Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Four Questions for Librarian Bill Kelly

One of the three judges for The Story Prize this year is Bill Kelly, who is a librarian at the Cuyahoga County Public Library. In order to learn more about Bill's work as a librarian and his interest in short stories, we posed a few questions to him.

Can you tell us how you became a librarian and what you do?
I came to the profession after a brief foray into the music business. As a voracious reader, I have always frequented libraries so it seemed like a natural fit. Of course, libraries are much more than books and reading. I love the work because I learn something new every day. While much of our work is technology oriented, we still do quite a bit of old-fashioned readers’ advisory. I spend a good deal of time merchandising our collection and talking to customers about books because there are so many great writers out there that go undeservedly unread.

How do you think libraries will change as the digital age progresses?
We certainly exist in a constantly evolving environment, but I think libraries are uniquely positioned to meet the challenge. We are in the information business and while books have hitherto served as the primary medium for accessing information, we understand that other mediums also serve that function. Because information has proliferated and seemingly become available at the click of the mouse, the librarian has had to become an expert at retrieving relevant and accurate information. I equate the internet with Borges’ story
"The Library of Babel," in which all information is stored in a vast library but in a completely random, meaningless order. Or, to borrow a line from T.S. Eliot, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Here at Cuyahoga County Public Library, we have an initiative we call Reconnect with Reading, a very conscious effort to get our customers back to the book. It has had tremendous and continued success. Since we initiated RWR, we have seen that an increasing percentage of our overall circulation has been books. In other words, the book is still our primary focus and it is here to stay.

Who are some of your favorite short story authors?

I consider Chekhov to be the benchmark by which all other short-story writers are measured. For me, Jorge Luis Borges is a close second. My contemporary favorites include Steven Millhauser, William Trevor, Jim Sheppard, Andre Dubus (the elder), David Foster Wallace, Annie Proulx, George Saunders, Michael Chabon, Alice Munro, Dan Chaon, and Lydia Davis. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed Donald Ray Pollock and Wells Tower.

How do you think the short story is faring these days?
From an artistic standpoint I think we are experiencing another renaissance in the form. I am excited to read so many new and unique voices. Whereas previously in the past century we have seen writers like Hemingway and Carver become so very influential, today’s short story masters come to us from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and influences. One can read the more conventional but nonetheless profound and powerful work of a Trevor or Munro and then turn to any of the emerging voices such as Nam Le, Mueenuddin, or Pollock. I am also thrilled to see so many writers working with what are traditionally labeled genre themes. I think this will go a long way toward broadening appeal and bringing new readers to the form. Of course, the recognition from literary prizes and greater promotional efforts by publishers seem to be breaking through to a wider audience as well.

From a societal or cultural standpoint there is a great opportunity for the short story. Be it due to our increasingly frenzied lives, shorter attention spans, or just the quality and volume of work being produced, I find that more readers are more willing to pick up a collection of stories. We display our collections prominently at our library and the books always find readership.