You Will Truly Understand Libraries and Librarians By Reading These Books

Books and libraries, libraries and books, two words that are inseparable in the public imagination. But how many people truly understand libraries and librarians beyond their association with books? Because I suspect that the answer is “not many”, I want to — ironic twist forthcoming — recommend some books to help you gain an understanding of my challenging, unusual, and ultimately fulfilling profession. If, however, you want to preserve the myth that librarians read all day, that’s fine. Stop here, do not pass go, do not collect $200. For those who want insight on librarianship, read these books!

This Book is Overdue by Marilyn Johnson

As a librarian, I appreciate Marilyn Johnson’s wide view of the profession. She spends much of the book hanging out with librarians, gleaning their stories, and telling them in a winsome way. Though I was already aware of many of the stories she told, I was comfortably carried along by Johnson’s appealing authorial voice. Most people will find the stories interesting and surprising. An ideal start for non-librarian readers interested in libraries.

The Public Library: A Photographic Essay by Robert Dawson

Robert Dawson had been photographing libraries since 1994. In 2011, he felt it was time to finish the project, so he started a charming Kickstarter which funded a seven-week voyage, 22-state for him and his son. What resulted was a book no library lover could resist. Hundreds of lovely photographs in all of their rural, urban, Carnegie, and mid-century modern glory, interspersed with essays by renowned authors and thinkers. Unsurprisingly, I backed the 2011 Kickstarter and was thrilled when I happened upon the book in my own public library.

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles

That this book barely touches on public libraries or any library history from the last hundred years makes it an ideal pairing with This Book is Overdue (see above). Library: An Unquiet History taught me some specific things about library history and helped me gain a greater insight on how the missions of libraries have changed over the centuries. As always, it is inspiring to read how people fought for libraries, which served as bastions of culture. There are truly some great stories in this one.

Bookman’s Progress by Lawrence Clark Powell

A collection of essays by prolific book-loving librarian Lawrence Clark Powell on his usual topics: music, the Southwest, authors he liked, book-collecting, and of course, librarianship. I collect the books of LCP, and chose this particular one in particular to include because it features his essential essay “The Elements of a Good Librarian” and is designed by famed California printer Ward Ritchie. Thus, it is a selection that is both smart and stylish.

This is What a Librarian Looks Like by Kyle Cassidy

I have been told, at various times, both that I don’t look like a librarian, and that I do. My standard response is: Okay, but what does a librarian look like? Kyle Cassidy answers that question in this neat large-format book. From a 2014 Slate article by Jordan G. Teicher:

Cassidy was inspired by his experience and said he hopes to continue the project in the future. “I found myself meeting and spending time with people who I found heroic in an uncelebrated way — people who were cheerful and joyful and serious and devoted. These are people who often spend their own time and money helping people. They work extra hours during which they’re not being paid because they’re passionate about the results and the communities they’re serving,” he said.

Oxford Guide to Library Research by Thomas Mann

Written by a private detective-turned-librarian, Thomas Mann’s primer to library research is the best out there on finding general information not readily available on the open web. Whether you read this book straight through or dig into individual chapters out of order, the Oxford Guide to Library Research is sure to expand your idea of an information landscape with which the general public is wholly unfamiliar, but which librarians navigate daily.

Bonus Selections

Aside from the paltry list above, there are also books that give you a true ground-floor perspective on public libraries including Gina Sheridan’s I Work at a Public Library, The Worlds Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne, Free for All by Don Borchert, and Quiet Please by Scott Douglas.

Many are familiar with books about library cats like Dewey the Library Cat by Vicki Myron and Bret Witter, and The True Tails of Baker & Taylor by Jan Louch.

Lovers of history who want to go beyond the Matthew Battles book above should try Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson, Libraries and the Enlightenment by Wayne Bivens-Tatum, and Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library by Wayne Wiegand.

Finally, there are several anthologies of fictional stories and essays about libraries two of which are In the Stacks (edited by Michael Cart), and Reading Rooms (edited by Susan Allen Toth and John Coughlan).

As an extra special bonus, I will leave you with a link to Jorge Luis Borges’ classic short story “The Library of Babel”. Enjoy!


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