Q: At the recent BookExpo America, your name was reverently evoked by Sari Feldman, of the Cuyahoga County Public Library (in Ohio), during a very well-attended panel on how librarians create buzz for books. Feldman praised the work you did there, commuting from Seattle for one week a month over an entire year, and helping to turn librarians there into “soldiers in the Nancy Pearl army”—a good army, though, one that fights to get books into readers’ hands. I’m sure many libraries would love to have you work with them over the course of the year as well, but since they (probably) can’t, can you share some of what you learned from your experience at CCPL?

A: I learned many things from spending one week a month over the course of a year (2008–2009) at CCPL—not the least of which is that I never again want to change terminals at O’Hare in Chicago! That result aside, being at CCPL was an amazing opportunity for me to work closely with a library staff that was being encouraged to focus on books and reading to help their customers.

One thing quickly became apparent to me: without an administration committed to building a community of readers within its service area and willing to put in staff time and resources—both of which translate into money, of course—the effort is not going to be successful. During my initial talks about this yearlong project with library director Sari Feldman and assistant director Tracy Strobel, they left no doubt that they were serious about having the CCPL staff—at all levels—act on the belief that promoting books and reading is the major aspect of a library’s mission. It also became apparent early on that if this yearlong project was going to be successful, and to continue long after the year was over, we needed the support and involvement of the CCPL board and the union leadership. That involved regular updates and discussions with both groups.

The second thing I learned—as I have always believed, and as Sari and Tracy recognized—is the importance of not limiting yourself to the professional staff if you’re developing a culture that emphasizes the pleasure of reading. We wanted everyone who worked for CCPL, from the budget team to the pages, from cataloguers to circulation staff, to feel that they were part of this refocusing of the library’s energies. Everyone was encouraged to talk about what they were reading and what sort of books they liked (or didn’t like). One of the best workshops I facilitated that year was with the circulation staff, many of whom were among the most voracious readers I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Another useful workshop was on marketing and displays. Each workshop was offered at least twice—once in the morning and once in the afternoon—so that no matter what their schedule, staff could attend.

Staff members at each branch were also encouraged to begin regular book groups for customers (or to reinvigorate already existing groups). In addition, we began two book discussion groups for staff. Again, everyone was welcome and could attend either the morning or the evening group. Attendance at these book discussions was voluntary. But, even though the meetings were not on library time, we had good turnout at both sessions.

We also set up a continuing readers’ advisory committee that could keep all the good work going. One of the benefits of my ongoing relationship with the CCPL staff is that each staff development workshop I did built on those that came before. We began with a basic overview of readers’ advisory, and then moved on to developing book talks and writing annotations. We also had a workshop on running book groups, which covered tips and tricks for keeping a book group healthy and happy, or dealing with difficult members. It included suggestions on different methods of choosing titles, running the meeting itself, coming up with engaging and engrossing discussion questions. And our staff book discussions were an excellent opportunity to test some of what we’d discussed in the workshops.

Q: At the same BEA panel, Feldman and Boston Public Library’s Michael Colfer disagreed slightly on the importance of libraries in pushing bestsellers. Michael suggested that libraries didn’t so much need to worry about pushing the big books as much as creating bestsellers and getting good, usually midlist, books into readers’ hands. Sari, on the other hand, said she believed access to bestsellers was important. What are your views? Does it vary by community—for example, for urban communities with more bookstores vs. rural communities where bookstores may be a good drive away?

A: The politic answer to this question is, of course, that it all depends. Every public library, whether urban or rural, needs both a good complement of current bestsellers as well as a sterling selection of midlist titles to offer library users. I love the idea of library’s creating bestsellers, by the way—as the Yiddish saying has it, “from your lips to God’s ears.”

I think that the more important and much more difficult issue—and what I think Sari and Michael were really in disagreement about—is the balance between the percentage of the budget to be allocated to purchasing multiple copies of bestsellers and that to be allocated to midlist titles. There’s no doubt that bestsellers are important—they’re often the catalyst that initially brings readers into the library. But a library can never have enough copies of a real bestseller to fill the holds requests. It would be extremely easy to spend all one’s materials budget trying to satisfy the insatiable maw of bestsellerdom. You’re pretty much always guaranteed to be a day late and a dollar short trying to keep up. Even back when I was the head of collection development at the Tulsa City–County Library, I believed that libraries should pick a maximum number of copies they’d purchase, no matter how long the holds queue grew, and stick to it. That view was not popular back then, and it’s probably even less so today.

But I continue to believe that one of the great goods that public libraries offer their readers is the opportunity to broaden and deepen their experience with the world of literature. Fulfilling that means purchasing a diverse collection of materials, even if they’re not on the bestseller list.

“Bear” with me on this one: novels with an ursine character.

Would you believe that there are five—count ’em, at least five!—great novels that have bears as central characters?

Bear by Marion Engel
The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving
The Bear Went Over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle
The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen
The Bear Comes Home by Rafi Zabor