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.