In short, this book is all about the stuff that librarians do that most people don't think about, know about, or ponder. In particular, this book demonstrates the intersection between librarians (or information scientists) and technology.
Now you may remember that I did a short stint in an online Library Science program. I completed two courses, started a third, and then my life blew up (fiance, baby) and I dropped out of that third course. However, I was fortunate enough to learn much of what this book had to report in one of those initial classes that I did finish, and author Marilyn Johnson enhanced and enriched what I'd learned with personal stories of librarians and their technology.
Chapters in this book are varied and wonderful. In one chapter Johnson presents an online Masters program for students from struggling corners of the world. In essence, each of the students has to come in for a boot camp to learn how to use technology--how to exist and prosper in the online environment--when they may be fighting for freedom at home, struggling against famine, or helping their community survive the wrath of a hurricane or tsunami. Each of the students intends to take the knowledge they learn in their online Masters program and use it for humanitarian purposes. The struggles the students face are unimaginable. Example: One student learns to charge his laptop from his car battery because it's the only power source available.
Johnson inserts herself in her stories quite often as she observes the community of librarians at work. In the case of the online Masters degree, she attends the graduation ceremony and meets with the students and the librarians, observes classes, and sprinkles her facts with her commentary. Johnson stands in awe of the librarian women and men who undertake projects like these in the name of free flowing information.
Another especially effective chapter was over virtual reference--in particular, librarians in Second Life. I learned of virtual reference in my library classes and I find it totally fascinating. Basically, a growing number of libraries are providing reference service (answering any question under the sun) in the online environment. Some reference services are provided via text message while others use instant messaging services like Yahoo! Messenger or Moodle. I actually did a semester-long intership for a college in the western part of Texas as an online reference provider. Great fun and it could be quite a challenge at times.
In Johnson's book, these online reference librarians have taken the practice to a whole other level. By using Second Life software--an online virtual world filled with wacky places and avatars to represent users--librarians can virtually mingle and chat with patrons while drinking a digital cup or coffee, attending a virtual Alice in Wonderland tea party, or wearing a corsette and thigh-high lace up boots on their avatar. Some libraries and consortiums have built intricate communities around their reference service that attract readers, outsiders, crazies, and information lovers alike. By implementing virtual reference in Second Life they are disseminating information in new and weirdly wonderful ways.
I especially loved Johnson's stories about herself in the Second Life chapter. She had a heck of a time integrating herself into the virtual community, and she stands as a wonderful example of exactly how much good these virtual librarians can do! They helped her become comfortable in a community she really came to enjoy, and it was fun and educational to boot.
A final section that really intrigued me was about the workings of the New York Public Library. The most famous location in the NYPL system is the big lion-bedecked building on 5th Avenue. While it was once a research library it has now integrated a lending library into the mix to serve a larger number of patrons and bring in more traffic. This chapter was both exhilarating and sad since many of the former researchers and departments were dismantled or reintegrated into the system in the name of change. It was an interesting discussion of trends in the library world as well as the future of digitization. It also embodied the question: what good are librarians in the digital age? To answer that question briefly: they are absolutely integral.
Reading this book gives a new view of libraries and librarians. They are not just the keepers of the books anymore, but stand on the cutting edge of technology and fervently devote themselves to bringing those resources to the public in the name of free flowing information. What we all know is an admirable career becomes even more fascinating under Marilyn Johnson's pen.
I cannot recommend This Book is Overdue! heartily enough. Go lay your hands on it any way you can!
Watch for an upcoming post of great passages and cool resources I found (librarian blogs, etc.), thanks to the book.
FTC Disclosure: I got this book from the good people at Harper; I'm so glad I did!