Jessica Wakeman

We asked Amanda Oliver, author of Overdue: Reckoning With the Public Library, a few questions about how libraries become overburdened, why librarians burn out, and what effect this has on the health of our communities.


You write that Overdue will “push directly against the romanticization of what libraries are and who they are for.” Why do people romanticize libraries?
I think now, maybe more than ever, we need hope. And libraries, at least as we commonly understand them, are symbols of that hope—that we can share; that we can provide free, community-based items and care and space; even that we still love, read and uphold books. But there are more accurate truths, which I dig into extensively throughout the book, that I think will ultimately lead us to a more realistic version of hope around, within and from libraries. 

Did you romanticize libraries yourself at any point?
My relationship to libraries has fundamentally, since childhood, been based in warm feelings toward them as safe havens and quiet spaces of comfort. I still love libraries. I still find them comforting and recognize that they can be safe havens. But I am always touched by the whys: Why do libraries provide so much in America? Why do so few institutions like them exist en masse? Why not look a little more closely and critically at them? I can’t, and don’t ever want to, look at libraries without the whys.

Overdue uses your experiences as a librarian in Washington, D.C., to address societal and structural issues that affect libraries nationwide. Did you consider interviewing other librarians and incorporating their experiences into the book as well?
I’m not sure people realize that many public library systems have clauses in their contracts about what you can and cannot say publicly while working for them. I’ve had many private, off-the-record conversations with librarians that I didn’t include in the book out of respect for their privacy and need for job security. In many of those conversations, librarians said things along the lines of “I can’t say this stuff while I still work for my library system.” Meanwhile, I knew I could say “this stuff” because I had left library work and didn’t intend to go back.

“Why do libraries provide so much in America? Why do so few institutions like them exist en masse?”

You write movingly about how you operated with empathy while working with patrons facing poverty, racism, substance abuse and other issues. It led you to feel empathy fatigue and burnout. What do you hope readers, whether or not they’re librarians, learn about that process of burning out?
It has always been very interesting to me what happens when I explain to people the toll that working as a librarian took on me. Even the most socially conscious and empathetic people I know sometimes find it bewildering. I think it is deeply ingrained in American work culture and ethic that we should work and not complain, especially in professions where you are serving vulnerable and underserved people. I know that this was part of why I burned out. The idea that I was overreacting, that I was too sensitive and not tough enough, that I wasn’t working hard enough—this sort of deep-rooted self-flagellation, in lieu of looking more closely and critically at the system(s) I was functioning within, didn’t help me, and it didn’t help the people I was serving.

My hope is that people will recognize that you can’t pour from an empty cup (no matter how much you want to) and you also shouldn’t be asked to—by an employer, a co-worker or, as it ultimately comes down to, the perverse, inhumane, unimaginative and oftentimes cruel systems of capitalism in this country. 

Early in Overdue, you explore how libraries in colonial America were for wealthy white men and how racial segregation in libraries continued until the late 20th century. Why was it essential for you to include this history?
This is a key factor in all of American history, and yet it often seems to go missing from the narrative around libraries. That it was almost entirely wealthy white men who funded and founded public libraries (and so much else) means this was who determined libraries’ earliest roots, policies, procedures and so forth. It’s impossible to look at where libraries are today without looking at where—and how, and by and for whom—they were created. It was especially important to me to establish that our segregated past wasn’t that long ago, and that racism and systemic inequalities today still actively impact library patrons and employees in a negative way.

Read our starred review of ‘Overdue’ by Amanda Oliver.

Helping professions (such as nurses, childcare workers, etc.) can be seen as “feminized” labor and treated with less respect compared to more male-dominated fields. Do you think, in general, librarianship is viewed as “feminized” labor? How do you believe that impacts how society treats libraries and librarians?
Yes, I think librarianship is often viewed as “feminized” labor, and historically as well as statistically, it is. Something like 30% of librarians are men, with an unequal proportion of them in leadership roles. There are also still pervasive stereotypes of librarians—as either shrewish, unpleasant women or “sexy” women in skirts and unbuttoned cardigans—that I find debasing. Any type of gender stereotyping, inequality and discrimination negatively impacts everyone, of all genders, in innumerable ways. At the library level, it’s another way of preventing progress and an accurate understanding of the profession.

