Saturday, April 17, 2010

Marilyn Johnson

The undisputed queen of the Florida Library Association annual conference and libraries everywhere is Marilyn Johnson. Johnson is the author of This Book is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save us All, and a librarian advocate. That's librarian, not library.

If you watch the news, you know there are plenty of people out there fighting to keep their libraries open in this age of budget shortfalls. State legislators are inundated with letters and have to pass picket lines to argue the budget. But in all those discussions, the librarians themselves may be on the picket line, but they are rarely discussed.

I met up with Marilyn at FLA, where she gave a hilarious presentation, complete with a PowerPoint presentation, to a packed house. I got to spend some one on one time with her as well, and had a great time getting to know this champion of librarians.

I was curious about her; why this fascination with librarians? When she was in high school, Marilyn told me she worked as a page at the library for $.95/hour. After her first year, she asked for a nickel raise and was turned down, so she quit. That was the end of her library career, but really just the beginning of her great love affair with libraries.

Marilyn is a journalist, and one of her jobs was writing obituaries, which led to a book, Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. But something curious happened in the writing of that book; Marilyn noticed that the obituaries she found most fascinating were not those of famous celebrities, but those of librarians. That fascination led her to her new book, an homage to librarians of the past, present and future.

This Book is Overdue covers librarians from "Frederick Kilgour, the first to link libraries' computer catalogs to one another back in the late sixties" to George Christian & Janet Nocek, the Connecticut librarians who sued the federal government as John Doe over the Patriot Act, to the virtual librarians of Second Life and all the blogging librarians, too. Johnson celebrates these librarians as heroes of the information age in an always interesting and often humorous way.

According to Johnson, librarians are "sensitive to patrons and reward innovation." They don't sell people out and they keep secrets. In her research, Johnson found street librarians who literally worked the streets during the demonstrations at the Republican National Convention in New York City, armed with smartphones, lists of phone numbers for legal aid and such, and the locations of public restrooms. She found missionary librarians, who not only provided students from developing countries with laptops but taught them how to use them well enough for the students to take online college classes.

Johnson readily admits to having not much of a grasp of MARC catalog records, was forced to use the word "cybrarian" for lack of anything better for her computer powered librarians, and that she really had to address stereotypical librarian fashion sense as gracefully as possible. When one librarian complained about the cover of the book, specifically the librarian superhero's "sensible shoes", Johnson grabbed her marker and turned them into stilettos!

Johnson was also very excited and proud to tell me about the American Library Association's ALTAFF, the Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends and Foundations. While enjoying their programs at the annual conference, Marilyn wanted to join the library advocacy group. But when she looked at the application, she wasn't sure which box to check. Was she an advocate? A friend? What? So she called ALA and they decided to add another box for authors. Marilyn feels that writers are an endangered species, and libraries keep them alive, and now writers can support the ALA.

I really enjoyed chatting with Marilyn, and I loved reading her book. It's warm, witty, and wise, just like many of the librarians portrayed within. As a library school student on my way to becoming a librarian, I found it inspiring.

Thanks, Marilyn, for being a cheerleader for a profession that is grossly underpaid, often misunderstood, and rarely appreciated. Librarians everywhere should applaud you; you did us proud!

No comments:

Search This Blog