Nancy Pearl: an interview with the 2011 Librarian of the Year

When Seattle super librarian Nancy Pearl was named 2011 Librarian of the Year by Library Journal her fans asked: "Why did it take so long?"

Josh Armstrong – CSM staff/file
"Once a librarian, always a librarian," says 2011 Librarian of the Year Nancy Pearl.

Technically, the 2011 Librarian of the Year is retired. But Nancy Pearl, already the country’s most famous librarian when she left the Seattle Public Library in 2004, has only become busier and better known in the years since. She writes books and speaks on the radio about new and old titles that readers might love; she travels the country speaking to book lovers and helping train a new generation of librarians. Legions of fans rely on her encyclopedic knowledge and her informed intuition for what any given reader might want to check out next.

“What took you so long?” fans asked when the honor was announced.

When I interviewed Pearl years back on her official “retirement,” national colleagues praised her for founding the nationally replicated “If All Seattle Read The Same Book” program and for her bestselling “Book Lust” series. She was already known for the “Rule of 50”, where she saw no point in any reader's continuing to read a book if the book wasn't enjoyable by page 50 (subtracting an extra page for each year that the reader is over 50), and for the sense of humor that allowed her to model for a “Shushing Librarian” action figure.

But what distinguished her even more to me was the passion for reading that any book lover can sense in another – but expressed, in Pearl, on an unprecedented scale that went beyond genre or age or personal likes.

“She is almost like a 'Jeopardy!' quiz person,” a librarian told me at the time. “You could throw out the most obscure book imaginable and not only would she know what that book was and who the author was, she also would know the other books in the series and five other books to read if you liked that book.”

Pearl is plain the most fun person I can remember talking with about books. Her recommendations make me run to the library to check out her picks, much like
my favorite school librarians did years ago.

I asked her via email this last week if she still thinks of herself as a librarian. “Once a librarian, always a librarian,” she replied.

Is her current career anything like what she imagined when she sort-of retired? She never imagined at the point, she wrote, that this would be her life. “It's been amazing, humbling, invigorating, and exhausting.”

Here’s what else she had to say. And for her ongoing picks, check her out (figuratively, of course) here.

Q: What are some of your favorite recent books?
A: Jo Walton's "Farthing" and her newest, "Among Others." I am a huge fan. I'm just starting "Tooth and Claw." Daniel Aaronovitch's "Midnight Riot" – great fun for those who love a little bit of dark fantasy with their mysteries. Edmund de Waal's "The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss." C.J. Sansom's "Heartstone" (historical mystery).

Q: With all that you read, are there any books you make time to re-read?
A: I reread a lot – I find that it's like great comfort food – mac and cheese and an Agatha Christie favorite, "Why Didn't They Ask Evans," or Josephine Tey's "Brat Farrar" or "The Franchise Affair" are books I reread frequently. Also, I reread my favorite novels from 1960 to 2000, now all, sadly, out of print.

Q: I saw that you own an iPad, but not a Kindle. What are your feelings on ebooks?
A: I am not at all opposed to ebooks per se – it's always been the content of a book that I care most about, not its delivery method; and they certainly will make it easier to take books along on a trip. But reading on an ebook doesn't offer the same tactile pleasure that reading a bound book does. There's just something about the heft of a book, the different fonts different books use, even the shade of white of the page that seems awfully special to me. And that's all lost in an ebook. And I worry that ebooks will be the death of the few independent bookstores that we still have managed to keep in business. And then I worry about libraries, and whether it will now make it easier for people to argue that there's no need for library buildings, since everything can be downloaded. People forget that not everyone can even afford a Kindle or a Nook.

Q: Tell me about interviewing Neil Gaiman at the ALA (American Library Association conference)! What do you think of his work?
A: The interview with Neil Gaiman was great – he was charming, talkative, and interesting. Although it was about an hour long, it was one of those interviews that could have gone on much longer – I never really got to ask him about "The Sandman" series, or much about "American Gods" and "Anansi Boys." I am a big fan of his work, beginning with "Neverwhere" and "Good Omens" (which he wrote with another favorite of mine, Terry Pratchett). I reread "The Graveyard Book" just before I went to ALA for the interview and found it was even better the second time.

Q: As I remember, the stack of books your "Librarian Action Figure" is holding keeps changing – except for one book, "Farenheit 451." Were there any other candidates?
A: Mark Pahlow, the head of Accoutrements, who made the Librarian Action Figure, wanted the Bradbury book to be included in each batch of books. And, of course, I agreed.

Q: Have you seen a major shift lately in readers tastes and the types of books they read? In the age of Twitter, are you finding readers willing to follow even a 50-page rule?
A: I haven't actually noticed any changes at all – people are still interested in finding books, both fiction and non-fiction, that will engross and entertain them.

Rebekah Denn blogs at

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