June 19, 2017

Nancy Pearl: LJ’s 2011 Librarian of the Year

Photo by Ron Wurzer/Getty Images

Photo by Ron Wurzer/Getty Images

No one other than Nancy Pearl has so convinced Americans that libraries, books, and reading are critical to our communities. Her passionate advocacy has done that nationwide for thousands of individual readers and library workers in the trenches at the local level. She has spread book lust via broadcasts to the nation on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and from local radio and TV outlets and through her blog posts and tweets. She has done it in hundreds of workshops and performances for library patrons, library staff at all levels, and small groups of readers who want to be with her to discuss what they’ve read and what they have written. She has taught the skills and techniques of collection development, readers’ advisory (RA), and booktalking to the LIS students at the University of Washington Information School, and honed RA skills across staffing lines in the public libraries of Detroit, Tulsa, and Seattle.

Her work has reinforced reading via libraries as essential and empowering for all people. Her innovation in training has deepened the book skills of library workers. Her public outreach has effectively promoted libraries well beyond library walls, broadening the public’s perception of the purpose of libraries. All of these efforts have earned her recognition as LJ’s 2011 ­Librarian of the Year.

What if everyone…?
In 1998, as executive director of Seattle Public Library’s (SPL) Washington Center for the Book, she wondered what would happen if everyone in Seattle read and talked about the same book and developed the program to find out.

The One City, One Book program was such a good idea that it has been replicated and refreshed thousands of times ­nationwide.

“Nancy didn’t mean if every banker read the same book or every student. She meant the homeless guy down the street, the short-order cook, and your babysitter,” says Neal Wyatt, an RA thought leader and author of LJ’s Wyatt’s World and editor of The Reader’s Shelf, who nominated Pearl for this award and got support from a wide range of library leaders.

IN HER ELEMENT: Pearl talks books with Leon Kinsley (l.), Denise Douglas-Baird, and other MLIS students from the University of Washington's iSchool at the University Book Store in Seattle. Photo by Ron Wurzer/Getty Images

IN HER ELEMENT: Pearl talks books with Leon Kinsley (l.), Denise Douglas-Baird, and other MLIS students from the University of Washington’s iSchool at the University Book Store in Seattle. Photo by Ron Wurzer/Getty Images

Taking books to the trenches
Pearl retired from SPL in 2004. Now that she is a free agent, libraries nationwide have enlisted her RA talents. Public library directors in Washington urged their state library to hire Pearl to travel to nine libraries to train staff from surrounding areas.

Pearl also coached employees at the King County Library System (KCLS), Issaquah, WA, which circulated 21.3 million items in 2009. She conducted workshops for all 1200 staff members. “From pages to library managers, everyone learned new ways of approaching readers, and they generated scores of new ideas,” says KCLS director Bill Ptacek. The library’s “Take Time To Read” program, with its simple goal “to make King County a more literate community,” grew out of Pearl’s workshops.

“Staff members were rejuvenated and excited about talking to patrons about books and reading and more confident in their abilities to suggest titles in a variety of genres and doorways,” says Ptacek.

“People who [are] circulation clerks or pages in libraries work there because they love libraries. Otherwise, they’d work at McDonald’s,” says Pearl. “We must not cut them off from being able to talk about books and other materials with the people who use the library.”

She had earlier performed a similar task at the respected Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL) in the Cleveland suburbs. During her year at CCPL, Pearl led public book discussions and workshops in all branches and helped build a public relations campaign to strengthen CCPL’s image as the place for books and reading.

“Our print circulation rose to a higher percent of our overall circulation increase,” says Sari Feldman, CCPL executive director. “Pearl’s efforts for decades have centered public libraries and reminded us that books and reading are our brand.”

When we caught up with Pearl to tell her about the award she was just back from the Memphis Public Library and Information Center, where she completed a staff development workshop on RA, a radio interview, and a book program for patrons on “good books for yourself and to give others.”

What is a “good book”?
As part of the author tour for her newest book, Book Lust To Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers (Sasquatch Bks.; LJ Xpress Reviews, 10/8/10), Pearl went to Westport, CT, to “talk about good books” to librarians and library patrons. “By good,” she says, “I don’t mean any literary canon, but just books that you might enjoy. A good book is a book someone likes and a bad book is one they don’t like. When someone doesn’t like a book, it doesn’t mean they will never like it. They don’t like it for that moment,” says Pearl.

“We shouldn’t be afraid to suggest a wide variety of books to people. I think libraries are the last democratic institution, small ‘d’ democratic. It wasn’t always that way. Librarians were gatekeepers…. When it comes to readers’ advisory, though, I think we need to validate a patron’s reading,” Pearl says.

“When people ask, ‘What should I read next?’ we should always try to give them three books. One should be pretty close to the one they loved. The second should be a little bit different, a bit of a stretch. The third book is the real stretch book, the reach book. The book they never would have found because it is nonfiction and they only look at Westerns,” Pearl says.

“People come into the library and head straight to the section where they have found the most pleasure…. It is our job to take them around to the rest,” she ­continues.

