REVIEW: Overdue Reckoning with the Public Library by Amanda Oliver
When Amanda Oliver began work as a school librarian, fueled by a lifelong love of books and a desire to help, she felt qualified for the job. What she learned was that librarians are expected to serve as mediators and mental-health-crisis support professionals, customer service reps and administrators of overdose treatment, fierce loyalists to institutionalized mythology and enforced silence, and arms of state surveillance.
Based on firsthand experiences from six years of professional work as a librarian in high-poverty neighborhoods of Washington, DC, as well as interviews and research, Overdue begins with Oliver’s first day at Northwest One, the DC Public Library branch where she would ultimately end her library career.
Through her experience at this branch, Oliver highlights the national problems that have existed in libraries since they were founded, troublingly at odds with the common romanticization of the library as a shining beacon of equality: racism, segregation, and economic oppression. These fundamental American problems manifest today as police violence, the opioid epidemic, widespread inaccessibility of affordable housing, and a lack of mental health care nationwide—all of which come to a head in public library spaces.
Can public librarians continue to play the many roles they are tasked with? Can American society sustain one of its most noble institutions?
Libraries will not save us, but Oliver helps us imagine what might be possible if we stop expecting them to.
Well I’ve just had my childhood fantasy of being a librarian shattered. “Overdue” by Amanda Oliver is the tale of her time spent as a school and then public librarian which ended with her leaving and taking a case of PTSD with her. It’s a sad and sobering look at the state of society, libraries, and librarians.
The author mentions the librarians who have been murdered on the job, the sexual harassment and being warned by her male colleagues to not go to a certain section of their library alone, having her clothes ruined from washing them so many times due to bedbugs being found in returned items, empathy fatigue, how torn she was at their location having a police officer on site and how relieved she was that the officer was there …
I still love my local library system and have never (knock wood) seen anything like she describes but I hate to think of people who love books and are just trying to get them (and the other wonderful things libraries have for patrons to use) into the hands of library users and facing all this. B-
In the early 2000s, I was an aide in both elementary and junior high school libraries. I loved the job, especially helping students find a book that really spoke to them. It was the height of TWILIGHT and HARRY POTTER popularity and a lot of students who hadn’t read much before used those books as gateways to other books. (Sadly, the job got cut in 2010; I’ve been working with special needs students since then–a job I like, but it’s not quite the same as working in a library). I’m not sure if this book addresses it, since it’s only recently that it’s become a prominent issue, but now legislatures in red states are passing laws that allow parents to sue school districts (and librarians specifically) for assigning or shelving “inappropriate” books; in effect, criminalizing the occupation that exposes young people to new ideas and lets them know they’re not alone. Heavy sigh.
@DiscoDollyDeb: No, I don’t remember any mention of that happening though it’s been 2-3 months since I read this book.
I’ve heard from a librarian I know that there are wonderful moments when kids discover the joy of reading but also plenty of rude patrons, including people jerking off at the computers watching porn, or once, someone who took a dump in the stacks! And sexual harassment. And now with Covid, the librarians are forced to play the mask police and are also getting infected. The library constantly sends out notices saying “an employee you’ve had contact with has tested positive for Covid,” but they won’t tell them who. Everyone in her department is overworked and exhausted.
You would think it would be much nicer in the wealthier suburbs but she says no. She has had occasion to work there too and she says the patrons there are really entitled and rude, and basically treat the librarians like servants.
@DiscoDollyDeb: Wow, those are horrible laws. They sound unconstitutional to me but I am not a lawyer so what do I know?
In the past few years I read a news story about a town council (in North Carolina, I think) that was going to give the head librarian a raise to ~$42,000 after she got a Masters degree. Several people complained, however, that the salary was too high and the position didn’t deserve it. Their rationale was “all she needs to know to do her job is the Dewey Decimal system and how to shelve books”. Those people clearly don’t understand what librarians actually do – they need to read this book.
Speaking as a public librarian, it’s a generally miserable time in the profession. Here’s a very brief overview (and it doesn’t even get into the political aspects that so many people face): https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2022/06/01/quitting-time/
@Floating Lush: Well that just sucks. Thank you for the work you do.
I wonder how this ruling will affect what ebooks libraries will be able to get.
Things like this are happening more and more too. So here’s my plea–if you use and love your libraries, speak up on behalf of them and their staff.