LISNews Interview With Librarian Nancy Pearl

Most of us are familiar with librarian Nancy Pearl--from her work at the Washington Center for the Book, as the model for the hilarious "librarian action figure" and for her two tremendously successful books--Book Lust and More Book Lust that have caught the interest of the general public as well as those of us in the profession.

Now, dear LISNews readers, you'll get to know Nancy even better in this one-on-one interview with reporter Robin K. Blum, aka birdie.

Read on to learn about Nancy's first serious boyfriend, how she was chosen as the model for the librarian action figure, what she thinks is the most rewarding part of being an author and what she views as librarianship's most significant issues.

A bit of biographical background about Nancy from her Wikipedia listing: Born in 1945, Pearl is a librarian, best-selling author, book reviewer and was, until August 2004, the Executive Director of the Washington Center for the Book at Seattle Public Library. Her prolific reading and her knowledge of books and literature first made her locally famous in Seattle, Washington, where she regularly appears on public radio recommending books.

Pearl achieved broader fame with Book Lust, her guide to good reading. Pearl's approach to enjoying reading is the Rule of 50 which states "If you still don't like a book after slogging through the first 50 pages, set it aside. If you're more than 50 years old, subtract your age from 100 and only grant it that many pages. "

She founded the pioneering and much-imitated "If All Seattle Read The Same Book" project. She has had her face on American Library Association posters and has received numerous awards. Her book reviews appear in the Seattle Times, Booklist, Library Journal, and on the radio on KUOW Seattle, and KWGS Tulsa, Oklahoma, and most recently, nationally on NPR.

In 2003 she received an unusual honor when the Seattle-based company Accoutrements created a librarian action figure in her likeness to be sold in their Seattle store, Archie McPhee. Featuring Pearl with a stack of books and a finger to her lips, the doll's "push to shush" action was popular with some librarians and dismaying to others who felt that the doll reinforced librarian stereotypes. Pearl herself said that the shushing aspect of the action figure would determine "which librarians have a sense of humor."

"More Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Reason", the sequel (published in summer of 2005) also received much acclaim ("a sprightly follow-up"), and was chosen by the Today Show as one of their book-club selections.

The full interview is below...1) Nancy, tell us a little about
yourself...from youth, through high school, college, library school and
up to and including becoming Director of the Washington Center for the
Book and Director of Programming at the Seattle Public Library (i.e.,
pre-Book Lust)

I grew
up in Detroit, Michigan, in a lower middle class family, and spent most
of my childhood and adolescence in the library at the Parkman Branch
Library of the Detroit Public Library.  I graduated from the
University of Michigan in 1965 and got my MLS in 1967 from the library
school there.  I worked for a little while at DPL (but not in the
Parkman Branch, alas!) and then moved with my husband to Ann Arbor,
where he was getting his PhD in Education and Psychology.  We
moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma, where I was basically a stay-at-home
mom, teaching a few courses in humanities for Oklahoma State
University.  We moved to Tulsa in 1978 and I went to work at a
wonderful independent bookstore there, the Yorktown Alley Bookstore (long closed, alas) because the library paid so little.  In 1988 I went to work for the Tulsa City-County Library system as their humanities librarian and soon became head of collection development.  In 1993 I came to Seattle to run the Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library, a position that after about 7 years morphed into supervising programming for all ages.

2) I understand you decided to become a librarian at the age of ten.
What in particular inspired you?

I was
inspired to become a librarian because of a librarian named Frances
Whitehead, who was the children's librarian at Parkman Library. 
Given my disinclination to be at home, and the safeness that I felt at
the library, and her enthusiasm for books and reading, I realized that
if I wanted to do good in the world, to make the world a better place,
to help other people (as she helped me), then the best thing I could be
when I grew up was a librarian.  I've never regretted that
decision.