“I do believe that the more well-written books you read, the less tolerance you are going to have for bad writing, but the hardest thing to define is a well-written book. When someone tells you they liked a book because ‘I love well-written books,’ they usually mean books like award winners, for instance the Pulitzers. Those books win awards for the writing. You don’t have to understand what somebody means by ‘well-written,’ but you have to go beyond the awards we all know and see which books won the Governor General’s Award in Canada, or [Britain’s] Man Booker Prize. No one who reads for the story will say, ‘I like well-written books.’ They will talk about page-turners, books you stay up too late to finish,” Pearl ­concludes.

The new librarians
Thrilled that the iSchool and the University of Washington have made her courses part of their regular curriculum, Pearl says her teaching is “the most significant thing I’m doing right now.”

Joseph Janes, chair of the MLIS program at the iSchool, is equally thrilled to have Pearl as a regular instructor. “[She wins] enthusiastic students and praise every time she teaches,” he says. “She has also agreed to join our MLIS program advisory board and admissions committee. In each of those venues, she is a passionate and diligent advocate for old and important library ideas: literacy, reading, entertainment, enjoyment…. She is neither snobbish about the old ways nor disdainful of new ideas. Ask her about audio or ebooks or gaming, and you’ll get an earful about the importance of stories told in their myriad forms,” says Janes.

“On bad days, I feel discouraged that I am talking to these students about great careers, and then they graduate and there are no jobs,” says Pearl.

“I always tell them that if they want to change the way libraries are, if they want to implement some of the ideas we talk about, they should go to a small public library, where they can make a difference,” she concludes.

Leaders and mentors
Pearl’s own mentors were the two children’s librarians in the Parkman Branch of Detroit Public Library (DPL). She remembers them as Miss Whitehead and Miss Long, and through books and reading they showed her the career she would ­pursue.

“If I wanted to change the world, to make it a better place, I could do nothing better than to do what they did for me,” Pearl says. “That library, the Parkman Branch, was the center of my life, my home as a child. They have just redone it.”

Her first library job was at DPL. She went on to work in a bookstore in Tulsa for several years. Then as the store declined, she moved to the Tulsa City-County Library. Assistant Director Jan Keene recognized Pearl’s special talent and gave her nearly total autonomy as head of collection development.

Pearl admires library directors who are readers, like Ptacek at KCLS, Feldman at CCPL, and her longtime colleague in Tulsa and Seattle, Craig Buthod, now director at the Louisville Free Public Library, KY, and the 2010 LJ Librarian of the Year.

“They all recognize the importance of keeping a balance in library service,” says Pearl. “My fear is that we don’t recognize or will forget that library service is like a three-legged stool: information, outreach and programming, and reading.”

A NATIONAL VOICE: With radio mic still poised, Pearl chats with Jim Gates, a senior producer at KUOW, the NPR affiliate in Seattle, just after her Weekday show, hosted by Steve Scher. Photo by Ron Wurzer/Getty Images

A NATIONAL VOICE: With radio mic still poised, Pearl chats with Jim Gates, a senior producer at KUOW, the NPR affiliate in Seattle, just after her Weekday show, hosted by Steve Scher. Photo by Ron Wurzer/Getty Images

Hopes, fears, and regrets
The book will never disappear as a piece of narrative fiction or nonfiction, according to Pearl, but it is obvious that the format, the way it is delivered, is changing. She knows people will always need escape, stories, and ways to look at the world through the experiences of others.

“I think the more you read, the better person you become, because you can see how other people respond, the way they think, and the way they behave in various circumstances,” Pearl asserts.

She has no Kindle but owns an iPad. It “bothers” her that the book won’t be a physical object, but she thinks ebooks are very useful, especially for travel.

“On a recent trip, I wanted to download and reread The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood and another new novel, but neither was available. That is only one minor limitation of ebooks, but there is also the problem of having to own some technological device,” says Pearl.

“We’re dividing service by income levels. You can’t download a book from a library unless you have one of those devices. Unless the devices get very, very inexpensive, I don’t think libraries can lend them, although I think that would be a solution. I don’t expect it soon. So I worry about the inequities,” says Pearl.

She admits that sometimes she wonders if her attachment to books is nostalgia, like her view “that all libraries should be like Carnegie libraries.”

“Romance readers I watch love the technology. They can download all the romances, and nobody will see the covers.”

“When you read a book, it is just you and the author. Even when people read the same title, everybody reads a different book…. When you listen to a book, a third person enters the equation,” Pearl says. “It is a different experience.”

Pearl also worries about the demise of independent bookstores and the relative health of public libraries.

“Librarians must figure out what we need and how we need it, and then we have to get together and make it happen. I think we still have some power over the direction of these changes,” Pearl asserts.

Making pleasure into work
Pearl’s high profile translated into her becoming the model for the shushing librarian, which is the best seller of all the action figures produced by Seattle manufacturer Archie McPhee. Both adored and abhorred, it is still a favorite among librarians and book lovers.

All the notice and celebrity through the years has made Pearl what she calls “a victim of my own success.” As she points out, “I have taken what was purely a pleasure—reading a book—and turned it into work. Now, whenever I read, I’m always thinking about what kind of reader would like the book and what I’ll write,” Pearl says. Yet, one realizes that for Pearl the pleasure of sharing what she reads is still there. Indeed, it is the driving force behind Nancy Pearl. It is just one of the reasons one of her nominators called her “our national librarian.”

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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