Tucson’s abundant literary landscape: a librarian’s view

This article by Helene Woodhams was originally published in the Arizona Daily Star on Feb. 24, 2018.

The Arizona Daily Star Monthly Library Series offers an insider's view of Pima County Public Library and the ways in which we're transforming lives in our community. This month, we hear from Helene Woodhams, Literary Arts Librarian.

When people I meet find out that I’m a librarian, they often remark, “What a great job. I should have been a librarian—I love to read!

It always makes me smile, this image of librarians sitting at their desks and reading all day. Nothing could be further from our reality in the Library, where there are always a million things to do. And it’s because our customers love to read that we are kept happily busy.

As Literary Arts Librarian for Pima County Public Library (PCPL) and a member of the Library’s Collection Development team, it’s all about the books for me.  My job is to keep customers reading, whether by introducing them to the next new book they are going to love, organizing writing workshops, or connecting them with the authors who keep them compulsively turning pages.

Those would-be librarians are right about one thing, though: it is an absolutely great job.

How does PCPL bring books, readers, and authors together? Let me count the ways! The Library is dedicated to the readers and writers in southern Arizona, and offers several literary initiatives designed to support them. These are a few of my favorites:

Southwest Books of the Year

For more than 40 years the Library’s annual publication, Southwest Books of the Year, has been celebrating and promoting regional books, and getting them into the hands of Southwest book fans. We search high and low to find every book published during the year that is set in the Southwest or that deals with a southwestern subject. A team of librarians and subject specialists from the community read and discuss them, and at the end of the year we select the ones we’ve liked best. We publish our favorites in a broadside publication that gets distributed in libraries and bookstores throughout Arizona.

Ravenous Readers Roundtable

The Library’s brilliant team of genre specialists and reader advisors is another source of joy for a book junkie. The Ravenous Readers write about books for the website, create genre reading guides, devise reading challenges, and create recommended reading lists--The Weekly Wait List, which you’ll find right in this section of the Daily Star, is produced by dedicated Ravenous Readers who make sure that booklovers in Pima County have some great books to occupy themselves with while they wait for the bestsellers.  As Pima County’s undisputed book authorities, the Ravenous Readers are the go-to folks for the toughest book questions: “I read a book a few years ago about a dog, and I loved it. I don’t remember the title or the author, but it had a red cover. Can you tell me what it was?” When in doubt, call a Ravenous Reader!

Writer in Residence

At PCPL it’s not just about readers. Writers also reach out to the Library for advice about the creative process, or with questions about publishing and marketing their books. To meet the needs of Pima County’s burgeoning author population, PCPL offers the Writer in Residence program, in which a published author is given space to work in the Library and is available for one-on-one consultations and workshops on the writing process. Susan Cummins Miller, author of the fast-paced and edgy Frankie MacFarlane mystery series, is PCPL’s current Writer in Residence. She has regular hours at Kirk-Bear Canyon Library, and is offering a series of writing workshops during her residency. Previous Writers in Residence have included such well-known authors as Janni Lee Simner, Adrienne Celt, Lili DeBarbieri, and Marge Pellegrino. Next up is bilingual poet and performance artist Logan Philips.

Tucson Festival of Books

There are signs everywhere that Tucson is a book-loving city but if you need more evidence, look no further than the Tucson Festival of Books. There are few things more gratifying to PCPL librarians than the success of the Book Festival—now the country’s third largest—celebrating its tenth anniversary next month.

When the Festival was still just an idea, the founders of the event invited PCPL to be in at the creation. “You’re on!” we said, and we hit the ground running, tasked with forming the committee that identified and invited the authors, and then figured out what to do with them when they got here. It’s not that we knew what to do exactly—who could foresee what staging a huge book festival was going to involve?—but we had a community network, we knew what folks like to read, and we were specialists in curating interesting conversations. In short, we knew how to connect readers with books and authors, so that’s what we did. 

Festival planning is entirely computerized now, but in the beginning our equipment was somewhat primitive. PCPL staffers at the Main Library recall those early years when we scheduled the huge, two-day event on miles of butcher paper taped to the walls of Joel D. Valdez Main Library’s conference room, marked off into a grid that showed event spaces and time slots. The butcher paper was covered with multi-colored sticky notes, each containing an author’s name, and we moved those sticky notes around to create author panels.  We rejoiced every time a new author—and a new sticky note—was added to the mix…and then we’d move those sticky notes around again.

As an experience, it was simultaneously heady and nerve-wracking—but we shouldn’t have worried. The turnout, measured in the tens of thousands, exceeded everyone’s expectations. Tucson, after all, is a book-loving city.  

We’ve moved beyond butcher paper and sticky notes, but PCPL is still an intrinsic part of the creative life of the Festival. From the celebration of Latinx authors on our Nuestras Raíces stage, to the teen activities and author-interviews developed and organized by PCPL’s Young Adult Librarians, to the Bookmobile and Bookbike, PCPL will be there in force, turning more people into booklovers, and creating more library customers. SIDEBAR

It’s a win, win, win no matter how you look at it!


Helene Woodhams has been a librarian for Pima County Public Library for seventeen years. She is coordinator of Southwest Books of the Year, and served for several years as chair of the Author Committee of the Tucson Festival of Books. An avid supporter of local authors and regional literature, she spends her spare time reviewing books for the “Southern Arizona Authors” column, which appears monthly in the Arizona Daily Star.