Nancy Pearl Receives National Book Foundation’s 2021 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service

The National Book Foundation (NBF) announced on September 8 that Nancy Pearl, a renowned librarian and former executive director of the Washington Center for the Book at Seattle Public Library, is the 2021 recipient of its Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.

The National Book Foundation (NBF) announced on September 8 that Nancy Pearl, a renowned librarian and former executive director of the Washington Center for the Book at Seattle Public Library, is the 2021 recipient of its Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. Ron Charles of the Washington Post will present the award at the 72nd National Book Awards Ceremony on November 17.

For 17 years, this award for lifetime achievement has been presented to an individual who has expanded the audience for books and reading through outstanding service across the United States. Past winners include Dr. Maya Angelou and James Patterson. Recipients receive $10,000 and a medal.

Pearl earned her Master of Library Science from the University of Michigan. She worked in public libraries for almost four decades in Detroit; Tulsa, OK; and Seattle, and briefly as a bookseller in Tulsa. While serving at the Washington Center for the Book in 1998, she initiated the citywide discussion, “If All Seattle Read the Same Book” (now known as “Seattle Reads”). The program has been replicated across the United States and globally as One Book, One City programs. Pearl has also been instrumental in the development of readers’ advisory services, having served on several important book award committees, developed the “doorway” explanation of appeal, and penned the “Book Lust” books, a bestselling series of book recommendations that has expanded to a monthly television show with author interviews, Book Lust with Nancy Pearl on KWGA, an NPR station based in Tulsa.

The Writer’s Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives (HarperCollins), a collection of her author interviews, cowritten with Jeff Schwager, came out in 2020. She has also published a novel, George & Lizzie (S. & S., 2017), and will be profiled in a new picture book, Library Girl by Karen Henry Clark, forthcoming in 2022 from Sasquatch Books.

Pearl is sometimes referred to as “America’s favorite librarian.” The Pacific Northwest Writers Association named the Nancy Pearl Book Award after her. Globally, she has been honored by the National Library of Norway, which named their artificial intelligence system “AI Nancy.” On behalf of the U.S. State Department, she has traveled to Bosnia, Estonia, Peru, and Vietnam to share her love of reading and books with readers of all ages. She is also famous for being the model for the Librarian Action Figure, made by the Archie McPhee company (now in its third incarnation).

LJ spoke with Nancy Pearl regarding the NBF’s news.

LJ: Congratulations on the honor. What was your reaction upon learning you are the 2021 Literarian Award recipient?

Nancy Pearl: Being recognized for my work by the National Book Foundation meant the world to me, because it validated my belief that when we recommend books, offer discussion groups and other literary programming in the public library, we are doing important, meaningful work. Although I won the award this year, I am accepting it on behalf of all the public library workers who bring their communities together through the good work they do. 

You have been a librarian for almost four decades. How do you think libraries and community needs have changed over time?

Librarians have always stepped up to meet their community’s needs. What concerns me is that in many cities, the city government has abdicated its responsibility to the city residents, through words or lack of trying, making libraries the presumed savior of the city. I think that is a crime. Librarians are not social workers nor are trained to be and shouldn’t be considered social workers.

It is important that libraries do what libraries do best: connect people with information, pleasure reading, and open the world, making the world a bigger, better, and more inclusive place.

What was the inspiration for the “Seattle Reads” program?

The Center for the Book was awarded a grant from the Lila Wallace Foundation to develop and increase audiences for literature, along with eight other organizations around the country.

I’ve always believed in the power of book groups and reading to bring people together. I loved the idea of people coming together at the public library in their neighborhood to talk about a book. You’re sitting next to somebody who doesn’t look like you, who is a different age, race, or color and then you discover that you both had the same feeling about a book. How else are we going to become one country again except by building up one relationship at a time with someone who is not exactly like us?

Could you tell readers more about traveling the world and talking about books for the State Department?

The most meaningful [time] was when I went to Bosnia about eight years ago. The cultural attaché there wanted to start a “One Book, One Bosnia'' with teenagers and the book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Bosnia is a very divided country and kids from different religious groups never come together. My job when I went there was to teach teachers and other adults how to lead a book group through difficult conversations.

It’s easier to talk about a difficult topic if you talk about it in the context of a book, because then it’s not your issue, it’s in the book. You can talk about how the character dealt with it. When you are discussing a book, you come into it.

The first workshop I had was with adults that had already read the book and were prepared to lead the discussions. At the end of the book, this teenage boy makes a list of all of the tribes that he belongs to: the Spokane tribe, the tribe of cartoonists, and the tribe of 15-year-old masturbators. I said, “Let’s go around the room and say a tribe we belong to.” The first woman said, “I belong to the tribe of people who had Serbian fathers and Muslim mothers.” From another part of the room, someone that she didn’t know at all, said, “I belong to that tribe, too.” I thought, “This is what books can do.” It proved something that I’ve always believed: the power of reading and discussion. These people would never have met and discussed anything because religion is such a deal-breaker in that country.

What are you most proud of when you look back on your 50-year career?

My husband Joseph and I have endowed a scholarship for students at the University of Washington’s iSchool, called the Nancy Pearl Endowment for Public Librarianship. I’m also proud of the students [I had] while teaching there for 10 years part-time. I taught and developed courses on readers’ advisory and genres. The best line that I’ve ever heard regarding genres is “We judge genre fiction by the worst in its category and we judge literary fiction by the best.”

Do you have any suggestions about how people can promote the library as the center of the community?

Many libraries are doing this, of course. I think that we need to be much more in the public eye. I think that as much as possible, librarians should write for their local newspaper, whether it’s a big daily newspaper like the Seattle Times or a weekly newspaper. We need to ask everyone who is running for public office, “Do you have a library card? And do you use it?” Librarians need to be out in the world talking about the joys of reading, the importance of reading, and how libraries make the world a better place.

What are you reading now?

Oliver Harris’s A Shadow Intelligence, Blaine Harden’s Murder at the Mission, and Eula Biss’s Having and Being Had. Also, the mysteries by Peter Grainger. I’m rereading all of Jane Haddam’s mystery novels featuring Gregor Demarkian.

The hardest question that you can ask somebody, or be asked, is “What are you reading right now?” When somebody asks me that, every single book that I have ever read flies out of my head. For many years, whenever I would go out, I would write on my hand the name of three books, so that if somebody said, “What are you reading right now?” I could very surreptitiously pretend I’m looking at my watch and I could say, “Oh yeah, I’m reading this.”

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