Nancy Pearl: Superstar Librarian

November 1, 2023 at 1:19 p.m.
Seattle's own Nancy Pearl, the world-famous librarian, image courtesy of The Seattle Channel
Seattle's own Nancy Pearl, the world-famous librarian, image courtesy of The Seattle Channel

Aren’t we lucky to have superstar librarian Nancy Pearl as a local luminary? So began an article in Northwest Prime Time by Wendy Pender. More on that later.

In case you don’t know, Nancy Pearl is one of the most famous librarians in the world.

But Nancy Pearl is more than a librarian. In 2021, she received the National Book Foundation’s “Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.” When she won the award, Nancy commented that the award was a validation of her “whole life—ever since I was a very little girl what I loved most was reading and then talking about and sharing my favorite books with people.” Past recipients of the prestigious award include Maya Angelou, Kyle Zimmer, and Terry Gross.

Back to Wendy Pender. She knows Nancy and once wrote that feature article about Nancy for our senior newspaper. Wendy was one of our regular contributors until she retired from the King County Library System as the Older Adults Program Coordinator.

The always clever Wendy began her article with a checklist:

If you don’t know Nancy, she is:  

 a librarian

 a celebrated author

 a radio personality on NPR

 a television host of Book Lust on The Seattle Channel

 an amazing teacher and keynote speaker

X all of the above! 

Wendy continues: “Now retired from Seattle Public Library, Nancy has a national reputation for her encyclopedic knowledge of the written word. In fact, Nancy is the model on whom the first ‘live action figure’ librarian is based (created by Seattle’s own Archie McPhee).

“I was fortunate to encounter Nancy in a ‘reader’s advisory’ training session, otherwise known as the art of suggesting books,” continues Wendy. “Yes, it’s an art! Librarians don’t just tell you our favorites. We start by asking questions about your favorite books and interests and go from there: what you enjoy is the key. In our class, Nancy introduced us to the concept of the four ‘doors’ through which readers enter books: story, character, setting, or ‘language’ (most literary fiction award-winners have language as their primary door).”

Nancy Pearl is also a regular commentator about books on public radio, and NPR posted this write-up about Nancy: The New York Times calls her "the talk of librarian circles." Readers can't get enough of her recommendations while bookstores and libraries offer standing room only whenever she visits. Since the release of the best-selling Book Lust in 2003 and the Librarian Action Figure modeled in her likeness, Nancy Pearl has become a rock star among readers and the tastemaker people turn to when deciding what to read next. Having worked as a librarian and bookseller in Detroit, Tulsa, and Seattle, Pearl's knowledge of and love for books is unmatched. In 1998, she developed the program "If All of Seattle Read the Same Book" (now called Seattle Reads), which spread across the country. The former Executive Director of the Washington Center for the Book, Pearl celebrates the written word by speaking at bookstores and libraries across the country and on her monthly television program Book Lust with Nancy Pearl on the Seattle Channel. In 2004, Pearl became the 50th winner of the Women's National Book Association Award for her extraordinary contribution to the world of books. In the moments when Pearl finds herself without a book, she is an avid bicyclist and happy grandmother of two. She lives in Seattle with her husband Joe.

I recently encountered another article about Nancy Pearl – this one introducing me to the fact that Nancy Pearl is the subject of a children’s book by Karen Henry Clark, entitled, Library Girl: How Nancy Pearl Became America’s Most Celebrated Librarian.

"Library Girl: How Nancy Pearl Became America's Most Celebrated Librarian," by Karen Henry Clark


The article begins with a quote from Nancy Pearl herself: “Books save me. Frances Whitehead at Detroit’s Parkman Branch Library showed me, a miserably unhappy child, that books are places where you can find yourself and lose yourself. I became a librarian, so I could help other children the way she helped me. Library Girl is more than my story. It’s the story of how librarians change lives with the magic inside books.” – Nancy Pearl

The article by Keri Demers was posted on Writers’ Rumpus, a site for writers and illustrators of children’s books. “Across the beautifully illustrated 32 pages, readers follow a young Nancy (born 1945, in Detroit Michigan) away from the discerning eyes of her peers on the playground (they think her love of reading is weird) and into the school library. Surrounded by her ‘best friends” (the characters in her books) and encouraged by Miss Glenn, the school librarian, the library becomes Nancy’s favorite place. The only problem is Saturdays – there’s no school. When Miss Glenn tells Nancy about the public library that’s nearby and open on Saturdays, ‘Hope fluttered like pages turning in Nancy’s heart.’ Miss Glen even drew Nancy a map. The next Saturday, Nancy’s imagination ran wild as she raced to the library on her Charger, her trusty steed, which was actually her bike. Nancy Pearl had no way of knowing that when she entered the Francis Parkman Branch of the Detroit Public Library that morning, she’d meet Frances Whitehead, the woman who would both change her life and inspire her life’s work.”

I learned more about Nancy from a quote by the book’s author, Karen Henry Clark: “Nancy and I became friends when we worked in a Tulsa bookstore in the 1980s. One afternoon, local noteworthy author Susie Hinton (S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders) entered and browsed fiction as Nancy and I stared. Nancy whispered, ‘Karen, I think you could write a book.’ I whispered back that I didn’t think I’d know how but believed that she could do it. Well, we both admitted we wanted to be authors but were clueless about how to make it happen. Nevertheless, we cheered each other on for decades until we’d both accomplished our dream.” –Karen Henry Clark

Karen Henry Clark and Nancy Pearl taking a look at an early draft of the art for Library Girl. Photo courtesy of Writers’ Rumpus


Books by Nancy Pearl include her famous Book Lust series, a collection of writer interviews entitled The Writer’s Library: The Authors You Love on the Books that Changed Their Lives (co-authored by Jeff Schwager), and a novel, George & Lizzie.

For more than two decades, Nancy Pearl has been hosting a show, “Book Lust,” on the Seattle Channel. “The general population has no concept of how amazing Nancy Pearl is,” says Lillian Dabney, who works at Folio, where “Book Lust” is filmed. “…hopefully this award will alert people and give them a broader idea of her greatness.” (You can check out Nancy Pearl and her Book Lust program on the Seattle Channel at this link: Book Lust with Nancy Pearl.)

I’ll end this article as it began: Aren’t we lucky to have superstar librarian Nancy Pearl as a local luminary?
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