Age Category: Adult
Who are libraries for, how have they evolved, and why do they fill so many roles in our society today?
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 an “unusual” branch: Northwest One.
Using her experience at this branch allows Oliver to highlight the national problems that have existed in libraries since they were founded: racism, segregation, and class inequalities. These age-old problems have evolved into police violence, the opioid epidemic, rampant houselessness, and 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?
Pushing against hundreds of years of stereotypes, romanticization, and discomfort with a call to reckoning, Overdue will change the way you think about libraries forever.
Overdue: A Reckoning with the Public Library sounded, from the official marketing, like it would an incisive critique/expose of the ways in which public libraries are losing sight of their mission as employees are overburdened with taking on the roles of social workers. That is kind of true, but not really. In actuality, Overdue is part memoir, part library history, part random musings on topics such as social media and cancel culture, and part critique of public libraries based on the author’s nine months working at a public library in Washington, D.C. The book raises some interesting questions, but in a way that seems to be without any particular method. In the end, it is not really clear who Overdue was written for, or what it seeks to accomplish.
Overdue starts out with what clearly seems to be shock factor, chronicling the time author Amanda Oliver witnessed a violent act in the library, and was subsequently threatened and stalked by the perpetrator. The message is clear: public libraries are not the safe havens the public imagines, nor should they be romanticized as the upholders of democracy or envisioned as ivory towers where those seeking to be educated and enlightened gather. No, the public library welcomes everyone–and this often results in chaos and danger, especially as library staff are not equipped to work as social workers, and often feel unsupported by library administrators, government officials, and the public.
So far, so good. It may seem over the top to those who do not often frequent libraries, but I have heard and read enough stories that I understand public libraries have their problems. I welcomed Oliver’s opening statement since Oliver at least seems willing to admit to some of these problems–I think sometimes current employees feel pressure not to admit that they often feel unsafe and unsupported. However, while I thought this opening would lead to a critique of the state of public libraries, it actually launched instead into: a chapter on the history of libraries to expose their racist roots, a look at Oliver’s childhood upbringing, an account of Oliver’s six years as a school librarian, a look at the homelesseness crisis in the U.S. and its causes, some anecdotes about Oliver’s nine months as a public librarian, her subsequent guilt for leaving the profession, and then some final chapters focusing on other issues facing libraries today–before ending with a seemingly unrelated chapter on cancel culture and a final call to reimagine the future of libraries. It is very disjointed. Half the time, I did not even know what I was supposed to be reading. Is this book about public libraries, or is it Oliver’s memoir, or is it just a random assortment of tangentially-related essays?
When Oliver does discuss public libraries, it is very interesting. Although she admits halfway through that she only served nine months in a public library, the scenarios she describes are harrowing–as is her administration’s reluctance to address the issues front-line staff tried to raise. What Oliver experienced seems enough for a lifetime. She even states that she and another coworker were separately diagnosed with PTSD as a result of her time working in a place where staff were consistently subjected to harassment and the threat of violence. Though some may feel her time in public libraries was not enough for her to speak to the profession, I think Oliver’s ability to speak about what she saw actually stems from the fact that she left, is no longer so emotionally involved in trying to rationalize what was happening to her so she could keep helping people, and has the freedom to speak up without worrying that she will be fired.
The fact that Oliver still feels guilt about leaving, and still tries to walk a fine line in her book between noting a problem and trying to pretend maybe everyone could have lived with the problem for the sake of the less fortunate is extremely telling. For example, Oliver notes that library rules like not allowing people to use the bathroom sinks for baths or only allowing one bag instead of ten were rules the public also wanted enforced–I assume because slippery floors are dangerous and also because no one wants to walk in on a person in the nude, or because having ten bags in the aisle is a safety hazard–but then Oliver seems reluctant to commit to some of these reasonable rules because she feels bad for people who need to bathe or store their ten bags.
Librarianship seems to be a job that attracts empathetic people, so it makes sense that Oliver would struggle with enforcing rules that most buildings have as a matter of course. The problem is that is this precise guilt that allows libraries and their staff to keep being pressured to do more, more, more. The really reasonable thing to do would be to build more shelters, so people could wash with dignity in an actual shower where no one will walk in on them, or a place that has lockers so people know their belongings are safe and do not have to lug them all around town all day. Librarians’ empathy that makes them want to allow bathing in the restroom is just one factor of many that allows public officials to not spend money on actual solutions, because they figure the library will do it free.
Interestingly, one of Oliver’s proposed solutions for libraries being forced to act as homeless shelters because of the closure of such shelters is…to turn libraries into homeless shelters. She envisions new libraries, not having fancy fountains and impressive architecture to impress the tourists, but instead having showers, lockers, and needle containers. Left unsaid is whether the library will still provide any books or databases, or if all the “information professionals” will turn into social workers instead. While I have long supported the idea of libraries partnering with social workers precisely because libraries serve so many individuals in need of such services, I am perplexed at the idea that we should wholesale turn libraries into homeless shelters. Why not both? Why can’t the library still exist to provide equal access to information, while more shelters are built to fulfill other needs? On the other hand, I am not perplexed at all. Libraries have spent so long trying to fill in the gaps in social services, that many librarians see themselves as social workers anyway.
Overdue raises plenty of interesting questions, some of which I will likely explore in upcoming posts. As a book, however, Overdue is admittedly disjointed, jumping around from topic to topic without any clear thread connecting them. And, it is unclear to me who the intended audience is. Is it the public, who may be shocked to learn that library staff see their job as unsafe? Is it library administrators and government officials, who have the ability to make change? Is it library staff, who want to be heard? Is it just people interested in Oliver’s memoirs? I have no idea! I do know that many of the topics raised likely already exist somewhere on the internet as an article, so I would recommend people do some research to find those quicker, more focused reads, or maybe check out what current librarians are talking about on Twitter to get an idea of the state of libraries, rather than reading this book.