 

3) We understand that as a teenager, you worked
at the Netzorg's family bookstore in Detroit (The Cellar Bookshop
ABAA).  Did working in a bookstore environment shape your thinking
about reading and books? What
do you remember about those years, and how has that experience come in
handy during your later career?  Best regards from Susan (Netzorg)
Halas, who now lives in Maui Hawaii. {ed note: Sue contacted LISNews last week when she read that we would be interviewing Nancy Pearl}

Goodness,
how do you know Sue?  Tell her hello from me, as well. (Her
brother was my first serious boyfriend.)  I started working for
the Netzorgs when I was 16, pasting address labels on their catalogs.
I worked for them on and off for many many years (eventually I typed
their monthly list of books for sale).  I loved working there, and
some of the books I included in Book Lust and More Book Lust, I
discovered through them, like China to Me by Emily Hahn and Three Came
Home by Agnes Newton Keith.

4) Before Book Lust, you had had written two other titles, Now Read
This: A Guide to Mainstream Fiction, 1978-1998; and Now Read This II: A
Guide to Mainstream Fiction, 1990-2001.  How come they didn't
attract as
much attention as your newer books?

These
two books were not really aimed at the general reader, and they were
published by Libraries Unlimited, which didn't have the national
marketing system that Sasquatch has.  I always hoped they would
bring them out in trade paper so that the general public could take
advantage of them, as well as libraries and librarians.

5) How/when did you come up with the idea of "One Book, One Seattle"
(or is it called "If All Seattle Read the Same Book"), and what's your
opinion of libraries that have enthusiastically copied of your model? 
What might you do differently, or additionally to encourage adult
reading?

As
a result of a grant the Center for the Book/Seattle Public Library got
in 1998, we came up with idea for If All Seattle Read the Same
Book.  It grew out of several strong beliefs of mine:  that
reading and discussing a work of literature builds community, that one
of the roles a library/librarian can fill is to recommend books that
are not best-sellers, and that discussing a book in a non-academic
setting can broaden and deepen a reader's experience with a particular
work of literature.

I think it's wonderful that so
many other communities (around the world) have adapted our idea and
just taken it to amazing heights.  What is so good about the
concept is that it is infinitely adaptable, so communities large and
small can make it fit their particular constituents.

 
6) How/when did the idea of "Book Lust"
come into being?  Did you start to write it first, or get a
publisher first?

I have
been reviewing books on the local public radio affiliate in Seattle
ever since I moved here in 1993, so the editor at Sasquatch knew about
my work and what I did.  He called me in 2002 and asked me to come
in and talk to him about doing a book for them and basically gave me
carte blanche to write about any and all books new, old, children's,
young adult, fiction, non-fiction, in print or out of print; it was a
wonderful opportunity. So I have to give all the idea credit to the
Sasquatch folks.  Of course, nobody thought it would do as well as
it has, and the fact that it has is very gratifying.

7) How/when did Archie McPhee approach you as the model for the
shushing librarian doll?  Tell us all about it.

I
was at a dinner party with the owner of Archie McPhee, a wonderful guy
named Mark Pahlow, who's a real reader.  He was telling us about a
story that had appeared in the National Enquirer or one of those
tabloid newspapers about how people believed that the Jesus action
figure was performing miracles in their lives.  I (or someone
it's a bit blurry in my memory by now) piped up and said, "but Mark,
the people who perform miracles every day are librarians."  And
someone else said, "yeah, Mark, you ought to do a librarian action
figure?"  And then we all fell off our chairs laughing (it could
have been the wine, too).  Then somebody said, "and Nancy ought to
be the model, since she doesn't take herself so seriously."?nbsp; As we
were driving home that night, my husband said, "Would you really want
to be the model for an action figure?" And I said (famous last words),
"Oh, Joe, it'll never happen.  Don't even think about it.!"

 
8) What do you think about being the model for an action figure that's
more popular than Jesus?

It's a
hoot - but look how John Lennon got in trouble for saying that about
the Beatles!

