Librarians - and libraries - could be the antidotes to keep all of this information from making us sick.
It took me half the book to grasp the real meaning of Marilyn Johnson's title, "This Book Is Overdue!" It's not a wry play on a librarian's scold, but a statement of fact: This book should have been written long ago. Its subtitle, "How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All," indicates why it's being published now, cybrarian being a "too new for Webster's" word, but one that's been on the Internet for years.
Johnson, a longtime magazine writer, became interested in librarians while writing "The Dead Beat," her book about obituary writers. Librarians often had fascinating obituaries, one reason being that they're overseeing the great shift in information storage from books to cyberspace. Johnson wondered what it's like to be a librarian in a world of too much information, yet a world where mouse-click accessibility also calls into question the need for librarians.
Librarians have a champion in Johnson, yet her clear bias takes nothing away from the book, partly because she builds a solid case for their existence. While almost anyone can Google almost anything, we're vulnerable to a sort of "information sickness" that Johnson describes as not knowing where one piece of information leaves off and the next begins. "I was, in other words, overstimulated yet gluttonous for more."
This is where librarians are our best allies, and Johnson thankfully adopts a "show, don't tell" approach. She takes us behind the reference desk to witness the shift to an online digital catalog (not a pretty sight); introduces us to the often cynical world of librarians who blog (InfoFetishist, Obnoxious Librarian from Hades); reveals the heretofore unimagined challenge of poop in the library (really!), and interviews the "Street Librarians" at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul who decided that, as masters of reference material, they could be of some service, whether to protesters or politicians.
This concept of service is the key to Johnson's take on librarians. Librarians love to serve, help, inform, direct, solve. In a world with more information available than ever before, she argues that we're crazy not to take advantage of such assistance. All of this independent searching, the nose-to-screen existence, is not only inefficient, but it's not any fun. Yahoo doesn't light up with a smile when we log in, but a familiar librarian will.
All of which presumes there's a library for a librarian to smile in. Johnson concludes her quick-read of a book by visiting the grand opening of a library in Darien, Conn. There were touchscreens, a cafe, lounge chairs, community rooms -- but all Johnson really needed was a book. "Not a manual: something with a narrative. A chute built by a writer and waxed until the reader fell into it and skittered right to the end without stopping. The relief of being in someone else's hands. Yes, exactly: I needed to be under a spell."
Is this book overdue? Yes, but perhaps it's still in the nick of time.
Kim Ode is a feature writer at the Star Tribune.