Forget the clichés about cat-eye glasses, buns, and the dread word “Sssh!” Marilyn Johnson’s This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All (Harper, 2010) is a hymn of praise to the endlessly helpful men and women who staff circulation desks, answering questions, guarding civil liberties, and checking out free DVDs. Her timing could not have been better. “People are blithely walking around asking if library service can be cut to the bone, seeing it as something frivolous,” the author maintains. “It’s really nice to be out there saying, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Johnson asserts that libraries are more essential than ever in an information-soaked Internet age. While college students who used to hole up in the stacks may now turn to Google, there’s no substitute for trained hunter-gatherers. Librarians, Johnson says, are “civil servants whose job is to be nice to people and help them find what they need.”
They’re also a human safety net, catching the cuts in a battered economy. “There are not enough people to service needy populations, like people whose English is not very good, applying for unemployment benefits for the first time,” Johnson explains. “Where do all these problems go? They go to the library. If you cut this out, you’re putting people on the street who have no access to computers, who can’t penetrate the bureaucracy, who need help filling out basic forms—not to mention a warm place to sit. I just really don’t see it as an optional service at all. A library is staffed with professionals who are committed to serve everyone. Everyone.”
This commitment is exemplified by the missionary librarians Johnson meets in Rome, training developing-world colleagues to research social justice issues online, and by the Radical Reference Librarians who took to the streets during the 2008 Republican Convention to provide protesters with WiFi updates. She also interviews “writers’ librarian” David Smith at the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street mother ship during a sea change (“farewell, Persian-language librarian; good-bye, Baltic specialists”) and profiles the heroic Connecticut Four, who sued the government to protect their constituents’ library records from surveillance under the US Patriot Act.
“Librarians are incredible defenders of privacy,” Johnson says. “Can you think of a better profession to be in charge of our computers? When these National Security Letters go out—and they are still going out, make no mistake—the recipients are prohibited from bringing anyone else into it. What was so brilliant about the Connecticut Four is that they were prepared.” As soon as the Patriot Act was announced, the librarians established a chain of command in which no employee could hand over records without going through the head of their consortium, George Christian. During the anonymous “John Doe” suit, the National Security Letter gag order forced him to lie under oath. “How crazy is that?” Johnson asks. “To this day, I think you should read that chapter next to 1984.”
She calls the lawsuit “a cloak-and-dagger story with unlikely protagonists. If you met these people, nothing about them stands out. It’s that quiet fire you get with librarians, the poker face when people stand in front of them stinking and asking crazy questions. When you can get them to tell you a story like that, it’s stunning. They’re so much more comfortable as the guides on the side than the sage on the stage.”
There are more flamboyant librarians, like the ones who perform intricately choreographed book cart drills at American Library Association conventions, or catalogue punk zines, create virtual avatars, and blog on such websites as Awful Library Books and The Society for Librarians Who Say Motherfucker. “I get enthralled by those on the quirky end of things,” Johnson admits. Her readers learn that the American Kennel Club has an extensive dog library, and that the Museum of Sex has a trained librarian cataloguing its porno collection; who knew?
Once she lifted up the “plain brown librarian wrapper” to look underneath, Johnson remembers thinking, “Where are the anthropologists? These creatures are fascinating.”
Those words could be the rallying cry for all literary nonfiction, but Johnson didn’t start out in that field. After attending Oberlin College and the University of Pennsylvania, she studied poetry with Charles Simic at the University of New Hampshire, missing her MFA graduation when she was hired as an assistant by legendary Esquire fiction editor Rust Hills. As Johnson recalls, she and her classmates were celebrating at Simic’s house—”I think we did some damage to his wine cellar”—when the poet mentioned that he’d been invited to recommend a graduate for the position at Esquire. “Everyone else had a job except me,” Johnson laughs. “I was the default candidate.”