9) As the personification of a traditional or stereotypical librarian,
what do you think of the new anti-stereotype* librarian (tatooed or
pierced librarians for example)?  Or the image of librarians in
general?

I
don't think of myself as the personification of a traditional or
stereotypical librarian. The LAF (librarian action figure) isn't real; It's great that the
profession has attracted many different sorts of people, and continues
to do so, as I know from my experiences teaching in the Information School at the
University of Washington.

10) We've heard that these are your favorite books:  Fiction-The
Brothers K, The Prince of Tides, Searching for Caleb, The Eyre Affair,
A Gay and Melancholy Sound. Non-Fiction-The Best and the Brightest,
Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War, Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World,
The Liars' Club, Into Thin Air.  What makes them favorites? 
Any other additions?

This
list changes very frequently, usually immediately after I read a book
that I really like.  So you can check out my website
nancypearl.com for more current book loves.  But it is a
good basic list of some books that I did just love.  What they
have in common is two things:  good writing and interesting
characters.  Those are the two things that I care about in the
books I read. Plot doesn't particularly matter, nor whether it's
fiction or non-fiction, nor how fast or dense a read the book is (that
is more a matter of mood, actually).  Give me good writing and
good characters, and I'm yours, bookwise.

11) Have you ever read anything you're too embarrassed to admit (except
in this interview)?

Oh
well, I’m a huge fan of Georgette Heyer (particularly The Grand Sophy,
Arabella, The Talisman Ring, and Sylvester), D.E. Stevenson, Elswyth
Thane's Williamsburg novels, and Elizabeth Cadell.

12) What would you say to someone who applied the "20-page rule" to
your own book, putting it aside because their tastes were not your own?

First,
it’s the 50 page rule, not 20 page unless they're 80, in which case
they only have to read 20 pages.  If readers can't find something
good to read in Book Lust or More Book Lust, and give up on it, that's
totally fine.  They'll miss out on a lot of good reading
suggestions, though!

13) Tell us about working at the Seattle Library during the period of
the planning for the new building and its construction.  What do
you think about the new library?

 
There are parts of the Library that I absolutely love, like the book
spiral, which I used to compile on of my favorite categories in More
Book Lust Dewey Deconstructed.  My taste in libraries, though,
leans much more toward the traditional.  I really admired both the
Salt Lake City P.L. and the Phoenix P.L. when I visited both of them.

14) How do you like being an author?  What's life on the road
like, touring, speaking, being interviewed?  How is your family
reacting to your celebrity status?

The
best part about having written the two Book Lust books is that I get to
go around the country and meet librarians and other devoted readers. I
was invited to the Sydney Writer's Festival this past May, and it was
wonderful to be there.  I talked to lots of librarians, shared
books we loved and disliked, and met with tons of Aussie readers. 
It was terrific.  Getting places from Seattle tends to be a real
hassle, it takes all day to fly anywhere, which adds on to the days
away from home. On the other hand, flying gives me lots of reading
time.  My husband, who does all the travel arrangements, and
basically acts as my agent, wishes that I would be home more, but so
far I'm having too much fun.  My two grown daughters are very
proud of me.

15) Congratulations on the success of your sequel "More Book
Lust."  We heard that your original title for the second book was,
"Book Lust II: The Morning After," but that the publisher nixed
it.  What's next after "More Book Lust"?

Yes,
alas, Sasquatch didn't want to use that title.  Now I'm working on
a book of recommended books for children and YA's, called (unless
there's a change), Book Crush.  It'll be out in 2007. 
Basically, it'll be divided into three different age groups, and then
within each of those will be categories like in Book Lust.  I'm
having a lot of fun writing it, reading and re-reading children's and
ya books.  I began as a children's librarian, so it's great to go
back to my library roots.

16) What do you like and dislike about reviewing books?  Who are
some of your favorite reviewers/book review publications?  What's
it like reviewing for NPR?

