Okay, everybody know what a con is? Short for convention, but a fun one, and often related to science fiction and fantasy. There’s a ComicCon (features comics), a NorwesCon (takes place in the Northwest), WisCon (feminist SF/F, takes place in Wisconsin), and so on.
In February, I went to a con called Potlatch / Foolscap. What was that? Imagine a weekend-long speculative fiction book group with conversation, food, and chocolate. Much fun was had. My biggest disappointment was when I tried to eat a chocolate-covered strawberry but my injured jaw couldn’t open wide enough to get it in one bite.
The Guest of Honor for the Foolscap portion of the con was Nancy Pearl, celebrity librarian. She used to be the city librarian for Seattle and is the author of Book Lust, a guide to good books.
Now, the tradition with some cons is that the Guest of Honor is the Big Important Person who stands up front and lectures. That’s not what happens in Potlatch and Foolscap. It’s all about conversation, and all about people who have a shared interest in books getting together and enjoying themselves. Nancy Pearl fit right in. She was more interested in asking questions than answering them, and the panels ended up to be very thought-provoking. Here are a couple of highlights of what was said, both by her and by others.
The Future of Libraries
Will libraries always have a physical presence? Do they need one? Will paper books always be an essential component of libraries? What is the function of a library? Is it only about information, or is it about something else? And a more concrete question faced by librarians today: How can they justify spending large amounts of money buying and storing large quantities of books, when digital books are readily available?
We had a bit of a debate on this. Get a lot of SF geeks in a room, and invariably you will find somebody who thinks the Internet can do everything books can do, and better. But many of us disagreed. Together, we listed rather an enormous number of things a library is and does:
- Community meeting space
- Location for flyers and tax information
- A home for a librarian
- Home for books
- Haven for a child
- Place to get information
- A “people’s university”
- A place to learn English
- And lots of other things
What Is The Role of a Library?
While we were debating the role of the library, people started talking about missions for different library systems. Nancy Pearl stepped in and gave an example that she liked and that puts reading at the center of the library:
“Cuyahoga County Public Library will be at the center of community life by providing an environment where reading, lifelong learning and civic engagement thrive.”
I like that definition too. It is much more articulate than the “libraries are for books!” protest I used to make when my young children wanted to log on to the library computers and play video games.
What is the Role of a Librarian?
Nancy Pearl also talked about the role of the librarian. Someone said she made recommendations, and she said, no, she makes suggestions. When someone comes to her asking for a suggestions, she asks the person what a book was that they liked and why they liked it. She asked about dimensions such as subject, plot, character, and language. And then she listened. The way they talked about the book they liked gave her a lot of clues about what else they might like to read.
Outside of the panel, I got into a conversation with someone whose wife had been a librarian at a library I had patronized at the age of twelve. He asked me if I had perhaps known her, and I said, “Definitely not.” To me at the age of twelve, librarians were always “the people who check out your books” and it really would never have occurred to me at the age of twelve to talk to one of them. I still don’t go up to librarians and say, “Well, I’m looking for something to read . . . ” But I seek out librarians for suggestions in another way, by looking at the “staff picks.” I love staff picks. Thank you, librarians.
Can We Defend Reading for Pleasure?
Someone pointed out that library systems are having a hard time defending the need for libraries in the digital age. A lot of people said, “But we need libraries so we can read for pleasure!” The trouble, though, is that so few people read for pleasure, it’s hard to justify that as socially useful.
My contribution to this was, “But what about kids?”
Someone allowed that this was a good exception.
But then I thought about it a minute longer. If children didn’t read for pleasure, why on earth would they ever go to the trouble to read at all? And if parents didn’t read for pleasure, then how would their children learn to?
I am thinking that if nobody read for pleasure, civilization would collapse.
Boys as Readers
The audience, including librarians and teachers and parents, made some observations about boys as readers. It is a challenge to find books that boys like. They judge books by their covers and won’t read any book that looks like it’s for girls or has a girl on the cover. Somebody pointed out that on-demand printing can be of help here, because books can come out with different covers.
Someone said that there is now a trend of more girls graduating than boys.
A high school teacher said there was a need for middle-grade books that appeal to boys.
I brought up my concern about my third-grade boy only wanting Goosebumps, and somebody suggested Arthur Ransome as an author for boys his age. Thank you, whoever you were! He’s already moved on to a more varied reading diet, but our whole family enjoyed Ransome’s Pigeon Post as a book on CD.
Miscellaneous things somebody recommended
Here are some things people recommended and I wrote down. I forget why they recommended some of them them. Sorry, readers, but I’m adding this for my own convenience, so I can look back at it later. That is one of the greatest and best things about Potlatch panels: all the book recommendations that come up in conversation.
Booklamp.com – analyzes books, book genome projects
Slysoft – any DVD
And finally . . . when asked to recommend just one book in all the books coming up, Nancy Pearl gave the appropriate qualifiers but then mentioned Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi. She said the writing was stunning and reminded her of The God of Small Things.