Interview: Marilyn Johnson
Interview by Sasha Nyary, Dean’s Editorial Fellow
The world needs librarians, says Marilyn Johnson, author of This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All (HarperPerennial, 2011). Her book is an exploration of the world of information experts, and with its superhero librarian soaring across the
cover, a valentine to them, as well. Johnson began speaking to library groups months before her book was published in February 2010 to
critical and popular acclaim; it was recently issued in paperback with a new epilogue. She came to GSLIS West recently to talk about her love of librarians and why she wrote the book, and also to deliver her inspiring message: This is an exciting time to be a librarian. The world is run on computers, and millions of people across the digital divide are being behind left behind. We need librarians more than ever before.
A lot of people seem to think you're a librarian. Have you ever worked in a library?
I'm just a patron now. I worked as a page for 95 cents an hour when I was younger. It was about 1969. After a year I asked for a nickel an hour raise, and they consulted about it, and decided they couldn't give it to me. It was a matter of pride — I had to walk. Basically, I got drummed out of libraries. I don't think I could have passed cataloging, anyway.
Your book doesn't get too technical about cataloging.
I interviewed people who had the inside scoop on cataloging. I followed the controversy with the working group on the Future of Bibliographic Control and the never-ending fights over the Library of Congress subject headings. And I
finally threw up my hands and said, I cannot both understand this and make it interesting.
What is your background, then?
I have a master's in poetry writing from the University of New Hampshire, which has, by the way, a very nice library. I was the only one from my class who didn't get a teaching job, so I was available when we got a call from Esquire that the fiction editor was looking for an assistant. I went on a lark — thought I'd stay the summer — and I stayed five years. I edited fiction and nonfiction, and then I went sideways to be a senior editor at Redbook and rather quickly moved on to Outside. When my boyfriend got a job at Sports Illustrated, we got married and I started bearing children and freelancing, mostly at Life magazine.
Which is where you and I met, when I was a reporter and editor. I
remember you as a workhorse.
Thank you. I wrote anything. I did everything. I wrote essays, I wrote profiles, I wrote obits. I wrote the Diana piece that ran after she died. I wrote the fifth-year anniversary tribute to Jackie. I wrote a salute to Elvis. I loved that. Mainly, everybody else would get to go to, like, basecamp on Mount Everest. I would go to Gainesville and talk to Marilyn Monroe's sister. I was good at mourning, good at the tone poems — well, I'm a poet — that Life liked to run. I did a lot of deep captions. I understood who the readers of Life were; I was from the Midwest. Life was perfect for me.
You wrote a lot of obits, and your first book was The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasure of Obituaries, about obituary writers. How did that come about?
I had this perfect ability to find somebody who was just about to die. I'd write the tribute, I'd work hard and make 'em sing — and then my subject would miraculously recover. Katherine Hepburn, Marlon Brando. . . . And I wrote a funny piece about that and it appeared in a local newspaper. And someone said, you should write a book about this.
People would laugh at me when I told them what I was doing, and finally, at a certain point, I started saying, I'd rather not tell you what I'm writing. I knew it was a great subject but I had no hope it would be anything but an odd little book. And then it did well. It was a sleeper hit. It was on a number of best-seller lists and it won some awards.
And how did you come to write This Book is Overdue?
I kept coming across all these interesting obits about librarians. And then I was standing in front of my local reference desk and I said, "I don't
understand how to save stuff anymore, how do I save the article on this website?" My librarian showed me how to make a screenshot — and she
changed my life. You don't appreciate what it's like to be an adult and not understand how to use your phone. The whole world opened up. That's all we need: someone to show us. The technological changes, the role that the library can play in our technological adaptation is tremendous. What do you think, that we're all born knowing how to use these devices?
At the last magazine I worked at, I showed the top editor how to email a link from a website. She had been cutting and pasting the URL. It rocked her world.
That's the moment you became a librarian. That is what a librarian does.
