This Conversation Is Overdue

Marilyn Johnson is a fan of libraries. And librarians. She came to this appreciation while researching The Dead Beat (a book about obituary writers). To her, it seemed that librarians had the most interesting obituaries! So when the time came for a second book, librarians seemed a natural focus. The result is This Book is Overdue : How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us.

“I wrote the book originally to teach myself how to get more technologically savvy, and I wrote it for my parents, who I know felt like the computer age had zoomed of and left them in the lurch” said Ms. Johnson in a recent e-mail. While her target audience was not librarians, the profession has embraced the book, which is now in its fourth printing.

A small group met in a Toronto pub last night to discuss the book. This post will recount some of our discussion, and hopefully inspire further conversation here.

The first question that came to each of us as we joined the discussion was: “Did the profession need an outsider to write this book?” Our consensus was a resounding yes. Johnson’s audience was not the profession (as she told me via e-mail). Her journalistic writing style and her “here, let me introduce you to this interesting person” approach are markedly different from the more ponderous and jargon-filled approach of our professional journals. This is a book for reading on the bus.

The book also goes beyond the “I like librarians. They’re friendly and they do my homework for me” testimonial. Johnson cuts a broad swath through the profession, recounting tales from the New York Public Library to a (surprisingly) active virtual library universe in Second Life. The stories of the librarians who fought the U.S. Patriot Act are inspiring and chilling.

Each of us at the pub last night pointed to different stories which stuck with us. This is a book which screams out for highlighting, tabbing and marginalia. There are innovations, lessons and creative ideas in every chapter – ideas which can be stolen, er adapted, and reused in a wide range of contexts, websites to be visited, blogs to be monitored.

Judy Dunn, from the University of Toronto’s i-School, said that the book should be recommended reading for students going into the library profession. I quite agree – this book is a window on a profession in transition, meeting the challenge of rapid technological change with a sense of inquiry, with a mind to community and respect for the past.


  1. Sorry I missed the conversation last night! I enjoyed the book, although I was already familiar with many of the anecdotes in it, and have even met some of the people mentioned. I found it kind of a love letter to librarians, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but always moving. I wasn’t sure if there was a real over-arching point to the book or thesis. I agree it is good to have this kind of book written by someone not in the industry who could say “look at all the things librarians are doing that I bet you weren’t aware of”.

    I’m wondering if the book has motivated anyone on to a new project or even to start a movement? I have been getting involved in ChangeCamp, the movement to engage citizenship in the work of government, as have a few other library-related folk. During ChangeCamp brainstorming sessions, among different groups of people, the potential role of the public library at the heart of the community and change in the community comes up over and over again. It may be time for us, as librarians, to step up and take a leadership role. This book has led me to give this some consideration.

    I’m interested in other thoughts from the discussion.


  2. I wish I could have attended the book chat last night, but thanks to Wendy for the post and invitation to comment.

    I loved reading this book, mostly because it validated how I see our profession changing. And while our profession is going through exciting (and sometimes painful) changes, there is one constant: our common values and conviction in the importance of public service and access to information.

    In my work at the Martin Prosperity Institute, where we study the innovation, creativity and prosperity of regions, I have begun working on a focused examination of how libraries play a key role, not only by positively impacting economic development, but in that they are crucial to the recovery, survival and sustainability of communities.

    The MPI has collaborated with TVO’s The Agenda for the past 2 seasons, where The Agenda goes “on the road” to various cities across Ontario to examine how each of these regions can become more prosperous. I see a role for public libraries in particular, and librarians in the region in general, to take a leadership role in becoming stewards for the success of their communities.

    I’ve begun discussions with Sam Coghlan, CEO of Stratford Public Library, to determine how to approach creating research and tactics to engage librarians as leaders in the area of community economic development. We welcome any ideas and participation from our colleagues, in any sector.

    Connie, I wonder if the ChangeCamp model would be useful here? Let’s talk.


  3. One of the topics which came up in last night’s conversation was Second Life, and how surprised a couple of us were to read about the level of service going on there. We both thought that SL was essentially dead. A theory was proposed that perhaps SL is a tool for reaching remote, rural communities, or communities which are not served by a “bricks and mortar” library (of which there are a growing number in the U.S.)

    I would love to know if anyone has experience of SL in the delivery of library services, who the audience is and how it works.

    I know other stuff came up (a brief, but heart-felt ode to Katherine Hepburn and Desk Set), professional ethics and how Watergate would never have broken today, the pitiable salaries earned by librarians in the States.

    We all agreed that if a similar opportunity arises, we would all happily meet again for more discussion.

  4. I try to keep tabs on what is happening in Second Life, but have to admit the book characterizes it as more extensive than I had realized. SL is only dead in terms of brands using it for commercial purposes, which is why we don’t hear about it in mainstream media. I have to admit, my friends and I who used it haven’t been in there in ages.

    Second Life, like Twitter, tends to be a slightly older demographic. Participants are from around the world. I don’t know much else about where people are from.

    I see librarian professional use of SL as a way to explore and experiment with how library services in a virtual world will take place when this is used in a more widespread way. For example, all the kids in Webkinz and Club Penguin may in years to come expect services to be delivered on those or similar platforms.

    In the beginning I thought the librarians in Second Life weren’t going far enough, just recreating the same kind of structures and services we have in RL (real life) and not taking true advantage of the medium. It sounds like they have advanced, however.