A spirited exploration of libraries’ evolution from fusty brick-and-mortar institutions to fluid virtual environments.
Former Redbook and Outside editor Johnson (The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, 2006) writes that a librarian attempts to create “order out of the confusion of the past, even as she enables us to blast into the future.” General readers will be surprised by most of her tidbits of information—e.g., about a third of all the profession’s U.S. graduate programs have dropped the word “library” from degree names, preferring cutting-edge locutions such as “information science.” Johnson provides worthwhile profiles of a variety of librarians/archivists, including a Catholic “cyber-missionary” who trains students from developing nations to fight injustice at home using the Internet; an archivist of boxing; and a children’s librarian known to her Facebook group as the “Tattooed Librarian.” These professionals stay ahead of trends, challenge the FBI for using the Patriot Act as a pretext to examine patron records, battle vigorously in the blogosphere and indulge their creativity and fantasies through digital avatars on sites such as Second Life. In her admirable desire to discard the Marian-the-Librarian stereotype, however, Johnson seems bent on creating another: the librarian as ironic, radical, sexy and, above all, edgy. Business and financial librarians, for instance, while every bit as tech-savvy as the public and academic librarians she profiles, are nowhere in evidence, perhaps because they are not engaged in “increasingly activist and visionary forms of library work.” For those curious about how librarians are coping amid budget crunches, Johnson gives insufficient attention to how well they are convincing taxpayers and lawmakers who mistakenly believe that users armed with Internet access don’t need gatekeepers to find information.
In a time of unprecedented challenges, librarians will be delighted that someone values, even celebrates, their continued relevancy—but they may wish for a journalist who assesses their contributions with more cool than cheerleading.