So I said, "I want to do a book about librarians; that would be so great." My editor said, "Write a proposal." My agent, my editor, they're all like, "You didn't mention Google! How can you write a book about libraries and not mention Google? Google is going to replace them all!" And when I turned the book in, they kept giving it back, saying, "This Second Life stuff is too crazy." I said, "I will
have a character named Hypatia Dejavu in my library book.
And what have you learned?
One thing is clear to me: I understand why cataloging is so difficult. When you're trying to create the paths to discovery, you have to think of all the paths, because if someone doesn't ask the right things, the item is invisible. I try to find something in my files on Zotero or gmail and I think, "Did I put this in travel? Is it in receipts? Did I file it under libraries?" I am frighteningly inconsistent and frighteningly limited when I go to shake Google.
And I'm sensitive to that because I write uncategorizable books. I dare you to try to find either of my books at Barnes & Noble. The library puts it in reference. I think it should be wherever Studs Terkel's Working is, but that's just one place my book should be. And the obits book should go with books about the newspaper business, because basically it's an obit for newspapers. I had that
great quote from one obit writer, "I am burying my readers."
I'm having arguments with my publisher about my next book. I can't say what the topic is yet, but I've conceived of these as a trilogy, that these three books are about the same thing, only different. They are all about people who are engaged in mostly hopeless tasks to preserve our cultural memory in a society that can't possibly preserve everything — a record of every person who died, a marker for every item read or listened to.
And they were all wrong, right? Overdue did pretty well, right?
It sold 30,000 in hard cover. That's pretty good, right? It has exactly one dramatic scene, where librarians teach some missionaries how to use a reference tool. That's not a book that's designed to fly off the shelves. I thought it was going to get killed, actually.
One of the things I love about you is how much you love librarians.
You know, computers are these potentially meaningful little agents of upheaval. And here we have these ramrod-straight, lawabiding, privacy-loving, curious, intelligent, highly-trained people — could you find a better profession to be a safeguard of our computers? Is this not a brilliant way to remain relevant?
What's the reaction of the library world?
I got scolded early on, "We're not the ones who need to be talked to," but I think plenty of librarians could use that jolt of confidence and vision. How can you not be completely discouraged by the horrible stuff librarians are getting, with all these budget cuts and staff cuts? Let's put all of our federal business on the computer — you can't file taxes, you can't file for unemployment without a computer. What do they think? Where are people going to go? Do you think Best Buy is going to teach them how to use their smart phone? The beast at the DMV will show you how to move from screen to screen? Plus, all the
problems that don't get addressed by the government end up at the libraries' door. The IRS doesn't send paper forms anymore.
An interesting criticism the book has gotten is, "It would have been great if she hadn't been in it." But I was completely ignorant when I started this book. I couldn't send a group email; I could not bcc a message. My story is part of it. I said, "I'm going to put myself in the hands of the librarians and see if they can help me." This was also for my parents, who like me are watching the world
get increasingly technically sophisticated while we fall farther and farther behind. It is hard to be an ignorant adult in this society.
It seems to come down to class in a lot of ways.
There's a surprising lack of support for public libraries, and some of that comes from educated middle class people who have bought their way out of needing to use these resources. They're wired where they work; they can walk into the Apple store with their credit card or call up Dell; they can buy their own books. They've insulated themselves and they don't understand that we all need libraries, whether you personally use them or not.
How can the president talk about economic recovery without mentioning libraries? How can people compete in the world without tools? Do you think community colleges are going to wire our seniors and walk the jobless through their online applications? We all need to be educated! And being spit out of the magazine business put me in the ranks of "other." I couldn't
afford a private office — of course I went to the library. Where else was I going to go? Starbucks? There has been a rash of pieces about the coffee-house culture. That is a class thing. . . . the place for people with their own computers and $4 to blow on a latte.
A last message to librarians?
Librarians are too damn nice. Politics is not about the just cause. You've got to play hardball, throw some elbows, make some noise, elect candidates who care about libraries. Libraries are all that some of us have. We need you now. Who else can we trust?