Dewey Decimal divas

Librarians ditch their cardigans and don feather boas to compete in the Book Cart Drill Team World Championships.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

The librarian from Ohio popped a wheelie on his book cart, and the audience went wild. The team of librarians from Texas wore red, white, and blue feather boas as they danced the boogie-woogie while pushing their book carts in pinwheel formation. The Delaware team outfitted their performance vehicles in silver lamé and dressed in rhinestones, as they executed their signature "wave-canon" maneuver.

Welcome to the Third Annual Bookcart Drill Team World Championships, where librarians in elaborate costumes choreograph spinning carts, execute dance and gymnastic routines to jazzy soundtracks, and shake their booties to shake up the public perception of the stuffy librarian.

Last weekend's world championship at the American Library Association's annual meeting is the most high-profile, but not the only, event of its kind. There are more than 200 library cart drill teams around the country – all part of an ALA image makeover and public outreach effort.

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"It's all about the image that librarians are stodgy, stern, always shushing," said Caroline Langendorfer of Madison, Wis., a competitor in the previous two world championships. "Cardigans. Hair buns. I love shaking up [that] stereotype."

Taking team names like the Book Pushers (Benicia, Calif.), Dewey Decimal Dancers (Frederick, Md.), Cartwheelers (Springfield, Ill.), the Rolling Tomes (Virginia Beach, Va.), and the Las Vegas Bookies, teams march in local parades, perform at state fairs and regional festivals, visit schools to promote literacy, and compete in state-level contests. And a few fortunate teams get to go for the gold – the gold book cart, that is, at the ALA World Championship.

"This is a wonderfully weird event," said Jon Scieszka, a well-known children's book author who served as emcee and color commentator for the competition Sunday at the Washington Convention Center, which drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 1,500 hooting and hollering librarians.

Mr. Scieszka has become an unabashed book cart team groupie; together with author/illustrator and fellow drill team aficionado Mo Willems, he's made cameo appearances, in a bathrobe and crash helmet, at the previous world championship events. "It's librarians performing ballet, crossed with NASCAR, the World Series, the Olympics, and Mickey Mouse on Ice – all in an unholy combination."

The teams approach the competition with a sly wink and characteristically solid reference skills. They consult the "bible" of the movement, "The Library Bookcart Drill Team Manual." They also scout the competition in advance, watching videos of the other teams' posted on YouTube: "We did a little stealth work," admitted Janelle Wertzberger of Gettysburg, Pa. "We're librarians, we know how to do research!"

Rules are firm: teams have just five minutes to decorate their carts ("The secret is to use magnets," one contestant revealed, working like a member of a NASCAR pit crew to get her cart in shape) but the logo of the contest's sponsor, Demco, a major library materials supplier, must not be obscured. The maximum routine is four minutes, with a half-point penalty on technical ability scores for each 10 seconds over. There's also an artistic expression score from one to ten.

Teams practice several times a week for months, perfecting spins, passes, and special maneuvers with names like the Flower, Runway Promenade, Bette-Midler Walk, and the One-Point Spin.

Each team has a choreographer, like Katy Gibson, who put her team through a final rehearsal: "One, two, three, four, watch your line, turn on five," she called out to the Book Divas from Houston, a powerhouse group of elementary school librarians that captured the Texas Library Association crown two years running, and placed second in the nationals last year. They're aiming for gold this time and sponsored their trip to Washington by selling a Book Divas calendar – like the English Calendar Girls, but everyone's fully clothed – posed in their trademark feather boas and appropriate book props for each month. At Sunday's championships they were decked out in Rosie the Riveter costumes, their lead cart sporting airplane wings and a propeller, and the motto "Reading is Riveting" emblazoned on their shirts.

"Let's practice our throws," a member of the Readin' & Rollin' team from Milford, Ohio, said to her partner, as they shot book carts to one another in time to a spiced-up version of "Flight of the Bumble Bee." "This is our toughest maneuver," explains Marlene Noschong, and on the shiny convention center floors the carts were moving faster than the team was accustomed to (they practice on carpet) and their timing needed adjustment. Teams also adapt their performances to different venues: Parades, for example, call for different costumes and moves.

"The community loves us in the parades," says Noschong of the Ohio troupe, which performs in parades for the Cincinnati Reds Opening Day and the Fourth of July. "They don't expect it. And we reach people who don't necessarily come into the library, but now they see us in a different light. It absolutely has a positive effect."

The Delaware Diamonds team, resplendent in black outfits with silver rhinestones, had a case of the jitters, and with good reason: It was their debut. It's a statewide team, drawn from 55 librarians who answered the call to try out. Regulations cap teams at 12, and the test was to do the hokey pokey with a straight face. The state librarian of Delaware, Annie Norman, made the cut, and on Sunday all aglitter, she waited nervously for the Diamonds to take their first bow: "We were trying to get rid of our stodgy image," she laughed, "and now we've gone straight to an eccentric image."

"I think it means a lot to the community, seeing librarians spoofing themselves," said Deidre Ross, director of conference services for the ALA. She started the world championship in 2005 when she realized how popular the drill teams were becoming in local communities. "You don't picture librarians doing this."

With the "graying" of the library profession – half of all credentialed librarians will reach retirement age in the coming decade – there is hope that this new fun and funky image of the modern librarian will help recruit young people to the field.

When the carts got rolling, the competition was stiff. Chris Rich of the Readin' & Rollin' team brought the house down with his finale: an audacious one-wheeled spin, the triple Lutz of book cart stunts. Everyone grooved along to the "Jungle Boogie" beat of the Gettysburg Gett Down With Your Funky Shelf team performance, and they won high artistic scores. The Delaware Diamonds were stunning in their Busby Berkeley tribute, complete with a feather-fanned dancer sashaying atop a runway of book carts. And the Houston Book Divas stole the crowd's heart striking that famous Rosie the Riveter muscle pose.

When the scores were tallied, it was close, but the Book Divas rolled home on the golden book cart (it'll be shipped to Houston, where celebrations are planned). The Gettysburg Funky Shelf took the silver-painted cart, and the Delaware Diamonds captured the bronze.

"I was dazzled; it was fantastic," exclaimed Holly Bunt, director of the Western Reserve Academy library in Hudson, Ohio. She and her colleagues immediately began thinking about forming their own drill team. That's the way the drill team idea seeds itself across the land.

"It shows we can do more than sit at a desk and check books in and out," said Ms. Bunt. "It shows we have creativity and coordination."

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