She Checked It Out

Briarcliff author Marilyn Johnson gets the inside scoop on libraries and librarians.



The old stereotype of the librarian with the tight bun, horn-rimmed glasses, and finger pressed to her lips in the “shhh” position has been shattered. Now, you’re more likely to see librarians with tattoos, funky haircuts, and blogs that—rather than being meek and reserved—actually are quite loud-mouthed and opinionated. Marilyn Johnson, Briarcliff resident for the past 24 years, is one of the writers to shatter the fussy old preconception about librarians. Her book, This Book Is Overdue!, published in February, chronicles the work librarians do today, from getting the library plugged in to fighting the Patriot Act. We chatted with her in advance of her reading at Spoken Interludes at Chutney Masala on November 9. For more information, visit spokeninterludes.com.

Why did you choose to write your book about librarians?
One main reason is that I can’t think of someone whose profession has been turned on its head more than a librarian, with all the advances in technology. These people have mastered the structure of information, and now they’re being asked to cope with digital information. Another reason I needed to do a book about librarians is that I had a collection of obituaries about librarians. My last book was about obituaries, and I collected various kinds. As I was reading the librarian obituaries, I noticed that every one of them was spectacularly different from the next. There were people who were the heart and soul of community, people who put the card catalogue online, people who had an expertise in a subject that you’d think no one would know about. They were the quirkiest, most interesting, and most distinctly individual people. That’s the opposite of public opinion—we tend to mush librarians all together.

What are your favorite things about some of our local libraries?
The Ossining Library’s café is great, but it’s also a really wonderful place to go to just to read, if you can find a seat that has a view of the river. I go to the Chappaqua Library when I need something I can’t find anywhere else—and they have private rooms you can check out so you can work quietly without being interrupted. At the Mount Pleasant Library, they’re also incredibly friendly, and the computers are usually available. In White Plains, it’s a little bit harder to use the computers, but they also have beautiful quiet rooms and meeting rooms that you can check out. And I can’t forget Briarcliff. They’ve taken what was essentially a two-room library and turned it into this fabulous destination. It’s worth going there for the sheer atmosphere.

What are some details about other libraries you’ve seen that you wish we had in Westchester?
I’ve had some library envy. Midwestern libraries are thriving, when their budgets aren’t being cut. They have drive-through windows in some places. People are really trying to make it responsive to their communities. At Schaumburg Public Library in Illinois, anyone with a library card from anywhere in the U.S. can check out materials. They take the ‘public’ in their names very seriously.

How else are libraries being responsive to their communities?
There were libraries in Connecticut that helped a lot during the Nor’easter this past spring. Lots of homes lost electricity—we were basically sitting in the dark for multiple days. The libraries still had power, so they kept the doors open until eleven pm. They had a TV room, a homework room, and really opened it up as a public place for people who didn’t have electricity. I love that.

Can you remember a book that was recommended to you by a librarian that you wouldn’t have read otherwise that you absolutely loved?
In middle school, I volunteered in the library and the librarian recommended T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. I became obsessed with King Arthur’s court and read a shelf of books after that. Now, I like literary fiction most of all. I’ve had some wonderful recommendations in literary fiction but also wonderful recommendations in reading history as well. Westchester librarians just seem to know a ton about history and know all these great history books.

It seems like being a librarian is becoming a hip, young profession.
There are so many cool people who are out figuring out that this is a great place to be if you’re an adventurer or an explorer. It’s intellectual social work. You can make a difference in this field.

What makes an exceptional librarian?
Curiosity. An ability to remember things. An organized mindset—though they don’t have to necessarily be organized people. And they have to be outer-directed. They have to care about leaving out the breadcrumbs for somebody else to follow.

Is the Dewey Decimal system dead—is it all online now?
It’s not organized online. It’s really a mess. You type Buddhism in Google and you get 55 million hits. I want to know how people are supposed to deal with that. Kids only use the first two sources: Wikipedia and something just as unreliable. They miss all the stuff on page four, page two hundred, and page five hundred. The library is really organized. The Dewey Decimal System may be outdated and not like the Library of Congress, but you can find things that may be essential. With the Internet, they give you what’s popular—and that’s the opposite of what you usually need.

What is the biggest challenge to librarians?
Funding. I hear the President talk about trying to put the country back to work. I hear good people talk about the need to level the education playing field. None of them are mentioning libraries, which should be the centerpiece of any of those endeavors. The library is the great equalizer. There are so many self-motivated people in this country. They just need the resources.

What’s been the reaction to the book among librarians?
It’s been great. I have speaking dates already in 2012—I’m talking all fall, all spring. I’m going to speak to librarians. Even though I’m not a librarian and I don’t have an MLIS, they say to me, ‘No, you got it, and you’re good at explaining it.’

How have things changed in the library world since you published the book?
They’ve gotten much worse, much more quickly. When I started the book in 2007, it was happy times. The New York Public Library finally went to six days from the five-day contraction that had begun some time ago. And then I watched as funding dried up. I think that’s really where my real admiration for librarians was born. I already admired them for figuring out how to adapt computers to library science. Now I see librarians who are scrambling to make a case for their profession. The ones who are getting laid off are starting websites to save libraries.

Anything else people don’t know about librarians?
They’re funny. They make great copy.

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