Sunday, 24 April 2011

Book review: ‘This book is overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians can save us all’ / Marilyn Johnson.

I wish I had a cape
When I first caught sight of this book I admit that I was dubious about the extent to which it would free librarians of their stereotypes.  I have been categorically corrected, however, and was surprised and impressed by many of the stories contained within the covers.  I was left somewhat embarrassed at my own ignorance of the profession and in awe of some of our American colleagues.  I certainly have a long way to go before I can truly call myself an information professional and library advocate.

Marilyn Johnson is a journalist and author, who had no library or information background before embarking on this book.  She became interested in the subject after encountering an obituary of a librarian while working on her previous work, ‘Dead Beat.’  Concluding that librarians were the most interesting kind of dead person she decided to embark on research into the dim and distant world of librarians.

This results in a light-hearted meandering through conversations with information professionals, or people who have come to be called ‘cybrarians’, an all-encompassing term for those who endeavour to integrate the old mission of the library with the new technologies pressing on the profession.  These cybrarians are branching out into sometimes unexpected directions.  Johnson reveals those who are embracing technology wholeheartedly and participating in Second Life, blogging and teaching developing countries about electronic resources.  Alongside this, however, there are tales of ‘Street librarians’ who literally take to the streets to provide information that people might require, librarians who sued the American government to keep their patrons’ records private, and, a personal favourite, the Las Vegas ‘gentleman’s club’ called the Library where ladies wearing spectacles and not much else pole dance (a different interpretation of the stereotypical librarian).  We are also introduced to the library and archives of the American Kennel Club and the Great Boxing Archive.  Within these entertaining snapshots of institutions, wee gems of information are provided such as digital scraps and how we can save them, how to remove smells from old books (use a sheet of Bounce fabric softener) and the unusual items left on the shelves by patrons (I’ll leave you to read the book and uncover the secret presents for yourselves).

Marilyn Johnson
The overarching theme is that libraries are not so much just about books anymore but also deal with computers, films, community projects and children’s activities.  Libraries are places where information can be gleaned in whatever form is most accessible.  As Richard Susskind O.B.E. commented in a recent talk at Wolfson College, we need to consider what our customers want and decide how best to deliver it.  People do not use libraries because they want books but because they are in search of knowledge and the librarians have to decide in what manner we can best deliver it.  She describes a librarian as a navigator ‘whose job it is to create order out of the confusion of the past, even as she enables us to blast into the future.’

Archives feature heavily in this study and the whole concept of what ought to be saved is faced head-on.  Johnson is fascinated by those who try to bring the dead back to life and this is why she is so intrigued by cybrarians, who are the guardians of all there is to know and are attempting valiantly to keep every last piece of information safe and accessible for the generations to come.

In an interview with USA Today, Johnson stated that the reasons for keeping libraries are simple and multiple: “The middle class is squeezed and needs libraries more, information is multiplying at an alarming rate so we need librarians more, and the jobless are streaming to libraries in droves.”  Johnson certainly advocates the library in an impressive way and I am thoroughly encouraged to do the same.  This book will be enjoyed by all those who love libraries but will perhaps strike the right chord mostly with those already in the profession who are seeking titbits of inspiration and a celebration of their work.    

1 comment:

  1. I love this book, read it before I came to Cambridge and took a lot of her suggestions of blogs to follow, got a bit freaked out about what I might find in bookdrops though!