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.
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.