A Publication of WTVP

Seattle resident and librarian Nancy Pearl, the originator of the “One City/One Book” concept, was in Peoria in early March to promote the Peoria Reads! effort. In an interview with WCBU FM host Jonathan Ahl, Pearl speaks about the need for libraries to return to helping people find good books to read. Pearl is a regular contributor to NPR’s Morning Edition, has written three books about books, and is even the model for a librarian action figure! She is in demand to recommend books and offer advice on the future of libraries.

Nancy Pearl: I think that library service rests on three legs and I think of it as a three-legged stool. And I think one of those legs is certainly access to information—so important. The library plays a major role in helping people find the information that they need to live better lives. When the Internet came about in the 1990s, late ‘80s, I think that the library and especially library education went a little bit, perhaps, overboard into seeing that as the future of libraries, that what we would do is do very little else but provide access to information. And that people would come to us and ask us to validate websites for example, if they had a choice of two different websites. I think that what that lost sight of was how much people rely on their local library and librarians to help them find something good to read. For that whole period in their daily lives that I call recreational learning, I think you learn from every book you read, be it fiction or non-fiction, a children’s book, graphic novel, book of poetry–you’re always learning something-and to call it lifelong education seems, while a wonderful phrase, a little deadly to me. So recreational learning is something I’m more fond of, but that’s the second leg of the stool. There has to be a dedication in the public library to helping people find wonderful books to read—fiction, non-fiction, poetry—for whatever reason, outside of their information needs. And then the third leg of the stool, I think, is outreach—bringing people into the library for programs, for computer classes, as well as that parallel kind, of going out to the community when the community can’t come to you. So those together, and I think they all have to be about the same size legs or you’re going to have a very tippy stool! I do think that if libraries put all of their eggs in the information access basket, we will rapidly become dinosaurs in the community, because people are going to be able to get that information faster and better and are not going to see any need for a library. Yet the library to me is the heart and soul of a community, whether it’s the college community…or the public library in a neighborhood or a city. That’s where everything—so much that is exciting— should take place.

Jonathan Ahl: The Peoria Public Library is kind of at a crossroads right now. In a few weeks, there will be a referendum on the ballot for a very large bond issue to renovate just about all of their branches and open a new branch. It’s a pretty ambitious construction project. What would be your recommendation to the people who are trying to promote it and how they can best get their message across to the people that libraries are worth investing in?

NP: Well I think that the thing to emphasize—and this is what we did in Seattle when it was in a similar situation at that time, not only building a new downtown library but renovating every single building, adding two new branches, expanding other branches—that our tagline was “Libraries for All” and that every community in the city was going to get a new and improved library. I think that libraries have to be seen as living places and not merely archives. They have to be seen as a place where there are book discussions, where there’s preschool reading times, where there’s computers that you can come in and use if you don’t have a computer at home—all of those things in your neighborhood, in your library. I think that that whole notion of “libraries for all” and that a library is the heart of a community. It would be so sad to think of a community with no public library. The public library is the last small ‘d,’ democratic institution in our world and in the United States…it’s the place where anyone who enters through the door has as much right to anything in the library as anyone else does. And I think that that’s a potent message. I think that without a library, a community loses its sense of history; I think it loses its sense of place; I think it loses its sense of the importance of books and reading, which in my mind will never go away.

In the second part of the interview, Ahl asks Pearl about the benefits of a city-wide reading program such as the Peoria Reads! project, with this year’s selection, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Pearl considers the often-imitated “If All Seattle Read the Same Book” program one of her favorite accomplishments.

NP: I think that the benefit is less quantitatively discernable than it is qualitatively discernable. I think that when communities do the project— community reading projects, or if everyone reads the same book—what they find is that they will get different groups of people coming together either to hear the main speaker or to come to one of a number of programs that are related to that particular book. I think that anything that can get people from different walks of life, different ethnicities, different races, together and give them something that they have in common, like a book that they’ve read or a book that they’re listening to, and then offer them a space to discuss that book we’re doing a great benefit to the world and I don’t think it’s in any way less than that. I think it is a great benefit to the world.

JA: Peoria has chosen To Kill a Mockingbird and that seems to be a really popular title. Why do you think that that keeps showing up?

NP: I think that one of the reasons that To Kill a Mockingbird shows up so much is that it is a classic that is indeed worth reading. And we could have a whole other discussion about all the classics that aren’t necessarily worth reading and discussing, but To Kill a Mockingbird is a story that can be read on many different levels. You can read it when you’re 12 years old and you really identify with Scout Finch and you see it from that perspective, all the way up to being an adult and understanding To Kill a Mockingbird in a slightly different way. Plus, I think there’s always that interest in the fact that this was Harper Lee’s only book and what would she have done if she had done more? Then the book has had an enormous influence in many different ways. You see a lot of popular contemporary novels with characters who are always compared to Scout Finch, and so in a way To Kill a Mockingbird is a kind of touchstone book. It’s one of those books that will be discussed and will go on being discussed as the years go by. Plus it’s a great read—that should be number one.

JA: Is it that it’s a modern classic, too, because I think that—at least my take on it—is that, while it does take you back to a different period of time and a different place, it’s still very accessible, more so than maybe Robinson Crusoe or something by Hawthorne.

NP: I think that that certainly is it. I think the style of the book lends itself to a kind of painless reading. I mean it’s not that you’re going to have to get up and look up unfamiliar words or imagine yourself in a totally different century. But also, I think the story of To Kill a Mockingbird—racial injustice, race relations, small town life—all of those things are still really relevant to what we’re living through today. Now that’s not to say that The Scarlet Letter, for example, or some of Dickens wouldn’t be relevant today. I just think that because The Scarlet Letter is one of those books that is frequently assigned in high school, people have a familiarity with it. I think they find that if they’ve read it in high school and they read it again as an adult they’ll find a very different book. And I think also, that this kind of reading–reading for discussion, reading as part of Peoria Reads!—is a different way of reading than you read in a classroom situation.

JA: You mention that, it seems like talking to people who are reading To Kill a Mockingbird over and over, I hear the story of “I read it in high school,” or “I read it in junior high and high school,” or “I read it in high school and college” and now they’re reading it again and it’s a completely different take. Does it take a special book to have that kind of varying impact depending on where you are in your life or are all books that way?

NP: I think in a lot of ways all books are that way because—which is why when people ask me if I reread a book—one of the questions I always get is how much do I reread. And what I’ve come to realize is that every time I reread a book or try to reread a book, I’m reading a different book because I’m in a different place in my life and so the experience of looking at the book a second or a third time, of a kind of embracing that book a second or third time, is so much different from the way it was the first time. I think the older you get and the more books that you’ve read, the more you’ll have this feeling. I wish there were one word for this; we need to come up with some good word where you have this feeling that what you want to do is go back and read that book for the first time. I mean I would give anything to go back and read say Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet for the first time, or even Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides for the first time. Rereading them is just not going to be the same. It’s just not going to be that “oh my gosh” experience of being transported to a different place.

Jonathan Ahl is the News Director of WCBU, Peoria’s listener-supported NPR News and Classical Music station on 89.9 FM. This interview took place on March 7, 2007.

For more information about the Peoria Reads! project, go to To download more of the interview, go to