In the digital age, librarians are pioneers

By Judy Bolton-Fasman
February 10, 2010

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From the outset of “This Book Is Overdue,’’ Marilyn Johnson introduces today’s librarians as cybrarians, a “new breed of tech-savvy librarians, part cyborg, part cat’s eye reading glasses.’’ As Johnson amply shows in her romp through the brave new world of the profession, these new librarians cum information scientists are building on the work of their pioneering predecessors as they branch out in sometimes surprising directions.

A librarian, the late Henriette Avram, gave Johnson her motivation for writing “Overdue.’’ Johnson, who is also the author of “The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries,’’ came across Avram’s obituary and learned about the storied transformation of millions of dog-eared catalog cards in the Library of Congress into a searchable electronic database in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Avram’s MARC project - Machine Readable Cataloging - quickly guided librarianship into the shiny new field of information science.

Among information professionals, Johnson notes there are librarians and archivists: “Librarians were finders [of information]. Archivists were keepers.’’ But the information revolution is affecting both. She affectionately portrays archivists as magicians that deftly distinguish between detritus and artifact, capturing history before it disappears because of a broken link or outdated software. For Johnson, archivists are the unsung heroes of the library, cataloging idiosyncratic, often paper-based collections. The digital age is making possible the creation of searchable databases of archives, but it’s also making information, especially on the Internet, more ephemeral and harder to collect.

On the art of cataloging Johnson reflects, “Who knows how many people are invisible because their stories don’t fit into our categories?’’ Here is an area in which the digital revolution offers help. Some of the invisible are brought to our attention by a group of sharp, blogging librarians who are not the stereotypical shushing, cardigan-wearing guardians of the reference room. Johnson introduces these ultramodern librarians as “open, casual, approachable, dedicated to demystifying technology and networked to the eyeballs . . . the public face of the twenty-first century librarian.’’

This new world of librarianship has also given rise to rogue librarians who personify the simplest yet most radical change in the profession: librarians who have left the building. They were first dubbed “Street Librarians’’ at the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Armed with iPhones, they brought their information-gathering skills to the street, dispensing politically neutral information to visitors that included everything from breaking news to traffic reports.

The Street Librarians were inspired by Radical Reference, a national group serving ad hoc populations in cities including New York, Los Angeles, and Boston.

Radical Reference’s activism is rooted in the idea that “information justice is a human rights issue; the public library must remain ‘the people’s university’ . . . and librarians can get involved and shape the future or they can sit back and watch the changes.’’ E.J. Josey, a professional librarian and co-editor of “The Handbook of Black Librarianship,’’ wrote those prescient words in 1964 to American Library Association officials who attended state library associations that still practiced segregation. Two decades later, Josey became the ALA’s second African-American president.

Johnson writes that in a world where technology moves life at a breathtaking pace, “where information itself is a free-for-all, with traditional news sources going bankrupt and publishers in trouble, we need librarians more than ever’’ to help point the way to the best, most reliable sources.

She poignantly illustrates her point with an anecdote from author and bibliophile Nicholas Basbanes, whose search for a 1914 edition of “A Descriptive Catalogue of the Pepys Diary’’ brought him to the Boston Athenaeum Research Library.

“You wonder who they bought these books for anyway?’’ Basbanes mused to the librarian.

Delighting the writer with the obvious, the librarian answered, “We got them for you, Mr. Basbanes.’’

Judy Bolton-Fasman is a columnist for The Jewish Advocate.

THIS BOOK IS OVERDUE: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All By Marilyn Johnson

Harper, 272 pp., $24.99