With roots deep in dusty volumes, a librarian for a digital age

By Eugenia Williamson
Globe Correspondent / May 9, 2010

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Shushing her way through dusty stacks, the librarian once stood as both gatekeeper of literature and human shield against disorder, and gum. These days, the pencil-bunned virago has been rebranded as an information professional, more likely to assist an octogenarian with Web design than to wilt an unruly teenager with her bespectacled glare.

Amy Ryan sits atop the information professional heap. As president of the Boston Public Library, she navigates a slippery path fraught with budget cuts and e-readers. The Minnesota winters Ryan withstood before assuming her post here surely will help, and her selections bespeak a pioneering spirit and vigorous will.

How many books do you read a week?

I don’t read a book a week anymore. I’m busy with the library. I read a few books a month.

What kinds of books do you like?

I love reading books set in New England, particularly Boston. Before I moved here, I read “Run’’ by Ann Patchett. I thought it was fabulous.

When I’m going somewhere, I like to read descriptions of places where [I’m] going. I went to Istanbul in March and so I read a mystery set in Istanbul, “Arabesque.’’ It was OK.

I still love Minnesota authors like Louise Erdrich. And John Sanford writes those “Prey’’ books — they’re so violent. I read them all the time, but I wouldn’t recommend them. I [generally] like P.D. James, Elizabeth George, Sarah Waters — mysteries that are complex, that delve into the characters’ motives and relationships.

What books did you like when you were young?

My mom and dad both [grew up] in Boston. We never lived here as a family, but we grew up on New England classics like “Little Women’’ and “Little Maid of Nantucket,’’ the Longfellow poems. Because we lived in Minnesota, we really gobbled up the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Those were great, [especially] “Little House in the Big Woods.’’

We have two daughters. We really got into the Anne of Green Gables series. I think she’s such a good role model — she’s smart and fun and speaks up for herself.

Has anyone recommended a book that’s changed your life?

I have belonged to a book club since graduate school in Minnesota. We’ve influenced each other through the decades. It’s still going after 35 years. Every time I visit, I go. We’ve had some [particularly] good discussions about Virginia Woolf and her books “To the Lighthouse’’ and “Mrs. Dalloway.’’

How do you keep a book club going for that long? Most die a horrible death much sooner than that.

We talk socially, but then we really do talk about the book. It’s a literary discussion — not highbrow, but it does fit the book.

I think the other thing our book club does right is plan ahead. For years, we’d bounce around. Now we choose a theme, and we plan for several books, knowing that our discussion can build on the books that we’ve previously read. This year’s theme is books about Chicago, like “Devil in the White City.’’

Has any author changed your opinion of the world at large?

Edith Wharton, for her portrayal of society and how men and women interact with each other. I remember being captivated by her writing in “Ethan Frome’’ and “The Custom of the Country.’’ She was always my mother’s favorite author. Unfortunately, I never read her until after my mother died.

What are you reading right now?

I always have a few books going on at a time — I read and listen to audiobooks. What I’m reading right now is “Olive Kitteridge’’ by Elizabeth Strout. I’m listening to Jane Austen — “Mansfield Park.’’ [Narrator] Flo Gibson has a great English accent!