What are some of the reactions you would like to see from library administrators and local governments in response to the issues you raise in Overdue?
I’d like to see a bit more honest reckoning—as the subtitle of the book implies. Which is to say, a bit more of those in power acknowledging mistakes and missteps as well as facing up to more realities and failures on an institutional level. I’d like to see local governments looking to libraries for guidance on how they can establish community supports and services—not necessarily as resources for information on this topic (which, of course, they are) but as living, breathing, working examples.

I also hope my book gives people in leadership or decision-making roles some genuine insight into what is being asked of librarians, the immense weight that carries and the potential tolls it can take. My hope is that we will see better, more conscious, caring and community-minded decisions being made in the future. I think public libraries have a real opportunity to implement and model better work environments and better ways of caring.

“I hope my book gives people in leadership roles some genuine insight into what is being asked of librarians, the immense weight that carries and the potential tolls it can take.”

You mentioned how you like to visit a library in every place you travel. Is there one library that you especially love—either for its design, its people or something you did, saw or read there?
I have a particular fondness for the Seattle Public Library’s main branch. It’s a beautifully designed building. I also still go back to my first library sometimes when I am visiting Buffalo, New York, because it’s full of many warm memories for me. 

Do you have plans for another book, and if so, can you tell us what it’s about?
I do! I’ll be attending a six-week writing residency this summer to focus on my second book, which is quite different from Overdue. I am a stylistic prose writer at heart, which is not what readers will see in Overdue but is something they can find in some of my essays. I’m quite excited to get back to writing that is meditative, experimental and not based in heavy research. The book is, loosely, about living in the desert, the idea of Home with a capital H and the many ways it shifts and fragments in a life.

Author photo of Amanda Oliver by Justin Danks

The debut author draws on her experience in the Washington, D.C., public library system to explore how libraries became Band-Aids for American inequality.

Our memories of the library, like many other aspects of American life, are often sharply contoured by class. If you’re economically privileged, you may see libraries as places to stock up on the most up-to-date books or as public spaces for cultural events. If you’re economically disadvantaged or homeless, however, the public library may be the primary—or only—location where you can access bathrooms, running water, the internet and a modicum of safety.

Overdue: Reckoning With the Public Library is just what it says in the subtitle: a reckoning. Former school and public librarian Amanda Oliver declares that she isn’t here for the “romanticization” of librarians and libraries. Instead, she wants readers to face the bitter truth. The history of libraries in America, like the history of America itself, is marked by racism and classism—although nowadays, inequality festers more through municipal neglect than outright discrimination. While working at several under-resourced libraries in Washington, D.C., Oliver saw this firsthand. For too long, libraries in America that are “easier to help—and better to showcase” have garnered plenty of energy and money from administrators. Everywhere else, librarians are on their own—and as Oliver vividly documents, they’re drowning.

Amanda Oliver, author of ‘Overdue,’ reflects on why librarians burn out and what effect this has on the health of our communities.

As a librarian at an elementary school that served primarily low-income students, Oliver quickly learned that her job was as much about performing the work of a social worker, without any social work training, as it was about books. At public libraries, Oliver’s work put her in daily contact with people experiencing homelessness, addiction, severe mental illness and a range of other crises, and she often found herself on the receiving end of verbal abuse and sexual harassment from library patrons. Oliver eventually left the profession, in part due to its toll on her own mental health.

Overdue is not an easy book to read for those of us who love or have romanticized libraries. It requires readers to confront the ways that America and its public institutions are failing low-income communities nationwide—but that’s exactly why it’s essential to read.

Former librarian Amanda Oliver quickly learned that her job was as much about performing the work of a social worker—without any training—as it was about books.

Transformation is the hallmark of any well-drawn character, but in her heart-rending first novel, Shadows of Pecan Hollow, author Caroline Frost asks whether real transformation is attainable for everyone. Can a very bad man ever be redeemed? Can a lost girl find herself when she’s grown? Can people who are ridiculed or ignored by society learn to believe in their worth without relying on validation from others?

At 13, Kit has no reason to trust adults. She’s been shuffled around among a number of foster families, starved and even beaten. When an older man named Manny shows Kit simple yet unfamiliar kindness, she becomes his loyal companion. Though he gains her trust, he’s a con artist and a thief, and he’s only able to care for Kit through his ill-gotten gains.

