Nancy Pearl Admits She Plays Angry Birds

Our guest speaker at my library’s Staff Development Day yesterday was none other than world-famous librarian Nancy Pearl!  You may already know her from the “Shushing Librarian Action Figure.”  Or, for you more literary types, NPR’s Morning Edition. Yep, my library’s pretty hip.

At our staff day, Nancy described herself as a “reader” who comes at books from both a library and a bookstore background.  But public librarianship is near to her heart — she calls it one of the only two democratic institutions left in our communities, the other being public schools. They remain places where people from all walks of life and all ages can come get the information they need.

And Nancy is all about her readers.  When I was first initiated into the field of librarianship, I really loathed the idea of “Readers’ Advisory.” Too prescriptive and authoritative, gross!  But Nancy and her peers call it “Readers’ Services,” and she describes her work as collaborative: a conversation and a relationship between readers.  Ooh, I like that — sounds a little more Freireian!  And, argues Pearl, “people are desperate for ANY kind of direction about what to read… and that’s the role librarians can fill.”  Consider me a convert.

The heart of Nancy’s talk was the so-called Three-Legged Stool of Librarianship. She identifies three functions that are so important the stool will wobble unless they’re balanced:

I. INFORMATION

OK, information is really important guys.  But with the rise of the internet, argued Nancy, this leg has threatened to subsume every other aspect of the library. Library schools have even started taking the word “library” out of their names and are becoming “iSchools“. Nancy argued that you can Google “How do I move a toilet?” and you’ll find exactly the right answer. But Google “What should I read next?” and you won’t get a very personalized response. But lest you call Nancy an internet-hating Luddite, she defended her hipness by letting it be known that she has a Kindle, iPad, and iPhone 4… and that she also plays Angry Birds and tweets once a day (@Nancy_Pearl).

II. READING FOR PLEASURE

Pleasure, entertainment, wisdom, development of personhood and world perspective — so important, but so devalued by our puritanish ways, which get a cheap thrill out of downplaying ‘hedonistic’ concepts like “pleasure” and “entertainment” like they’re dirty words. But, Nancy argues, reading is a way to get respite from a world tough to live in; a way to lose yourself and then find yourself again. She recommends Joyce Saricks’ book on Readers Advisory as a good introduction for people like me.

III. OUTREACH & PROGRAMMING

Nancy waxed poetic about book discussion groups, which can teach us how to communicate civilly and engage with each other. They promote world peace!  (I’m totally going to use that argument in my next round of department budget talks.)  Nancy also affirmed that measuring programs solely by numbers is screwy, and that we need to make sense of programs qualitatively, too, by asking questions like: “Did this program make you want to read more books by this author?”  Anecdotes like these can be used to get funding & grants.

Other major takeaways from the morning included buying socks at Nordstrom and Nancy’s erstwhile wish to study generative grammar at MIT with Noam Chomsky.  And as for the shushing librarian action figure?  “Well,” says Nancy, “I wish that for the Deluxe edition they’d made the skirt a little bit shorter.”

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