the Internet, search job openings, attend readings. They are as likely to borrow DVDs as books. Librarians today continue to organize and manage mountains of information — both its storage and the public's access to it. But they do so, increasingly, with degrees in "information science" (as opposed to library science), incorporating new technology and proving that there's "room in libraries for both books and bytes."

To profile "a profession in the midst of an occasionally mind-blowing transition," Johnson favors quirky stories about cyber-missionaries or tattooed librarians over the day-to-day operations of community libraries and issues of budget constraints. She finds that a group defined by discretion and helpfulness in person is often "clamorous" online, where hip librarians in the burgeoning "biblioblogosphere" blog under handles that include Info Babe, Miss Information and Swiss Army Library. They complain, among other things, about "signs we never thought we'd need to make," including rules prohibiting taking the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue into restrooms.

Johnson also gets pulled into the odd, virtual world of Second Life — too deeply, for our taste — where librarians create avatars and invent scores of virtual libraries, which she suggests isn't just an amusing diversion, but may be a sort of "research-and-development department for the profession."

A more stirring chapter tells of the Connecticut Four, librarians who courageously defended "our right to privacy and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures" by standing up to the FBI and the Patriot Act, with the help of the ACLU. Libraries, they tell her, are "where people can make up their minds about controversial issues. It has to be private."

If librarians are finders, archivists are keepers. Johnson addresses questions of what's worth saving — she seems to feel that everything is — and, as crucial, how to avoid "the looming nightmare of lost digital data." Do we really need librarians when we can just do a Google search ourselves? Oh yes, Johnson writes, citing multiple examples of librarians who "could wring things out of Google" that ordinary mortals can't begin to find. Her book offers a compelling case that even — or especially — in these tough times, librarians are "invaluable and indispensable" and "a terrible thing to waste." An overdue tribute, indeed.

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Heller McAlpin
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.