Assistant Professor, University of Hawai’i
at Manoa, Honolulu
Ed.D, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2012; MLS, Clarion University of Pennsylvania, 2003
Photo by Andrew Wertheimer, Ph.D
Street Lit Queen
“I have a saying that I always share with my students: ‘Every experience is the answer to a reference question,’ ” says Vanessa Irvin, an assistant professor in the library and information science program at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.
Her own experience, in the late 1990s, of seeing street lit draw teens to the Free Library of Philadelphia, where Irvin was an adult/teen librarian from 1998 to 2005, inspired the questions that have driven much of her research in the years since.
These teens asked for titles such as Flyy Girl and True to the Game, both set in the Philly metro region where Irvin herself grew up. She and those young readers could identify with the books’ settings and characters—and with one another.
“These connections allowed me to engage deeply with the books and the people who were reading them,” she says. “This was the beginning of my deep work with contemporary street literature.”
As a scholar, Irvin delved into street literature as she earned her Ed.D and taught library students at Clarion and Drexel universities. Her book The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Street Literature (ALA Editions) was awarded the 2012 American Library Association/Reference and User Services Association Zora Neale Hurston Award, given for demonstrating leadership in promoting African American literature, and the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education’s Faculty Book Award.
“Vanessa is truly the ‘Queen of Street Literature,’ ” says K.C. Boyd, a 2015 Mover & Shaker. “Her research has [influenced] librarians globally. She has defined the genre, and now academia finally respects how it is positively impacting marginalized communities.”
Irvin has also encouraged and mentored countless other next-generation librarians, says nominator Latanya Jenkins, a reference librarian at Temple University.
In 2002, Irvin founded the Pennsylvania African American Library Association (PAALA). Beyond awarding annual $500 scholarships to Philadelphia-area black LIS students, it has served as a training platform for members to become leaders. “All the past presidents for PAALA, a cohort of about 12 librarians, are now managers, directors, and department heads in their respective fields,” she says. In 2014, PAALA became an official chapter of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA).
Irvin’s current research focuses on how reading habits of librarians inform their professional practice and the ways in which librarians are patrons of their own libraries. “I want librarians to understand that who we are informs our librarianship and, in turn, directly affects the literacy of the world via our impacts on the people we serve (including one another),” she says.