February 17, 2018

Judy Nelson | Movers & Shakers 2005

Part of the Solution

Judy Nelson thinks it’s important to understand what the community wants for its young people, "which means lots of listening." We need to give taxpayers more good reasons to support libraries, she says, and the community’s problems and unmet needs are opportunities for libraries to be an integral part of the solution.

One problem Nelson turned into opportunity was that of at-risk young people in Pierce County’s needy urban areas, and the struggling schools and day-care centers that couldn’t meet their needs alone. "If the majority of your children are in a child-care setting, or can never get to the public library, maybe you need to take the story time to where the kids are," she says.

She did more than that: she came up with the "Explorer bookmobile," a small branch library on wheels that began service in 2003. Designed to bring the total library experience to Pierce County’s low-income neighborhoods, and to the school districts where reading scores are the lowest, the Explorer makes regular stops at Head-Starts, after-school programs, and apartment complexes.

The unusually spacious, expandable bookmobile, which a local reporter dubbed "the coolest clubhouse ever," has books, two computer workstations, and enough room for an entire preschool class to gather round and listen to stories. The librarian offers homework help, matches children up with the perfect reading materials, and checks them out.

Nelson knows that public libraries don’t have the primary responsibility for solving literacy issues or other social problems, but she took to heart what another children’s librarian once told her: "Be at the table. When the community is meeting or discussing anything, be there, wearing a name tag that says you are from the library."

It’s indicative of her philosophy: "find ways to take advantage of opportunities that arise, no matter what." Better still, go out and create those opportunities. That’s how we make libraries not just a "fun add-on" to the community but a part of the solution.


Current Position Youth Services Coordinator, Pierce County Library System, Tacoma

Degree MLS, University of Washington, 1982

Pleasures Gardening and rowing