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Book review: 'This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All,' by Marilyn Johnson

By Evelyn Small
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; C03

THIS BOOK IS OVERDUE!

How Librarians And Cybrarians Can Save Us All

By Marilyn Johnson

Harper

272 pp. $24.99

In researching her previous book, "The Dead Beat," which celebrates the pleasures of obituaries, Marilyn Johnson discovered that, with few exceptions, "the most engaging obit subjects were librarians." Motivated by "the idea that libraries were where it was happening -- wide-open territory for innovators, activists, and pioneers," Johnson has now turned her attention to librarians, whom she refers to variously as "natural intelligence operatives" and "enablers," with the good ones possessing "all of the skills and characteristics required for that work: curiosity, wide-ranging knowledge, good memories, organizational and analytical aptitude, and discretion."

Each of the 12 chapters in "This Book Is Overdue" highlights some dimension of contemporary librarianship in an information-overloaded world, including libraries on the digital frontier, library-related blogs, the riches of the New York Public Library and archivists working to preserve "what's worth saving."

Johnson, as she admits, is "anything but objective," clearly admiring the service mission of librarians. Although it's difficult to criticize someone who is such an adoring enthusiast of librarians, "This Book Is Overdue," regrettably, is a highly anecdotal, fairly unoriginal mishmash of stories and profiles. It is also marred by an overuse of slang, cliches and simplistic generalizations. At one point she suggests, with no evidence, that "by and large, they're cat people, not dog people." (I'm wondering what the other questions on that survey might have been.) She writes of librarians as if they're in lock step: "As a breed, librarians tend to share a sense of humor that is quirky, sardonic, and full of wordplay." And later: "As a rule, librarians cultivate a professionalism that projects sexual neutrality . . . and also helps keep the stalkers at bay."

On the plus side, Johnson is a welcome advocate for an undervalued profession she describes as being "in the midst of an occasionally mind-blowing transition." Her good intentions clearly stem from the "inexhaustible wonder" she found in one old library. It's hard to imagine anyone disagreeing with the notion that "in tough times, a librarian is a terrible thing to waste." My opinion of this book might be dismissed because I'm one of those people Johnson refers to as "the silver-haired librarians who got their library degrees way back in the twentieth century," but, unfortunately, the definitive book on the value of librarians (in all of their many manifestations) is still overdue.

Small, a former contributing editor of Book World, is a librarian and archivist.

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