Today is the last blog tour day of the sixth annual University Press Week with the theme of #LookItUP: Knowledge Matters. Today UNP has invited Pat Leach, Library Director of Lincoln City Libraries, to write on the theme of “Libraries and Librarians helping us all #LookItUP.”
In honor of University Press Week, I’m shining a spotlight on the extraordinariness of what seems to be a perfectly ordinary thing—conversation about books.
When I speak to community groups about our libraries, I include in my biographic information that I’m “Lincoln’s Most Passionate Reader.” At least one person in any group wants to arm-wrestle me for that title, but I put it out there because people still want public libraries to be about reading. Even though Maker Spaces, digitization, and metadata are often seen as “sexier,” our community wants libraries to support and celebrate the community of readers.
“Readers’ Advisory” is the industry name for services to readers, especially connecting a reader with a book. There are plenty of websites and apps that provide “read-alikes” for people. Even as those become more and more sophisticated, there continues to be a demand for individuals—actual people—who engage in conversation about books.
It can be daunting to answer the question, “Can you help me find a good book to read?” One of our most common follow-up questions is, “Tell me about the last good book you read.” The key then is to listen to how the reader describes why he/she liked that book. It’s just as likely that the reader will add something along the lines of, “Well, last time someone suggested ______, and I didn’t like THAT at all.” Again, the key is to listen for the why, or in this case, the why not, and to engage in conversation.
Superstar Librarian Nancy Pearl describes four “doorways” into books, another name for those deeper reasons why people connect with novels or narrative nonfiction. The four are story, character, setting, and language. As people talk about books, they will usually refer to the doorway through which they enter.
Character-driven books attract me. I’ll often note that a book I loved had at least one character I loved. I’m likely to say that while I liked the setting of a book, what I especially loved was how the characters interacted in it. When I don’t care for a book, it’s often because there wasn’t a single character I trusted or loved. Or even liked a little.
A key aspect of a librarian’s responsibility is to go beyond personal preference to see a book from another person’s point of view, and to engage in conversation from that view. It isn’t enough to say, “I really loved it, you really will too.” However, to say, “it sounds like you go for books with strong characters. So do I. I just finished ______ and have a feeling its characters are right up your alley.”
A related aspect of a good readers’ advisor is lack of judging. One of my mantras is that nobody should apologize to me for his/her reading taste. I wasn’t an English major, and sometimes I feel a twinge of inferiority because I haven’t read many of the books included in the literary canon. A public library circulates plenty of books from bestseller lists and series fiction, a far cry from highbrow. I admit that I’m happy to recommend a book that might push a reader out of his/her usual reading groove, but basic respect for readers requires me to go where they are.
I’m concerned about what research tells us regarding our preference for stories and information that confirm our established point of view, which then strengthens those biases. I’m impressed when people seek out books that will show them the view from someone else’s window. I’m wondering if this may be an additional doorway to reading. Perhaps it could be called “empathy.” That is, intentionally seeking a book to live for a time in someone else’s skin, or someone else’s era, or someone else’s troubles.
I invite you to think of what you would learn if you simply sat and listened to someone for five or ten or fifteen hours. My hunch is that you’d learn a lot. That’s what reading is—the author has organized a story that reveals itself to you over the course of many hours. The author succeeds in this kind of book when you say, “I read that book, and it changed the way I think. I understand that differently now.” At its best, reading is taking part in a conversation.
Book reading has this distinctive potential for changing our thinking. It’s among the reasons why we need to value and uphold book reading. I worry whether this gift of book reading will die in our new world of social media and websites, and what we will lose if that happens. I’m hopeful that as we move past these early days of ubiquitous and immediate technology, we’ll return to our respect for what looks like the awfully slow process of reading.
I’m just finishing up a library book published thirteen years ago, Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (Bison Books, 2004) by Ted Kooser, published by Lincoln’s very own University of Nebraska Press. Each time I open it, I’m grateful to Mrs. Barrilleaux, my fourth grade teacher who taught us to love books. Mrs. Barrilleaux was my first example of a readers’ advisor. She knew books, and helped us find just the right ones.
I salute the University of Nebraska Press during University Press week, for all you do to publish quality books. As Lincoln’s Most Passionate Reader, I pledge to you that librarians will keep talking, and continue to engage in connecting the books you publish with the people who will learn from them, and love them.
Continue to learn about “Libraries and Librarians helping us all #LookItUP” from University of Missouri Press, University Press of Florida, University of Georgia Press, and the University of Alabama Press. Be sure to share and tweet your own university press experiences using the hashtags #UPWeek and #LookItUp.