Manny recruits Kit for small thefts and then gun-toting robberies, and over time they become notorious partners in crime, wanted by the police. Their life is not just itinerant but also dangerous, and when Kit becomes pregnant with their child, a shift in her perspective allows her to look at Manny and their violent delights with fresh eyes. Yet years later, when Manny is released from prison and comes for their daughter, Kit learns that the hard life isn’t so easy to leave behind.

Frost puts her background as a marriage and family therapist to good use in crafting Kit. Less perceptive writers may have written Kit as a cliché, but Frost guides the reader to understand Kit’s story and the reasons behind her susceptibility to a charismatic egotist. Shadows of Pecan Hollow will be heartbreaking for readers wiser and more experienced than young Kit, as they’ll be able to see Manny’s manipulation and violence for what it really is: abuse. Frost’s relationship expertise also shines in crafting the dynamic between adult Kit and her untameable daughter, Charlie.

At over 400 pages, Shadows of Pecan Hollow takes readers on a long journey—not unlike Kit’s journey to find a home. It will especially resonate with readers who have their own hard-won stories of survival.

In this perceptive debut, Caroline Frost guides readers to an understanding of her teenage protagonist's susceptibility to a charismatic egotist.

One of the many important decisions we had to make in 2020 was who we would allow into our COVID-19 quarantine bubbles. As the first months of the pandemic rip the world apart in Gary Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends, eight friends, strangers and rivals are thrown together in a house in rural New York. The falling-down second home, owned by novelist Sasha Senderovsky, becomes a site of bottomless drama as the crew shelters in place.

Shteyngart is terrific at building characters who feel fully fleshed out, and it’s a real feat to do so with eight primary players. Some of the characters face truly difficult pandemic-related problems: Sasha’s wife, Masha, is terrified of the virus infecting their bubble, and their daughter, Nat, struggles with home-schooling. Others have dragged personal problems to the country refuge: career upswings and downswings, unrequited love, unsatiated horniness and internet infamy.

The dark backdrop of the outside world—COVID deaths, job losses, George Floyd’s murder—is a distant concern to these self-absorbed characters, but the reality of the times casts a pall over the superfluous country house exploits, from the famous actor’s wandering eye to the romantic foibles of a successful app creator.

While most of the plot takes place at the country home, the narrative’s tentacles reach far back in history and all around the globe. Several characters are first-generation immigrants, and they illustrate the mix of hardiness and anxiety that comes with uncertainty on a societal level. These are the moments when it feels like Shteyngart has something to say about resilience and strength.

Stalwart fans of Shteyngart’s brand of satire won’t find these characters’ narcissism to be too grating, but given the gravity of the past year and a half, not all readers will have the patience for their flimflammery.

A country home becomes a site of bottomless drama for eight characters during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s nothing more exciting than standing among a throng of strangers listening to live music or watching the lights go down in a movie theater when the show is about to begin. But these six books certainly come close.

The Art of Bob Mackie

Bob Mackie is a member of a very small club: Hollywood costume designers whom regular folks (meaning, not ex-theater kids) know by name. Throughout his storied career, Mackie has designed gowns for Marilyn Monroe, Carol Burnett, Cher, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Madonna and, well, anybody who was anybody on TV, the silver screen or Broadway. The Art of Bob Mackie by Frank Vlastnik and Laura Ross is an authorized trip down memory lane, featuring brightly colored sketches and photos of over-the-top creations from Mackie’s 60 years in fashion, from his big break designing for Broadway star Mitzi Gaynor in 1966 to his costumes for The Cher Show, the 2018 jukebox musical based on the actress and singer’s career. Fans of “lewks,”divasand Hollywood gossip will have lots to enjoy. 

The Motherlode

Hip-hop has never been a man’s game, but male rappers have gotten more attention, money and respect since the beginning. Former Vibe and Jezebel editor Clover Hope sets things straight with The Motherlode, an encyclopedia dedicated to the women of hip-hop. Going all the way back to the 1980s, Hope leaves no woman out, from MC Sha-Rock (hip-hop’s first prominent female emcee) to Cardi B. Each rapper is honored with an essay, a minibio and funky artwork by Rachelle Baker, meaning your giftee has no excuse not to kill at a Women in Hip-Hop category on “Jeopardy!” Present this book with your own playlist of hip-hop’s fiercest ladies, and it’ll be a gift to remember.  

