The evening of November 17 will be a happy occasion for the library community. On that night, during the 72nd National Book Awards ceremony, Nancy Pearl will receive the 2021 National Book Foundation Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. It is a lifetime honor richly deserved. Nancy Pearl is a national treasure and a hero to so many of us in the library profession.
Like many librarians, I knew about Nancy Pearl well before I ever got the chance to know her. There were the standing room only Book Buzz events at Public Library Association conferences, her “Book Lust” title picks, her popular NPR show, and, of course, the now famous Archie McPhee librarian action figure she inspired. And among her many innovations, in 1998 Nancy initiated the “If All Seattle Read the Same Book” program around Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, a program that has gone on to inspire similar programs in cities and towns all over the world.
But getting to know Nancy Pearl changed me personally, as a librarian as well as a reader, and it set me off on a new professional trajectory. In 2008, when I was executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library, we were fortunate to bring Nancy on as a consultant for our “Reconnect with Reading” program. Over the course of a year, Nancy visited CCPL for about a week each month to work with staff on their “Readers Advisory” skills. It was an incredible experience. When the year was over, I didn’t just want to have a professional relationship with Nancy, I wanted her to move in next door so we could be best friends and drink coffee and talk books every day.
The experience was also meaningful for our staff, including my former CCPL colleague Jennifer Jumba. When Nancy first began consulting with CCPL, Jen was an account executive at a radio station working with Nancy to develop CCPL’s marketing campaign, “Pearl’s Picks.” One day, as they talked books, Nancy paused and said, “Jen, you are a librarian. You need to go to library school.” Which she did—crediting Nancy’s “ongoing connection and generosity” with propelling her into the profession and a lifetime of meaningful work.
Hannah Parker, now a supervising librarian at the Fremont Branch of the Seattle Public Library, said a conversation with Nancy influenced her as well. It began with a call she made to the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library, which Nancy led for many years, to ask for some book club ideas. Nancy answered the phone. The ensuing conversation, along with Nancy’s citywide efforts to connect people to books, Parker says, helped inspire her to enroll in the MLIS program at the University of Washington, where Nancy became one of her teachers.
Not surprisingly, one of the highlights of her library education was Nancy’s course in readers advisory, Parker says. “Nancy has this unique ability to reach huge groups of people, and to make an impact on an individual reader,” she says. Another former student, David Wright, reader services librarian at Seattle’s Central Library, agrees. “[Nancy’s] readers advisory classes were a breath of fresh air,” he says, recalling how Nancy “recognized and validated” the importance of reading in people’s lives.
“When you were taking a class with Nancy Pearl, it was even better than the hype,” says Joe Janes, associate professor and Nancy’s colleague at the Information School at the University of Washington. Nancy is well known for her “encyclopedic” knowledge of books, but her success, Janes says, comes from her focus on getting to know the reader. “And she is not a snob,” Janes insists. “She will judge writers, but never readers.”
That sentiment was echoed by Ike Pulver, director of the Saratoga Springs Public Library, who has had a “long and bookish” relationship with Nancy ever since the two met in the early 1990s at a brainstorming session for FictionL, a listserv that was at the time helping to revive Readers Advisory in libraries. “Nancy creates a safe space where people can take chances with books,” Pulver says. “This is her superpower.”
Another of Nancy Pearl’s superpowers is her ability to serve as an important bridge between libraries and the publishing world, helping librarians better utilize their contacts with publishers and helping publishers recognize the vital role libraries play in promoting and handselling titles.
For years Nancy had Virginia Stanley, HarperCollins director of library marketing, and Talia Sherer, Macmillan’s senior director of special markets among her guests her for the Book Buzz sessions at PLA national conferences, where publishers could vastly increase the reach of their titles by pitching to an overflowing crowd of enthusiastic librarians in a hotel ballroom—and by getting the Nancy Pearl stamp of approval.
Sherer calls Nancy “the public face of book promotion” and speaks fondly of the time she has spent with her over her career. “I’m a fan," Sherer says. "I was always just watching and listening. I just wanted to be around her,” she says. “Nancy has done more for books and to advance reading than anyone.” Stanley says that Nancy Pearl’s name is “gold” in the hallways of HarperCollins—and that getting Nancy Pearl to interview one of your authors is “the gold standard.”
HarperCollins, meanwhile, occupies a bit of a special place in Nancy’s world, as the the publisher of her acclaimed 2020 book with Jeff Schwager The Writer’s Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives. Getting to actually market a book for Nancy Pearl has been “a huge privilege,” Stanley says. And the book has done well, earning rave reviews (including a starred review in Publishers Weekly).
For all she has done to inspire readers, it is hard to imagine a more worthy recipient of the Literarian Award. “Nancy Pearl’s energetic commitment to spreading the joy of books has truly helped build our national culture of reading,” said Ruth Dickey, the executive director of the National Book Foundation, in announcing the award. Dickey went on to praise Nancy’s “important work keeping literature at the center of conversations.”
But Nancy not only inspires readers, she inspires her fellow librarians. And in recognizing Nancy’s “passionate advocacy to connect readers with books,” the National Book Foundation is also recognizing the contributions of all librarians.
“Libraries are an empowering force in the United States, and are vital to our communities,” said David Steinberger, chair of the board of directors of the National Book Foundation, in his statement. “The work that librarians do to ensure free and open access to our shared culture is unparalleled, and Nancy Pearl’s lifetime of service is a reinforcement that libraries are of the utmost importance for all.”
The recognition is timely. In the wake of a historic pandemic, a long overdue reckoning with race and social justice, and the fraying of trust in so many of our institutions, the work of libraries and librarians is increasingly vital. As Nancy herself points out, there is nothing that makes a society more civilized than reading.
“Reading develops empathy. Reading helps you expand your understanding of the world,” Nancy says. And “libraries and librarians change the world,” she adds. “Librarians make the world a better place.”
You can sign up here to watch the 72nd National Book Awards live, on November 17, 2021, beginning at 7:00 p.m. ET. The broadcast is free, although a suggested donation is encouraged to support the work of the National Book Foundation.
PW columnist Sari Feldman is the former executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland and a past president of both the Public Library Association (2009–2010) and the American Library Association (2015–2016).