An Exclusive Q&A with Librarian Nancy Pearl

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In celebration of National Library Week, 2018, an exclusive Q&A with librarian Nancy Pearl, by Karen Brissette.

Don't miss your chance to win one of Nancy's Librarian Action Figures in our giveaway! Click through to enter for your chance to win.

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When I was asked to prepare some interview questions for Nancy Pearl: “America’s librarian,” queen of readers’ advisory, author, teacher, booknerd legend, I immediately knew what the first one had to be:

Do you ever make your Nancy Pearl librarian action figure battle other, weaker toys? OR: have you ever staged a battle between red Nancy Pearl and blue Nancy Pearl? Who wins?

I like to think that the LAFs (Librarian Action Figures) aren’t in competition with all the other action figures out there, but rather that like the librarian she is, she’s around to assist the other action figures locate the information they need to have successful, soul-satisfying lives (and also to suggest good books for them to read). One of her most popular reading suggestions over the years has been Beowulf; probably the second most-read book among the cohort of action figures is Frankenstein.

And that’s how you get to be America’s librarian, folks - always be “on,” always be helping, even in plastic avatar mode. For the record, if I had a Karen action figure, the first thing I’d do is establish dominance over the dinosaurs. Nancy Pearl wouldn’t even “shush” ‘em.

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For more reasons why Nancy Pearl is the best in the biz, read on as we kick off National Library Week!

How does Nancy Pearl typically celebrate National Library Week? Are there events scheduled this year that warrant a shout-out?

Quite honestly, every week is a library week for me. I’m at my neighborhood library (the Northeast branch of the Seattle Public Library) at least once a week to pick up my holds, to browse the new books, or to see what titles are displayed on the “Peak Picks” shelves. When I was working on my novel George & Lizzie I’d go the library every afternoon and write for a couple of hours.

This year’s theme for the 60th anniversary of National Library Week is “Libraries Lead.” How does that theme resonate with you? How can a library best effect its leadership role, and still maintain its neutrality, in a time when many people are experiencing turmoil and unease about current events and apprehension about the future? What are your suggestions for escapist literature transporting enough to block out all the noise and stress?

I think I’d have liked the 60th anniversary theme to be “Librarians Lead,” rather than “Libraries Lead,” because after all without librarians libraries are just buildings. It’s the human interaction between librarian and library patron (and I much prefer the word patron to user or customer) that makes the library assume its rightful place as the heart of the community. It’s librarians who do story hours, lead book groups, suggest books to people of all ages. From welcoming teens to unjamming printers, from teaching a class on how to use the online catalog to helping a child find just the right biography of Satchel Paige or Franklin Roosevelt, it’s librarians who bring the building and its materials to life.

Ever since I learned to read, I’ve been reading to escape, so I’m so glad I now have a chance to suggest some of my favorites: nearly all of the Georgette Heyer novels--Arabella, Venetia, Sylvester, The Grand Sophy, and Frederica especially. The historical fantasies by Guy Gavriel Kay, especially The Lions of Al-Rassan, Under Heaven, and The Last Light of the Sun. Adrian McKinty’s series featuring the Belfast police detective Sean Duffy, beginning with The Cold, Cold Ground. Oh, I could go on forever, listing my favorite reads and re-reads.

Your “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book” initiative back in 1998 was so successful that now hundreds of cities across the globe have adopted a version of the program. Do you see this ever broadening into a national program here; a “One Book, One Country” readalong? What would be some books capable of appealing to such a large number of readers; to inspire empathy, understanding, and unity in a population as disparate as ours?

Our great neighbor to the north does a version of the program we began in way back in 1998 that’s called “Canada Reads,” and I love everything about the way they do it. I certainly wish we could do the same sort of thing here but quite honestly I don’t see it happening. It would be way too difficult to choose a book that “everyone” should read. Every book I think would be wonderful to read and discuss—for example Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Tim Gautreaux’s The Missing, Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying, Paulette Jiles’s The Color of Lightning, Luis Urrea’s House of Broken Angels, Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, or pretty much any of Russell Banks’s novels (but especially The Sweet Hereafter and Lost Memory of Skin)—I can hear in my head people objecting to its selection for various reasonable and unreasonable reasons. Nonetheless, I think each of these novels would do everything we want books to do: encourage understanding and develop empathy for those who are different from ourselves.

In the past decade or so, there have been a number of organizations, and sometimes individuals, finding creative and interactive ways to promote literacy and a love of reading with a social, community-oriented, or adventurous angle: little free libraries, BookCrossing, The Book Fairies, Book Scavenger, etc. To what do you attribute the popularity of these grassroots booknerd movements? Is it tied to the energy and enthusiasm that has made book-based social media sites successful? Could these fun book-adventures flourish without an online presence? (If a book is found in a forest in which there is no cell phone reception…)

What I love about all these grassroots movements is that there’s always the possibility that you’ll find the exact book that you’ve spent years looking for—so I’m a big fan of Little Free Libraries and happily go out of my way on my daily walks to check out each and every one on my route. I don’t spend much time on any online book site, although I’ve always been intrigued by BookCrossing because it would be cool to track where your book has gone, but I also know that I’d be one of those people who never get around to entering the BCID on the website. Can I say here the book I’ve been looking for ever since the Little Free Libraries came into existence? It’s Grace Richardson’s novel for teens, Apples Every Day. So far, no luck.

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In the less civic-minded but equally enthusiastic online booknerd presence, there are the book bloggers and vloggers, the bookstagram celebrities, the subscription box services that have turned “unboxing” a book into a ceremony worth documenting on social media. Are there any blogs, reviewers, bookstagrammers that you follow? Is there an untapped potential for readers’ advisory work to be done on any of these platforms?