Colorization 

Journalist Wil Haygood’s Colorization traces the experience of Black artists on and behind the screen through 100 years of film history, demonstrating that racism hasn’t always been this bad in Hollywood. It’s actually been a lot worse. This meaty analysis of Black film history spans everything from The Birth of a Nation (1915), which glorified the Ku Klux Klan, to Gone With the Wind (1939) and its infamous whitewashing of slavery, to Get Out (2017) and its memorable portrayal of “post-racial” liberalism. Haygood has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and his research skills are as impeccable as that honor implies. He is also such a descriptive writer that you need not have seen every single movie he writes about in order to understand his analysis. Don’t be surprised if Colorization ends up on film studies syllabi for years to come.  

Art Boozel

We could all stand to freshen up our cocktail repertoire, and that’s where Art Boozel comes in. The book pairs dozens of artists with cocktails based on their work and/or personalities. For example, the Keith Haring is made with pear cider, lemon juice and a brandied cherry (among other ingredients), so it’s as bright and colorful as Haring’s art. Author Jennifer Croll has an endlessly creative mind for unique cocktails (her previous book, Free the Tipple, is also a compendium of cocktail recipes), and each artist and their drink is delightfully illustrated by Kelly Shami. Come for the recipes, stay for the contemporary art history lesson you never got in school. 

Mental Floss: The Curious Viewer

Mental Floss: The Curious Viewer, “a miscellany of bingeable streaming TV shows from the past 20 years,” is a reminder of just how many hours of prestige TV there is to watch. (There’s a lot.) Jennifer M. Wood, an editor at the pop culture blog Mental Floss, unearths everything you ever wanted to know about beloved shows like “Friends,” “Sex and the City,” “Downton Abbey,” “Friday Night Lights” and other shows worthy of a binge-watch. She shares fun facts and behind-the-scenes gossip from each show but somehow doesn’t make you feel like you’ve read them all in a Buzzfeed article. The Curious Viewer might just be the book that pulls the couch potato in your life away from the TV (and helps them dominate at trivia night). 

Fun City Cinema

At a certain point, everyone who lives in New York City stops seeing movie sets as exciting and instead sees them as a nuisance. That’s because the streets of Gotham have graced so many films. In Fun City Cinema, film critic and former film editor of Flavorwire Jason Bailey revisits the films that tell the story of NYC’s history and, in some cases, America’s history. The city changes so frequently that many films are “fascinating artifacts of cinematic archeology,” he writes in his introduction. It may be jarring to see photos of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and controversial ex-mayors such as Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg in the same book as, say, The Muppets Take Manhattan. Alas, these are contradictions New Yorkers live with every day. 

Got a film fanatic or art aficionado in your life? Give them one of these books and watch their eyes light up.

Whether you’re an Alan Cumming superfan or more like, “Who?” there is something for you to enjoy in the actor’s second memoir, Baggage: Tales From a Fully Packed Life. It is indeed fully packed with reflective writing about his extraordinary life, hard-won wisdom and plenty of Hollywood gossip.

Cumming’s fans already loved him for his work onstage in Cabaret and on-screen in everything from “The Good Wife” to the Spy Kids trilogy. But he gained the respect of the literary world, too, with his 2014 memoir, Not My Father’s Son, about his family ancestry and abusive father. Baggage picks up emotionally where Not My Father’s Son left off, as Cumming describes navigating the theater world and Hollywood, both famously brutal industries, while trying to rebuild the self-worth his father destroyed. He writes thoughtfully about the end of his first marriage (to a woman), his hookups, his love affairs, his drug use and his second marriage (to a man).

When Cumming describes his happiness with the person he is today, the reader understands it came from decades of trial and error. Celebrity memoirs can be a literary crapshoot, but Cumming is a truly gifted writer. Very few readers will be able to relate, for example, to confronting the director Bryan Singer about his drug abuse on the set of X2: X-Men United alongside people all costumed as superheroes. But in Cumming’s telling, the saga reads like any other anxiety-packed tale of work colleagues banding together to challenge the boss.

Cumming is able to pivot from sassy and self-effacing to sensitive and serious, perhaps because he embodies all those qualities himself, but what radiates the strongest is his confidence. Throughout all the stories in Baggage, he never seems like he’s trying to prove anything—but after a 40-year career, what does he really have to prove? Even if the author were not a celeb, Baggage would be a worthy read for anyone who has triumphed over a difficult childhood.

In Cumming’s second memoir, he pivots easily from sassy and self-effacing to sensitive and serious, perhaps because he embodies all those qualities himself.

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