On November 17, Nancy Pearl was honored with the 2021 National Book Foundation Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community by the National Book Foundation. It is a lifetime honor richly deserved.
Pearl’s contributions to the library and publishing worlds could fill pages, and she had a special role in shaping library coverage at PW. In early 2011, just months after the magazine went independent, PW leadership made a key decision: our publication needed to do a better job covering the considerable space shared by libraries, publishers, writers, and readers. And the first step was to draft Pearl as a columnist—a role she graciously agreed to, and filled with style for just over two years. It is not an overstatement to say that Pearl laid the foundation for PW to significantly expand its coverage of the library community—coverage that has, over the past decade, become an essential part of the magazine’s mission.
In announcing Pearl’s Literarian Award in September, David Steinberger, chair of the board of directors of the NBF, made a key observation: “Libraries are an empowering force in the United States, and are vital to our communities,” he said. And Pearl’s lifetime of service, he added, “is a reinforcement that libraries are of the utmost importance for all.”
The decision to honor Pearl comes in the midst of a historic pandemic through which librarians have answered the call to service. It comes at a time when the nation’s democracy is threatened by misinformation, and its communities are wracked with division. It comes amid a long-overdue social and racial justice awakening. In many ways, the work of public librarians has never been more important. And thanks to Pearl’s contributions, the library community has a platform in the pages of PW to engage with partners in the publishing community, and to showcase the public library’s role as a critical institution of American civic life.
In her acceptance speech for the Literarian Award last month, Pearl said it best: “One of the foundational principles of the public library is that it is a truly egalitarian institution, available free to everyone regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, age, or economic status—and as such, it is a democratizing and unifying force in our society, which is needed now more than ever before.”