Overdue

by Amanda Oliver

Cover image

Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 1-64160-534-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 190

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Like many lifetime readers, I adored the public library. I read my way through three different children's libraries at the rate of a grocery sack of books per week, including numerous re-readings, and then moved on to the adult section as my introduction to science fiction. But once I had a regular job, I discovered the fun of filling shelves with books without having to return them or worry about what the library had available. I've always supported my local library, but it's been decades since I spent much time in it. When I last used one heavily, the only computers were at the checkout desk and the only books were physical, normally hardcovers.

Overdue: Reckoning with the Public Library therefore caught my eye when I saw a Twitter thread about it before publication. It promised to be a picture of the modern public library and its crises from the perspective of the librarian. The author's primary topic was the drafting of public libraries as de facto homeless service centers, but I hoped it would also encompass technological change, demand for new services, and the shifting meaning of what a public library is for.

Overdue does... some of that. The author was a children's librarian in a Washington DC public school and then worked at a downtown branch of the Washington DC public library, and the book includes a few anecdotes from both experiences. Most of the book, though, is Oliver's personal memoir of how she got into field, why she chose to leave it, and how she is making sense of her feelings about the profession. Intermixed with that memoir is wide-ranging political commentary on topics ranging from gentrification to mental health care. This material is relevant to the current challenges libraries face, but it wandered far afield from what I was hoping to get from the book.

I think of non-fiction books as coming in a few basic shapes. One is knowledge from an expert: the author has knowledge about a topic that is not widely shared, and they write a book to share it. Another is popularization: an author, possibly without prior special expertise in the topic, does research the reader could have done but doesn't have time to do and then summarizes the results in a format that's easier to understand than the original material. And a third is memoir, in which the author tells the story of their own life. This is a variation of the first type, since the author is obviously an expert in their own life, but most people's lives are not interesting. (Mine certainly isn't!) Successful memoir therefore depends on either having an unusual life or being a compelling storyteller, and ideally both.

Many non-fiction books fall into multiple categories, but it's helpful for an author to have a clear idea of which of these goals they're pursuing since they result in different books. If the author is writing primarily from a position of special expertise, the book should focus on that expertise. I am interested in librarians and libraries and would like to know more about that job, so I will read with interest your personal stories about being a librarian. I am somewhat interested in your policy suggestions for how to make libraries work better, although more so if you can offer context and analysis beyond your personal experiences. I am less interested in your opinions on, say, gentrification. That's not because I doubt it is a serious problem (it is) or that it impacts libraries (it does). It's because working in a library doesn't provide any special expertise in gentrification beyond knowing that it exists, something that I can see by walking around the corner. If I want to know more, I will read books by urban planners, sociologists, and housing rights activists.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I wish Overdue had about four times as many stories about libraries, preferably framed by general research and background that extended beyond the author's personal experience, or at least more specific details of the politics of the Washington DC library system. The personal memoir outside of the library stories failed to hold my interest.

This is not intended as a slam on the author. Oliver seems like a thoughtful and sincere person who is struggling with how to do good in the world without burning out, which is easy for me to sympathize with. I suspect I broadly agree with her on many political positions. But I have read all of this before, and personally lived through some of the same processing, and I don't think Oliver offered new insight. The library stories were memorable enough to form the core of a good book, but the memoir structure did nothing for them and they were strangled by the unoriginal and too-general political analysis.

At the risk of belaboring a negative review, there are two other things in Overdue that I've also seen in other writing and seem worth commenting on.

The first is the defensive apology that the author may not have the best perspective to write the book. It's important to be clear: I am glad that the Oliver has thought about the ways her experiences as a white woman may not be representative of other people. This is great; the world is a better place when more people consider that. I'm less fond of putting that observation in the book, particularly at length.

As the author, rather than writing paragraphs vaguely acknowledging that other people have different experiences, she could instead fix the problem: go talk to librarians of other ethnic and social backgrounds and put their stories in this book. The book would then represent broader experiences and not require the apology. Overdue desperately needed more library-specific content, so that would have improved the book in more than one way. Or if Oliver is ideologically opposed to speaking for other people (she makes some comments to that effect), state up-front, once, that this is a personal memoir and, as a memoir, represents only her own experience. But the author should do something with this observation other than dump its awkwardness on the reader, if for no other reason than that lengthy disclaimers about the author's limited perspective are boring.

The second point is about academic jargon and stock phrasing. I work in a field that relies on precise distinctions of meaning (between identity, authentication, and authorization, for example), and therefore I rely on jargon. Its purpose is to make those types of fine distinctions. But authors who read heavily in fields with jargon tend to let that phrasing slip into popular writing where it's not necessary. The result is, to quote Orwell, "gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else." The effect may be small in a single sentence but, when continued throughout a book, the overuse of jargon is leaden, belabored, and confusing.

Any example I choose will be minor since the effect is cumulative, but one of several I noticed in Overdue is "lived experience." This is jargon from philosophy that, within the field, draws a useful distinction between one's direct experiences of living in the world, and academic or scientific experience with a field. Both types of experience are valuable in different situations, but they're not equivalent. This is a useful phrase when the distinction matters and is unclear. When the type of experience one is discussing is obvious in context (the case in at least three of the four uses in this book), the word "lived" adds nothing but verbosity. If too much of this creeps into writing, it becomes clunky and irritating to read.

The best (and not coincidentally the least clunky) part of this book is Oliver's stories of the patrons and other employees of the Northwest One branch of the Washington DC library system and her experiences with them. The picture was not as vivid as I was hoping for, but I came away with some new understanding of typical interactions and day-to-day difficulties. The same was true to a lesser extent for her experiences as a school librarian. For both, I wish there had been more context and framing so that I could see how her experiences fit into a whole system, but those parts of the book were worth reading.

Unfortunately, they weren't enough of those parts in the book for me to recommend Overdue. But I'm still interested in reading the book I hoped I was getting!

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-07-01

Last modified and spun 2022-07-04