It's
funny, but I don't think of myself as a book reviewer rather, I
consider myself a book promoter, or something like that.  I don't
want to take valuable radio time to talk about a book that's not worth
reading, when there are so many books that are worth reading that
people might have a hard time even hearing about unless someone like me
talks about them.  The important thing to remember about book
reviews is that in the end it's only one person's opinion of the
book.  Doing the book segments on NPR is great.  They have
terrific editors, and I love talking to Steve Inskeep.

17) How are you enjoying your "retirement" from being a
librarian?  Are you glad you left your position at the Seattle
Public Library?

I am
very glad I left the library in 2004.  It was absolutely the right
thing to do.  I had a great 11 years there, but it was time to
move on.

18) Okay, now for some general questions about the profession of
librarianship, as of course most of our readers are librarians or
librarians-in-training:

A) What are the three biggest problems facing librarianship today?
B)  In a perfect world, how would these issues get resolved?
C) Is there anything we as individual librarians and/or library
associations can do in the real world to fix the three biggest problems?
And finally,
D) if you had just graduated from Library School this past May, how do
you think your future career would be different from the way it actually
was and what advice would you give to new graduates?

I
think the biggest problem facing librarianship today is that we have
yet to balance the three important functions a library has in a
community:  information access, providing people with books and
material for their recreational learning and reading, and offering
quality programs for our patrons.  The pendulum swung way way over
on the information access side and has yet to right itself.  We
graduate people from library schools (information schools) knowing how
to build a website, but not knowing how to recommend a book to someone
who comes in asking for something good to read.  That's sad. 
In a perfect world, reader's advisory classes would be required, at
least required for anyone going the public library or school library
track.  In a perfect world, there would be full time, tenured
faculty teaching those courses.  Not that the adjunct faculty (I
am one) do a bad job we all do great jobs; but it sends the wrong
message.

If I had just graduated from library
school, I think it would be harder to end up where I am, because
there's less acceptance among library administrators that reader's
advisory services and programming are vital roles for a library. I
think that if we put all our eggs in the information access basket, we
will become irrelevant in the not too far distant future.

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A tad wishy washy

> I don’t think of myself as the personification of a traditional or stereotypical librarian. The LAF (librarian action figure) isn’t “me.�Who is it then? Because it doesn't look like anyone else but you, dearie. Her answer reminds me of Andrew Dice Clay's assertion that Diceman was "just a character" he was playing.All of the answers sound like she's running for congress or something. The final point about the triad of library functions is really good, though.

Hats Off To Birdie!

Thanks again to Robin and everyone who submitted a question, and especially thanks to "the librarian action figure" for answering all our questions.I'd love to hear more ideas for interviews we can run.

Re:Hats Off To Birdie!

It is really nice that LISNews has started featuring more original work like these interviews.

One idea I had for an interview series would be short questions and answers for LISNews members - sort of a featured "LisNewster of the Month" type thing.

Re:A tad wishy washy

I don't know--maybe wishy washy was what I was in the mood for, because I really enjoyed reading that! Also, the thing about the LAF not being "her" is probably in reference to the shushing action. I do wish they'd given the action figure a better outfit. Now I'm just getting off topic.... :-)

More suggestions...

I'd like to hear more from some archivists, and people who make meta-data for books - coding books, making ontologies(?) and whatever...I'd also like to hear from some people in the tech world, about data access, new algorithms, etc. But that might turn into soft-sell 'buy our product' type of thing, and that I'm a lot less interested in....I'd also like to hear more about innovative programs, and innovative ideas in library design (architecture? or just plain remodeling). One of the better things I'd seen is a glassed off Children's area, which keeps the noise level down in the main library, and also keeps the kids somewhat segregated from the adults (but still in view). Book lockers I've heard about, but I'd like to see, or hear more about...And yeah, it's too damn early :P-- Ender, Duke_of_URL

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