Librarians’ obituaries as inspiration

I became interested in librarians while researching my first book, about obituaries.  With the exception of a few showy eccentrics, . . . , the most engaging obit subjects were librarians.  An obituary of a librarian could be about anything under the sun, a woman with a phenomenal memory, who recalled the books of her aging patrons read as children — and was also, incidentally, the best sailor on her stretch of the Maine coast — or a man obsessed with maps, who helped automate the Library of Congress’s map catalog and paved the way for wonders like Google Maps.

There were visionaries like Frederick Kilgour, the first to combine libraries’ catalogs in one computerized database back in the early seventies.  This was a great act in the history of knowledge — its efficient and useful multiplication.  Under Kilgour’s direction, what began as a few dozen college libraries in Ohio sharing their catalogs soon snowballed into a world catalog, the Online Computer Library Center.  Now anyone can go to, the OCLC’s catalog of a gazillion library records, and find many libraries that carry the item you need; WorldCat has made very computer a portal to institutions from the Library of Congress to the Tauranga (New Zealand) District Library.  Kilgour lived to an age of ninety-two and taught until he was ninety. . . .

I met Judith Krug, another visionary librarian, in the course of my research.  Krug fought censorship for four decades while running the Office for Intellectual Freedom in the Chicago headquarters of the American Library Association (ALA).  She was tiny, beautifully turned out, and ferociously clear about the librarian’s role in fighting censorship.  I didn’t realize until I read her untimely obituary that Krug had launched Banned Books Week back in the eighties, a bold and pointed celebration of everything from Huckleberry Finn to trash and political incitement.  The banners flying in my public library the last week of September each year had been dreamed up by her.

But the first in a long list of memorialized librarians who made me want to inhabit this world was Henriette Avram.  She beckoned from the obits page, with her mysterious, knowing smile, the chain-smoking systems analyst who automated the library records of the Library of Congress and wrote the first code for computerized catalogs (MARC — Machine Readable Cataloging), a form of which is still used today.  She inspired a generation of women to combine library work and computers.  Her intellectual daughters and sons met after she died to pay her tribute, wearing giant buttons edged in black ribbon, bearing the image of their gray-haired heroine and the legend Mother of MARC.

Whether the subject was a community librarian or a prophet, almost every librarian obituary contained some version of this sentence:  “Under her watch, the library changed from a collection of books into an automated research center.”  I began to get the idea that libraries were where it was happening — wide open territory for innovators, activists, and pioneers.


Author: Johnson, Marilyn, 1954-
Title: This book is overdue! : how librarians and cybrarians can  save us all / Johnson, Marilyn.
Edition: 1st ed.
Imprint: New York : Harper, c2010.
  Physical Description: xii, 272 p. ; 22 cm.
                  Note: Includes bibliographical references (p. [267]-272).
              Contents: The frontier — Information sickness — On the ground
                        — The blog people — Big brother and the holdout
                        company — How to change the world — To the ramparts!
                        — Follow that tattoed librarian — Wizards of odd –
                        Gotham city — What’s worth saving? — The best day.
          Subject (LC): Librarians–Anecdotes.
          Subject (LC): Libraries and society.
          Subject (LC): Library science.
                  ISBN: 9780061431609 : $24.99
                  ISBN: 0061431605 : $24.99

LAW CALL NUMBER                                               
   1)Z682 .J63 2009        

Librarians have always been my heroes.