Lost in the Stacks

Mahesh Rao commentary on libraries in his New York Times essay “Lost in the Stacks,” reminded me of how libraries have nurtured my own love of reading.  My first memory of going to a library is linked to  holding my mother’s hand as we walked through the park to a tall building – an adventure to a new world.  Later in college I found comfort in hiding behind books in a remote carrell as I studied obscure passages.  Just like Rao, I inadvertently forgot to return a book or two, discovered years later in my own collection.

Librarians, more than authors, have always held my reverence.  Some are modestly taciturn, never revealing their wealth of information until asked.  Others, like Rao’s North London friend, are ready to share common interests and review my selections as I check out more books than I can carry.


Trinity College Library, Dublin

Books about libraries draw me in.  Some of my favorites:

  • Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon with the Cemetery of Forgotten Books is a library for literary works no longer remembered by anyone. Daniel  finds mystery and adventure, as books salve the lingering pain of his mother’s death.
  • The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai connects a children’s librarian with questionable ties to the Russian mafia to a curious 10-year-old boy whose parents enroll him in an anti-gay class and strictly monitor his library material.
  • This Book is Overdue by Marilyn Johnson challenges the stereotype of librarians.  See my review – here
  • By Its Cover by Donna Leon uses a rare books collection in a prestigious Venice library as the setting for the twenty-third in her series of Guida Brunetti mysteries. My review – here.



Do you have a favorite book about libraries?



This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All

Did Marilyn Johnson know about the library closings in the UK, or about Borders biting the dust in the USA when she wrote This Book is Overdue! ?  Did she know Watson, the super computer was going to win an information battle over humans?  Even without a sense of foreboding, Johnson’s book is timely and reassuring.

As she wanders the stacks in assorted libraries everywhere – even cyberspace and Rome, Johnson forever quashes the stereotype of the librarian.  “Miss Marian” in now savvy and hip, possibly tattooed,  politically tuned in, and, of course, knowledgeable.  I once heard that the true mark of intelligence is not necessarily knowing the answer, but knowing where to look for it.  If you’ve been frustrated by the lack of the appropriate word to trigger a google search for what you really want, you may identify with Johnson’s mantra – we need human help – librarians, “who won’t try to sell us anything, or roll their eyes at our questions.”

Starting with her search for a childhood favorite, Easy Travel to Other Planets – (I checked, and it is in my library) – Johnson moves through libraries on the East Coast, but her banter and philosophy apply everywhere.   Johnson talks about librarians blogging – The Happy Villain (no longer active, so don’t try to find her) who disclosed all the secret horrible actions of library patrons when they think no one is looking –

“While waiting for your ride home, do not set fire to your homework to keep warm.”

and the rare librarian who was moving her relatives to the top of the reserve list for a popular DVD.  But when she mentions that her “librarians’ faces light up when {she} walks in; they’re My librarians” – I could relate.  My librarians have a special shelf for my reserved books – and are so grateful to have the space back when I pick them all up.

In her table of contents, Johnson succinctly summarizes each of her twelve chapters, so you can decide what you want to read.  After studiously reading through the first four, I decided to skip to Chapter 8, with the alluring title “Follow That Tattooed Librarian” that turned out to be a funny exposé on the other side of the serious librarian, usually reserved for conventions – not to be seen in public.  Eventually, I read the other chapters – in no particular order.

If you have been taking your librarian for granted, Johnson will change all that. Hail the librarian…

“Civil servants and servants of civility…information professionals, teachers, police, community organizers, computer technicians, historians, confidantes… guardians of my peace.”