BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marilyn Johnson claims that even in the age of Google and smart phones, certain human beings, namely, librarians, can still get you better answers to your questions. In her new book, called This Book is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, she argues that the age of Google is also the age of information overload and the digital divide, so libraries are more important now than they've ever been. The librarians in Johnson’s book are a far cry from the buttoned-up, bespectacled stereotype. Rather, they're on the forefront of technological change. They bravely face down the government, and they know their way around a dance floor. Most important, says Johnson, librarians not only provide patrons with accurate answers but, unlike search engine algorithms, they help people arrive at the right questions. For example:
MARILYN JOHNSON: It was a real patron who showed up at the desk, saying, I need some help finding information about “booty-ism.” A series of questions later, it turned out it was not about dancing with an emphasis on a certain part of the body. It was about [LAUGHS] the religion Buddhism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The librarian didn't bat an eye when asked to look up “booty-ism.”
MARILYN JOHNSON: She would have happily looked up “booty-ism” [BROOKE LAUGHS] if that had been the true quest. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A central thesis of your book is that librarians are frequently better than computers to get you the answer that you want. This kind of reminds me of the old emblem of the industrial age where the horse is trying, and failing, to outrun the locomotive. Explain to me how librarians manage to outrun the locomotive.
MARILYN JOHNSON: Librarians know a whole lot more than we do about how information is structured, and they know ways to get around the Google algorithm that throws up all this repetitive information, some of it bad, and they know how to assess it. They have access to fabulous databases, and they know about resources that are in a kind of gray area that we don't have access to on our computer. It’s an illusion that everything is there, digitized, at our fingertips. That’s so not true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How are libraries doing now? We do know that as localities cut their budgets, library hours are getting reduced. Are the numbers of patrons being reduced?
MARILYN JOHNSON: More and more people are not only using the library, they need the services of a librarian to help, help them weave their way through the bureaucracy, to help them figure out how to get food stamps, how to get help searching for jobs. More and more students are turning to the libraries, as more and more school libraries are shutting their door and letting the librarians go. And yet, we're cutting them drastically. It is really a tragedy that the economic stimulus package doesn't put more money into libraries because, you know, librarians are really economical. They are not expensive resources, and they are helping put this country back to work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We've talked on this program about the Patriot Act. The FBI claimed the right to come in and search patron records, and there was an anonymous case brought by Connecticut librarians. Can you tell me where it stands now? Are librarians still battling to protect the patrons’ privacy?
MARILYN JOHNSON: Where it stands now is exactly where it stood when this case came up. The FBI still has the right, under the Patriot Act and all of its revisions, to request patrons’ information from libraries, and the librarians are not permitted to reveal that they are being asked about this. The story of the Connecticut librarians trying to defend their patrons from what they viewed as a violation of their constitutional rights is the stuff of thrillers. They had to sue the Attorney General of the United States. They could not tell their spouses. They could not tell their children. They could not tell their library boards that, in fact, they were suing the Attorney General of the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They lost.
MARILYN JOHNSON: They lost. The case was dropped. But they won in the sense that they were able to talk about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So while you sing the praises of librarians, you also detail some of the, the wacky behavior that some of them have. You encountered some sort of amazing dance done with library carts.
MARILYN JOHNSON: Groups of librarians from various libraries across the country, actually, around the world, they get together and they perform a sort of music video with library book carts as the centerpiece. They have them whizzing back and forth, they spin them on one wheel, they dance on top of them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Where did you see it?
MARILYN JOHNSON: The one that I saw was in Washington, D.C., in this huge, hangar-like space at the annual convention of the American Library Association.
[SHOUTING AND CHEERING CROWD] Librarians had packed the place and were screaming and cheering.
MALE SPEAKER: Audience, are you ready?
CROWD OF LIBRARIANS: Yeah!
[MUSIC/SINGING UP AND UNDER]
MARILYN JOHNSON: It was more fun, I, I think, than I've ever had.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] You also talk about librarians who have blogged about some of the really quirky behavior of patrons.
MARILYN JOHNSON: Quirky is a nice word for it. Public librarians deal with the public, and there’s a lot of cleaning up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was a very strange chapter in your book.
MARILYN JOHNSON: [LAUGHING]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: People leaving poop on library shelves.
MARILYN JOHNSON: Rogue turds, as [LAUGHS] one librarian termed them.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] It turns out to be a universal. They have this problem in New Zealand. They have this problem in Japan. I, I – people want to make something, you know.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] Not books.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marilyn, thank you so much.
MARILYN JOHNSON: Oh, thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marilyn Johnson is the author of This Book is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All.