Book Review: Librarians as Modern Superheroes

In This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, Marilyn Johnson guides us through a world that few library patrons have probably thought about: the progressive, activist, cutting-edge, modern, hip, and exciting side of libraries and librarians.

Johnson easily convinces us that librarians do much more than shelve books, and provide more than just a place for the public to access information for free (as if that weren’t a noble enough cause!). She shows the range of other roles that librarians play in society. Some library professionals double as “street librarians” who volunteer to supply information to activists during protests. Others have staunchly defended civil liberties, keeping their community members’ confidential information private, even in the face of government mandates. And there’s even a whole chapter about reference librarian avatars in Second Life, and how the virtual world became a safe space to connect people with information on sensitive topics such as transgender identity.

This Book Is Overdue! demonstrates that librarians not only have to keep up with technology and other trends, but are often active agents of change as well. Johnson introduces us to a fellowship program in which leaders from all around the world gather in Rome to learn techniques from librarians on how to access, organize, and share information—skills that they’ll bring home to empower the underserved communities that they work with. In another chapter, she highlights archivists as benevolent preservationists of things that might otherwise get lost forever, from ever-changing online material, to obscure zines, to finicky electronic documents, to artifacts that get tossed to the curb.

The book provides a fun overview of the unexpected roles librarians play, as well as the quirky culture that arises out of their profession. But it doesn’t quite serve as a cohesive or critical piece. Readers may be left wondering about the actual impact of all of this noble work, because Johnson stops short of examining it.

Johnson’s book comes at a crucial time. It’s a good reminder of the services we’re losing as libraries face dramatic budget cuts; maybe it will give readers that extra push they need to decide to donate to their local library system. It also demonstrates that library services are not becoming unnecessary with the rise of the web; in fact, they’re becoming even more useful and accessible.

If you want more juicy details, borrow the book from your local library, or buy it from Amazon using this link (a royalty will be paid that helps support As you read through the fascinating anecdotes, don’t be surprised if you find yourself daydreaming about getting a graduate degree in information sciences. If you’re serious about it, you can even talk to admissions representatives from these programs at some of our Graduate Degree Fairs.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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