Check It Out: Jean Ross, Prince William Public Library

Chin Park Library
Chin Park Library
Credit: Google Earth
Librarian Jean Ross from the Prince William Public Library System in Virginia talked with Celadon about her favorite detective series, working her dream job, and how not quiet libraries are.By Celadon Staff

What’s your role in the Prince William Public Library System?
My work takes place underground—literally! Our administrative offices are in the basement of the Chinn Park Regional Library and we serve all 11 branches in the system, from the teeny tiny neighborhood library in Nokesville, Virginia to full-service libraries such as Chinn Park. It’s my job to coordinate the selection of all the books, puzzles, audios, digital works and more for all 11 libraries. I also oversee the processing and cataloging of all materials, while keeping my eye on the budget for the collection. In my four-decade career, I spent many years in direct public service at two of our branches, but this position is my dream job.


What does the world get wrong about librarians?
There is not enough time to even begin to cover all the things the world does not understand about us. As in, no, we do not read all day on the job (we do it at home while we cook, clean, do laundry, and sometimes when we sneak away from those responsibilities). We do not have a nice quiet working environment. Close your eyes and imagine 30 toddlers in snowsuits coming to storytime; they cry when the jackets are coming off and they cry when they have to be bundled up again. Not quiet! We do not specialize in one arcane field if we work in a public library. It’s important to be ready to cope with questions about the latest treatments for cancer, but also to know what Fortnite is, not to mention whether or not the Game of Thrones books are really like the TV series or what book to recommend for someone recovering from surgery who loves cozy mysteries. We also do not walk around in squeaky orthotic shoes, hair in a bun with a pencil sticking out. Some of the best librarians I know have tattoos and purple hair, not to mention piercings.

What book has made the greatest impact on you?
Without a doubt, looking back at 60+ years of reading, I would have to say it was Little Women. I aspired to be Jo and take care of my family—and find a great love while doing so. Also formative was Old Yeller; it taught me that some stories are just too intense for me to enjoy. As an adult, I found the essays of E.B. White had a great impact on my own writing, as well as teaching me the pleasure to be had by reading a fine essay.

What book do you recommend most and why?
Just one? Depending on who is asking for the recommendation, this can change. Of course, To Kill a Mockingbird would be the classic recommendation. For someone with a literary bent, it would be Flannery O’Connor’s stories or Wise Blood. If the person shared my odd sense of humor, it would be A Confederacy of Dunces or Handling Sin. The latter is not well known, but it’s a rollicking picaresque novel in the vein of Don Quixote. High praise, I know—so I hope anyone who takes the recommendation does not find it disappointing. For anyone who loves a good character study, I would suggest Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool. For women of a certain age—mine—I love to suggest Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan. Finally, a little gem of a book is one that anyone could read and enjoy, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

What’s the last great book you read?
I read so often and so much that the term “great” kind of makes me leery. What if I say something was great and tomorrow a truly great book turns up? In the last few months, I read and enjoyed Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners and also America for Beginners. I think the last great book I read was Robicheaux by James Lee Burke. By great, in this context, I mean it is the culmination of many books about Detective Dave Robicheaux and Burke’s evocative writing speaks to me.

What’s your favorite genre?
I almost always enjoy funny, but somewhat literary, fiction—preferably set in the South. That wins me over every time, which is ironic since I have zero roots in the South. I grew up in the little town of Athens, in northern Pennsylvania, and I think it is the universality of small-town life that comes through in my favorite stories that hooks me in every time. There really is very little I will not read, although I am not a fan of dystopian tales or hard-core science fiction.

Read more: Check It Out: Librarians’ Best Book Picks

What’s your favorite bookstore?
I love a little independent bookstore in my suburban Northern Virginia town of Vienna called Bard’s Alley. It is small, cozy and the books on offer are well curated. Of course, it doesn’t hurt their appeal that you can buy wine and a bite to eat while you browse. The greatest present I received for my birthday last year was a gift card to Bard’s Alley—I felt like a kid in a candy store.

What’s the most unique or memorable book request you’ve gotten?
There is nothing so odd or specific that some patron will not request it. What always amuses me is when we pick up what appears to be a rather specialized tome only to discover that people flock to it and place dozens of holds. This week that book is Master Recipes from the Herbal Apothecary. Who knew so many people wanted to brew their own salves and potions?

What have been the biggest book trends at your library in the past 6 months?
Some things never change, in that all the normal big names generate huge interest—Grisham, Baldacci, Lee Child, and so on. I do see a trend lately of books that have a “long tail” thanks to word of mouth, social media, and other sharing. Michelle Obama’s Becoming and Tara Westover’s Educated are two such titles. In terms of what is truly trendy, what I’m seeing recently is that political books are flooding the marketplace. With candidates announcing daily that they are running in 2020, I expect this type of book will continue to trend upward. (I don’t think any of these have a “long tail”, however.) Another big book trend is the whole de-cluttering, minimalist ethos in society right now that has resulted in a new and welcome crop of guidebooks. And while cookbooks themselves always are requested, the trend now points to specific ways of eating—the keto diet and one-pan suppers being hugely popular. As for the next trend, who knows? If I had to speculate, it would be more books about restoring civility to our public life.

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