Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Outspoken Interviews: Marilyn Johnson

I hope you'll take a few minutes to read through this chatty Q&A with Marilyn Johnson, champion to librarians everywhere and super-author of This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All. It's a great, noteworthy book, and Marilyn Johnson offers some wonderful insights.

Andi: You introduce a slew—a cornucopia—of great librarians in this book. I thoroughly enjoyed each and every chapter. Were there any nuggets of information you found interesting or librarians you found fascinating but had to leave out in the editing process? Can you tell us about any of them?

Marilyn: Goodness, yes. I wish I could have written about some of the great libraries in the Midwest -- Topeka and Shawnee County, or the Schaumberg (Ill.) system, or one of the award-winning libraries in Ohio. Stephanie Sarnoff, who heads Schaumberg, pointed out that the Midwest libraries have embraced the culture of convenience in a way that puts the East to shame. In Schaumberg, you could check out material with a card from any library in the country; you could check out a librarian for an hour; you could pick up books and DVDs at the drive-through window.

I'm sorry I couldn't figure out a way to report more of my conversations with Joe Sanchez, who now teaches at Rutgers; he has a great grasp of digital media and its possibilities, and a wonderful imagination. He also told me to go to SXSW, where so many things happen first.

And I'm sorry I had to limit the book to American librarians, because I had two wonderful sources in the U.K., Rory McLeod and Sheila Webber, who spent many hours sharing their work…. those are just for starters. Actually, I could have written another whole book or two.

Andi: Did you read or do preliminary research to prepare to write this book before you started meeting and interacting with librarians in person? Are there other librarian-loving books you can recommend? Bookish people need to know these things.

Marilyn: I read Revolting Librarians from 1972 and Revolting Librarians Redux from 2003. I read Quiet Please: dispatches from a public librarian. The Time Traveler's Wife. The title story in Alice Munro's collection Carried Away. Ian Sansome's bookmobile novels were fun. Mainly, though, I read online. Blogs written by librarians were a rich source of information and attitudes, and an introduction to a cast of characters who proved to be excellent and articulate librarians and technical adventurers. I got my RSS feed going and began to follow some of these people; I got on a couple listservs; I read Library Journal and its blogs, American Libraries, Resource Shelf, LIS News. I'm hooked now.

Andi: One of the parts I love most about This Book is Overdue! is that you involve yourself in the stories. For anyone who hasn’t read: you not only chronicle the work of the librarians but you include your discovery process as you meet and interact with them (in person and virtually). I personally have a hard time believing in pure objectivity in any arena and giggle when an author claims to be totally objective. You personalized the librarians and the changes in the library and information science field by including yourself. How did you make the choice to write the book this way? Was it a conscious choice or is it a style of writing you feel most comfortable with?

Marilyn: I can write in the remote, objective voice, but it's not as much fun. First person can be tricky, but because this was essentially a book about librarians using, modeling, and teaching technology and I was a person who was almost completely clueless technologically, I thought it might add an extra dimension: you could read about these librarians, and you could also see them in action, bringing someone up to speed. I had a challenge in trying to write for people of variable technological sophistication. I wrote about my own experiences as a way to reach those who knew nothing about that stuff and as a way to be useful (I hope) to those who knew way more than I did: here is what it feels like to try to figure out cataloging migrations from the outside, or e-rates, or virtual reality. Mainly, though, I wrote in the first person because it was funnier.

Andi: One of the most fascinating sections of the book, to me, was the portion about librarians in online environments like Second Life. Personally, when I was in library school and first heard about this phenomenon, my computer and I both crashed and burned after touring Second Life for just a little while, and I know you struggled with it in the beginning as well. You’re a presence on Twitter and you have a website, but immersive environments like Second Life seem so much more ‘extreme’ somehow than regular social media. Do you think immersive online environments like Second Life can be sustained for information sharing purposes? Could they be as beneficial to writers as they’ve been to librarians or is it too impractical? And just for fun: Do you ever visit Second Life now that the book is done?

Marilyn: Second Life is being used very successfully by LIS students, especially those in distance programs, but is it too challenging to be of practical use? I don't know. I see people who lose themselves in World of Warcraft or Call of Duty, or get obsessed with online poker or geocaching. These things require skill and time, but people manage. It doesn't seem so challenging when it's fun.

I do visit Second Life, but not nearly as often, and mainly to make presentations or (sadly) go to memorial services. My wonderful source Daisyblue Hefferman died recently, and she is responsible for some of the trippiest experiences I had there: walking into the world of Fahrenheit 451, waltzing with Abraham Lincoln.

Andi: I’m an English professor teaching mostly college writing courses, and one of my favorite sayings in class is, “The librarian is like a ninja.” Meaning of course that our librarian has near-super powers in her ability to hunt down information the students might never find on their own and wrangle it for all its worth. Her knowledge and ability to traverse the online and print world is staggering. I would love for you to make your own analogy.

A librarian is like a __________.

Marilyn: Oh, ninja is good!

A librarian is like a consultant, only affordable.

A librarian is like a power tool.

A librarian is like a secret weapon! I do think librarians are like detectives or intelligence operatives-- a little Miss Marple, a little 007.
I also asked Marilyn if she would mind providing names and addresses for blogs she found particularly informative or inspiring. As she notes, you can find many of these linked on the This Book is Overdue! website listed below: 
Marilyn says: There are so many others I love....many referenced on the blogroll page of the website http://www.thisbookisoverdue.com/, but the new blog I'm following is written by David Ferriero. I wrote about him when he was running NYPL's libraries; now he's Archivist of the U.S. and blogging as AOTUS: Collector in Chief: blogs.archives.gov/aotus/

Not to be missed.
Don't forget to visit:
Thanks so much to Marilyn Johnson! It was a thrill and a pleasure to work with you. 

*Note: the photographs of Marilyn Johnson in this and my previous post were taken by Jennifer May.

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