If you use the library- which you probably do, as you’re reading this post- please read this book. There is so much the general public doesn’t see or understand about the working of public libraries and Amanda Oliver lays it bare here.
Part memoir, part expository nonfiction, Overdue: Reckoning with the Public Library illustrates just how much libraries do with what usually amounts to very little money and resources. The author begins by describing a key incident at the branch where she works, immediately clueing the reader in that this portrait will not align with the idealized version of the library the public still holds dear. She leaves much of library history to the first third of the book, even noting how Thomas Fountain Blue, born to formerly enslaved parents, led the first public library branch run entirely by a Black staff here in Louisville. Oliver deliberately acknowledges how exclusionary libraries have been and continue to be –to minorities, poor patrons, unhoused patrons and, those with disabilities, among others. She grapples with how to answer the question “so, what do you do?” when the answer is difficult to explain and how so many public libraries have become de facto homeless shelters. As a library worker, most of the information Oliver relays is not new to me. The value is more that she is arguably the first to gather all these (what for many will be) revelations together in one book accessible to the reading public.
The sort of people drawn to library work are those who give freely of themselves, which is great for the patrons, but for staff it quickly leads to major burnout. Amanda Oliver relates her experience with burnout, first as a school librarian and then as a children’s librarian at one of Washington D.C.’s most beleaguered library branches. She left library work for an MFA program after nearly a year at that branch. That MFA program, in a way, led to this book. And so while Oliver is no longer working in a library, she continues to advocate for libraries. I sent the author a message when I finished reading Overdue, where I told her I felt seen. She captures so well the mixed feelings library workers have about their profession–passion and love combined with stress and fatigue, along with everything in between.
Overdue: Reckoning with the Public Library by Amanda Oliver is available in print format as well as ebook and e-audiobook on both Libby and Hoopla.
Review by Erin, Middletown