I know that there are probably many readers out there whose blogs I’d probably enjoy reading, but in fact I only read a couple. I find Laurie Besteman’s choice of books interesting and appreciate her opinions (even if I don’t always agree with them). She blogs at bestlau.wordpress.com. Ditto for Catherine Gilmore, whom I follow on Twitter @GilmoreGuide. She’s an excellent, insightful reader and writer. As for my favorite professional reviewers, I love reading Ron Charles in the Washington Post (plus, his videos are very entertaining) and Donna Seaman in Booklist.

What are some of the most innovative applications of readers’ advisory practice you’ve seen, either within or outside of a library setting?

So many libraries are doing good jobs with personalized RA with their patrons that’s it hard to single out any of them, but one I do what to mention what Melanie Melwyk, a librarian at the Stratford Public Library in Canada (whom I really admire) is doing. I follow her on Twitter @Melwyk and, using the hashtag #AskALibrarian, she does a great job responding to specific requests for what to read next. One recent question was for dystopian novels and her suggestions included both standard novels and much lesser known ones.

What is your advice for people who want to be you when they grow up, even if - koff - they are already grown?

Read, read, read, read, read. Talk about books. Understand why you (and others) like—or don’t like—the books they’ve read. Realize that no two people read the same version of a book, that we bring to our reading everything that’s happened in our lives, all of our experiences (which are of course different from anyone else’s). And oh, did I already say read, read, read, read?

Your novel George & Lizzie does one of the best things a book can do, which is to entice a reader to seek out the many other books mentioned in the course of the story. Is this something you set out purposefully to do, or did it happen organically as a result of not being able to turn off the RA factory inside your brain?

I’m so glad you liked all the book references in George & Lizzie—I didn’t necessarily plan to do this, but all those book shout-outs grew out of who Lizzie is. I wish now that I’d included more of the books that Lizzie loved—there are many of them.

In the readers’ advisory process, we’re cautioned against letting our own personal tastes get in the way of making pure, objective suggestions to a patron, but sometimes books we like ARE the most appropriate suggestion. This ethical quandary must be even more complicated when you’ve actually written a novel. If you had to reverse-engineer the typical RA interaction, fans of which three books or authors would like George & Lizzie? Which doorways would they choose?

I love this question. George & Lizzie is definitely a character-driven novel, so I think that fans of Anne Tyler (especially Searching for Caleb and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant), Laurie Colwin’s first novel Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object, and Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen might very well enjoy it. Oh, and also the short stories of Lorrie Moore and Katherine Heiny’s Single, Carefree, Mellow.

With all the new developments in affective computing, where scientists are using emotional analytics to enhance the intuitive functionality of AI, what does the future of readers’ advisory look like? We were always told that algorithms could never replace a human when it came to the nuance and intuition of a readers’ advisory interview, but that was before there was a “smart fridge” in development able to suggest a food to match a hungry person’s mood. Is this something to look forward to, or something to dread with Maximum Overdrive-inspired suspicion?

Call me old-fashioned or tell me that I lack imagination, but there’s so much mystery about the relationship between readers and the books they love (or don’t) that can’t be answered by a series of questions or crowd-sourcing that I can’t even picture how even the best AI could do RA. You have to listen to how someone talks about a book before you can even feel a little bit confident about recommending or suggesting another book to them. A few years ago I did a TEDx talk at Seattle University called Reading with Purpose. It described my theory of why people enjoy the books the do. It’s available online here.

I have to read “a celebrity memoir” for one of the tasks in Book Riot’s 2018 Read Harder challenge. What do you suggest? I am open to any type of celebrity; any gender, age, race, or currency, and my only criteria is that it be more substance than flash, and that it not follow the narrative-arc-cliché of “early success ruined by overindulgence in perks of success leading to downfall, followed by peace and self-reflective wisdom.” Good stories, decent writing, humor a plus.

I don’t read a lot of memoirs, and especially not celebrity memoirs, but I loved Patti Smith’s Just Kids.

I know it is only April, but what are the under-the-radar reads of 2018 so far?

Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers and Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come are two books that I’ve loved. (The Makkai doesn’t come out until June.)

Is there a book-related thing that you have not yet done, i.e. “What’s next on the Nancy Pearl bookworld domination program?”

What I’d love to do is walk across the country raising money for small and rural libraries. Would anyone out there like to plan it for me?

An enormous “thank you” to Nancy Pearl for taking the time to answer these questions, and especially for helping me choose my celebrity memoir. May you have a wonderful National Library Week, culminating with the discovery of Apples Every Day in a Little Free Library near you.

And don't miss your chance to win one of Nancy's Librarian Action Figures in our giveaway! Click through to enter for your chance to win.

  • George and Lizzie: A Novel

  • Arabella (Regency Romances Book 9)

  • Venetia (Regency Romances)

  • Sylvester: or The Wicked Uncle (Regency Romances)

  • The Grand Sophy (Regency Romances Book 10)

  • Frederica (Regency Romances Book 24)

  • The Lions of al-Rassan

  • Under Heaven

  • The Last Light of the Sun

  • The Cold Cold Ground: A Detective Sean Duffy Novel

  • Lonesome Dove: A Novel

  • The Missing (Vintage Contemporaries)

  • A Lesson Before Dying (Oprah's Book Club)

  • The Color of Lightning: A Novel (P.S.)

  • The House of Broken Angels

  • The Mothers: A Novel

  • Sweet Hereafter: A Novel

  • Lost Memory of Skin: A Novel

  • Apples Every Day

  • Searching for Caleb