Guest Post: Response to "This Book is Overdue"

The following is by Susan Fingerman. She and I were discussing all of the media commentary, so when I heard she actually read it, I asked - no, make that begged - for a review. She was kind enough to supply.

By now many of you have probably heard about This Book is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All (Harper,2010). The author Marilyn Johnson was inspired by the really interesting obituaries of librarians while writing a prior book on obituaries. Does the irony of this strike anyone else out there? Will we (librarians) and the places we work be more interesting, more inspiring, more appreciated after we're gone?

At some point while reading this book, I began to feel like I was watching one of those surreal foreign movies where the character walking along the road suddenly begins to evaporate from the scene. Not a comfortable sensation, to put it mildly, since I'm one of those characters.

Johnson tries hard to imbue the living with as much interest as the dead. The first chapter is one of the best, letting readers know that libraries are the new frontier "where it's all happening," how tech savvy and 2.0 savvy we are. It's rather downhill from there. From the chapter that chronicles, in excruciating detail, the difficult catalog conversion of the Westchester County New York Library System, to the embarrassing focus on the real life sexual orientation of a pioneering Second Life librarian, it's a rather hit or miss read.

The "disappearing act" really hit me in the chapter on the 42nd Street New York Public Library, formerly the Research Library. Johnson chronicles the closing of one of the specialized and amazing reading rooms, the Asian and Middle Eastern Division and the librarian who stayed on as mortician. She also extols the virtues of librarian David Smith, who created a special event and service for all the authors who used the library. Both of these librarians went to extremes to serve their customers and keep their particular knowledge alive. Really good stuff, except that both "no longer work there." Nor do any of the specialized reading rooms exist, nor was that special event ever repeated.

The book has stirred a lot of buzz in the community of librarians and those who love them – finally we get widespread recognition?! So maybe it's just the days when pessimism about the future of our profession and of libraries wins out over the exciting and stimulating challenges we face that I find the book depressing. It ends with Johnson sitting in the new Darien Connecticut library, where she knows the librarian's won't disturb her "until closing time." Those last two words just seem to say it all.

update (corrected a typo)

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