Book review: Marilyn Johnson, This Book Is Overdue!

I really enjoyed reading Marilyn Johnson’s This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All. If anyone is in doubt about the digital role librarians can, and already do, play in the 21st century I’d recommend a read.

Johnson doesn’t draw any earth-shattering conclusions from her foray into the world of cybrarians (not sure I like that word btw, sounds a bit like a Marvel villain), but her thorough study highlights a lot of the pros, and the pitfalls, of moving libraries of all shapes and sizes into the digital world.

I came away with a really positive attitude, fired up to explore all the applications I’d learned about; it’s kind of career-affirming, at a time when it seems our industry is being battered from all sides.

Marilyn Johnson, Brewster Kahle and the risks of leaping into digital with both feet

I’ve been out of the loop for a couple of weeks, camping in the not-quite-wilds of Northumberland. It’s strange being so disconnected from the web (I didn’t even have mobile reception for a lot of the time); it’s made me realise how much I rely on the internet to stay connected, to people, to the news, to the industry.

Having time away also meant I finished reading This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians And Cybrarians Can Save Us All, by Marilyn Johnson. So even though I had two weeks internet-free, I spent it reading about digital librarians!

Marilyn Johnson’s book, which I’ll review separately, takes on new meaning in light of Seth Godin’s article The future of the library (and apologies if the debate has moved on while I’ve been away!).

Godin’s central argument was that fusty old librarians need to ditch the paper and move into the digital sphere. Johnson’s book provides ample evidence that librarians have been working online for decades (OCLC, the Online Computer Library Center, was founded in 1967, when the web was a mere twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye).

It also raises the risk of libraries leaping into digital without considering the ramifications for non-digitised, specialised collections, which can have funding and space cut, or be lost entirely.

A similar issue was raised this week by Brewster Kahle on the Internet Archive blog:

A reason to preserve the physical book that has been digitized is that it is the authentic and original version that can be used as a reference in the future. If there is ever a controversy about  the digital version, the original can be examined. A seed bank such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is seen as an authoritative and safe version of crops we are growing. Saving physical copies of digitized books might at least be seen in a similar light as an authoritative and safe copy that may be called upon in the future.

I was involved with digitising the Guardian and Observer a few years ago, creating a fantastic online resource of newspaper articles dating back to 1791 that would otherwise not be widely accessible. But we would never have considered scrapping the bound originals, or even the microfilm copies, once digitisation was complete.

Digitising books and library collections is an important step forward, but until a system is designed that is 100% reliable, not open to corruption or human error, and with a long-term shelf life, it would be madness to do away with paper collections altogether.  

Articles: Seth Godin, The future of the library

Seth Godin’s article The future of the library, based on a talk he gave recently (there’s a good summary of the talk on Nancy Dowd’s blog), has sparked an interesting debate. It’s always a little galling when a non-librarian tries to tell information professionals how to do their jobs. I’d overlook that if the arguments were sound, but in this case they’re not.

Godin opens with an apt description of a librarian (although we could all add to it, as Bobbi Newman points out):

The librarian isn’t a clerk who happens to work at a library. A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the article reinforces Godin’s belief in the stereotype of librarian as clerk, declaring that films are “a mere sideline that most librarians resented anyway”, exhorting us to stop “defending library as warehouse”, and arguing that “what we don’t need are mere clerks who guard dead paper” – absolutely right Mr. Godin, but then this ceased to define a librarian many, many moons ago.

The thrust of Godin’s argument is that while librarians can still play a key role in a digital future, libraries themselves are a thing of the past. Why go to a physical library when you can access all the information you need through a computer screen? Why borrow a book, or a DVD, when you can get them cheaply online?

They need a librarian more than ever (to figure out creative ways to find and use data). They need a library not at all.

As Phil Bradley and Bobbi Newman point out in their blog responses, this is an incredibly simplistic, unrealistic view of the situation as it currently stands. Not everyone can use a computer. Not everyone who can knows where to look for the information they need. And not every source of information on the web is reliable (Wikipedia is the only resource named, and we all know how unreliable that is). To say nothing of the stripped-down budgets public libraries are currently dealing with.

Godin bases his argument on a totally outdated library model; he overlooks, for example, the fact that the vast majority of libraries already subscribe to online reference databases, and that most librarians already work with digital as well as paper resources.

Yes, we should be “fighting for the future, which is librarian as producer, concierge, connector, teacher and impresario.”

 Yes, “the library ought to be the local nerve center for information.”

But that nerve centre must include online and offline resources, or we risk alienating and disenfranchising a chunk of the population who aren’t web- and tech-savvy, or can’t afford to be.

Further reading:

News: Neil Gaiman hearts libraries

I’ve been away for a few weeks, sunning myself in Cyprus, so I’ve got a lot of library news to catch up on.

First up, one of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman, has won the CILIP Carnegie medal for The Graveyard Book. American Gods is one of my favourite books; comic book geek and American Studies alumnus that I am, how could I not love him? But he also writes spectacularly good children’s books (Stardust and Coraline among them). I can’t wait until my son is old enough to delve into the worlds he creates.

At the awards ceremony, Gaiman took the opportunity to rail against planned library cuts, saying:

“In this austerity world it’s incredibly easy if you are a local authority and you are looking for cuts, to say ‘Let’s cut libraries’. But that’s borrowing from the future.

“We’re now in an age of ‘too much information’. Libraries and librarians are more important than ever. Children want stories. They want information. They want knowledge about the strange world they’re in. Saying that the internet can be that is like setting a child free in a jungle and expecting them safely to find things to eat.”