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From "shhhh!" to Second Life: On loving librarians


Do librarians ever have time to slow down and ponder how much their lives have changed in the digital age? How could they, what with keeping up with big and small questions ("Where's the washroom?" and "What's the meaning of life?"), protecting at-risk collections and inhaling publishers' catalogues?

I've been thinking about librarians a lot lately, due to reading a great little tome called This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson. (Very fine cover art, and love that title, Marilyn!) Thanks for turning to libraries after your previous book on memorable obits (including some for out-of-the-ordinary librarians). Also for introducing me to librarians' dance moves on YouTube.

Full disclosure...when I was a kid I wanted to be a librarian if I had to grow up. That was long before I knew about public libraries or visited a only recourse was a stationery store with one revolving rack of paperbacks (first book purchase: The Valdez Horses). But I lived for the school library — book after book on shelves, all ready to be checked out...bliss!

Jump cut to a CBC event in the National Archives many years later, a celebration of all things literary on the national airwaves. I commissioned George Bowering, then Canada's poet laureate, and the vibrant Evalyn Parry to write poems on the theme of "Lost in the Library." I didn't recall much about the poems except that both touched on lust in the library (coincidence?), but imagine my delight when I discovered today that George's poem has been set to music and that I can read Evalyn's any time.

Search engines are grand, of course, but it's the librarians who contain that mad rush of information. What would we do without 'em, even — or especially — in the age of Google. The internet still feels like a giant library without a card catalogue sometimes, and I yearn for a guide through the overgrown paths of knowledge.

This Book Is Overdue! opened my eyes to what's going on between the stacks these days and also what's happening outside libraries' front doors. Johnson talked to zine collectors who are collecting ephemera and making space in their collections for people on the fringes. She introduces librarians who go out on the street to support protesters, not by carrying placards but by hefting their laptops for on-the-spot data searches. She tells the story of the fearless four in Conneticut who sued the American government over library patrons' right to privacy. They stood up to the FBI and the Patriot Act and won. (It's an American book, but we're all readers without borders, right?)

There are the blogger librarians...I like Lipstick Librarian, "the diary of a library fashionista." Check out her throw to best example of nails and book art.

Then there are people building virtual libraries the world over, online spaces where librarians meet for kick-ass theme parties and avatar researchers pose questions to librarians in funky outfits. And other librarians who are busy changing our real world, including a program where people from developing nations get tech training to join the global conversation about human rights.

In the middle of reading This Book Is Overdue! I was lucky enough to spend time with two real-life librarians, Shannon Smith from the Kitchener Public Library and Vickery Bowles from the Toronto Public Library. It was at a spiffy lunch last week in Toronto, thrown by HarperCollins to thank people who were early lovers of Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes, which has now reached the milestone of 500,000 copies in print in Canada (wow!).

Both had read This Book Is Overdue! long before me, because they got it in galleys. (They said it was all true, even the unbelievable deposits some people make. Yuck.)

Man, oh man, do they love books. And their love ripples out to their communities.

Sharron told me about the One Book One Community program that four library systems in her area run ensemble. It's the oldest library campaign in Canada, and they keep the conversation humming in the six months leading up to the featured author's four-day visit. (I think they pick not only books they love, but also authors they want to spend four days with. See, librarians are darned smart people.)

This September Terry Fallis brought his book The Best Laid Plans to local libraries and book clubs. During his visit, he told Sharron that her program had turned his novel into a Canadian bestseller. (He also told her that he was going to be in the CBC Book Club's podcast this week, so check that out Friday.)

All together now: let's raise a cheer for librarians, archivists and revolutionaries alike, and add a toast to their book-filled, technology-filled futures.

In the near future, please add a comment if you care to share...tell us your most memorable library moment (lust in the library, anyone?) or simply shout out to a librarian who made a diff in your life.

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