This Book is Overdue! How librarians and cybrarians can save the world by Marilyn Johnson
In her book This Book is Overdue! How librarians and cybrarians can save us all, Marilyn Johnson expounds upon the continuing importance of libraries and librarians through the stories of her interactions with librarians and library staff of many different kinds and across many different borders. While I found most of Johnson’s book entertaining and sometimes enlightening, the best and most interesting aspects for me were the stories of the various libraries she visited and people she met. However, when Johnson went off on her own little tangents – something she tends to do often – I found myself becoming disinterested or occasionally even annoyed and affronted at her often one-sided point of view.
In a review for the Washington Post, librarian and archivist Evelyn Small writes that This Book is Overdue is “a highly anecdotal, fairly unoriginal mishmash of stories and profiles. It is also marred by an overuse of slang, clichés, and simplistic generalizations” (Small, 2010). While I take no issue with Johnson’s use of anecdote and the way she styles her book’s chapters into various small stories, I agree completely with Small’s second complaint about the overuse of slang, cliché, and generalization. Johnson’s “outsider’s voice” (which was called “refreshing” by Allison Colton of the ALA) can at times feel patronizing, oversimplifying, and occasionally downright offensive. Take, for example, Johnson’s repeated use of transphobic language and attitudes: using the word “transgenders” to refer to trans people, calling a trans man “a self-defined male with female parts,” talking about needing to know “the ‘real’ sex of my correspondent,” and pushing a mutual contact to reveal the gender assigned at birth of someone who was very clearly presenting themself as male to her and then insisting on referring to them as “she” repeatedly (Johnson, 2010). In addition to this, Johnson participates in body shaming (calling a male librarian at one event she attended “a large, unhealthy-looking guy,” adding to the idea that you can judge a person’s health and worth by appearances alone) and repeatedly generalizes about the nature of librarians, writing about them “as if they’re in lock step” (Small, 2010). Librarians are definitely not a homogenous group, and being lumped into categories “with no evidence” (like when Johnson insists that librarians are “cat people, not dog people” and that librarians “as a breed” share a sense of humor) is inaccurate and demeaning.
Although Johnson appears to be enthusiastic about the many changes in the field of librarianship that technology is creating today, her book, while certainly outwardly “one-sided, lacking any viewpoint against technology” (Coltin, 2010), seems to simultaneously bemoan the digital age. While Johnson certainly appreciates the efforts of digital archivists and the exciting doors opened up through new technologies, she at the same time seems to disapprove of the newer, “hipper” libraries that she visits, where teens and children and people of all socioeconomic classes are welcome and encouraged to make use of the library’s resources in whatever way makes the most sense to them. In Pagan Kennedy’s review for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, they state that “without meaning to, [Johnson’s] book comes off as a paean to a previous age, when fact-finding meant trekking through the Dewey Decimal System” (Kennedy, 2010). While there is certainly nothing wrong with feeling nostalgic about the past of print card catalogs and huge, quiet buildings full of stacks, Johnson often seems reluctant to admit that the changes in the ways that the libraries of today function are mainly for the better, and made so that they can better serve their patron communities.
All in all, I certainly learned a lot from reading this book, but most of it was gleaned from the passages where Johnson directly quoted from librarians, archivists, and library staff, and not from the observations or ideas of Johnson herself. Though the idea of a book attempting to tie together some of the multitudes of library stories together into a volume that applauds and espouses the tenets of librarianship is certainly a wonderful idea, Johnson’s outsider perspective and lack of awareness about the communities she was describing made an inadequate frame for the genuinely interesting information that she had to share.
Coltin, A. (2011). Book Review: This book is overdue! How librarians and cybrarians can save us all. ALA New Members Round Table News, 40(4). Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/nmrt/news/footnotes/may2011/book_review_coltin
Johnson, Marilyn. (2010). This book is overdue! How librarians and cybrarians can save us all. Old Saybrook: Tantor Media.
Kennedy, P. (2010). Library Science. The New York Times Sunday Book Review, 30 March 2010. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/books/review/Kennedy-t.html?_r=0
Small, E. (2010). Book Review: ‘This book is overdue! How librarians and cybrarians can save us all,’ by Marilyn Johnson. The Washington Post, 17 March 2010. Retreived from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/16/AR2010031603449.html