Thursday, September 23, 2021

Dr. Jennifer Burek Pierce, an Associate Professor in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Iowa, has spent a lot of time in archives. “When you’re in the archives,” she explains, “you can get such a feeling for people and their lives and their values…Archives can bring a different time and place to vivid light.” But her research has also taken her far beyond archives, all the way to acclaimed author John Green’s co-run YouTube channel, Vlogbrothers, in a video where he discusses her most recent book, Narratives, Nerdfighters, and New Media.

Jennifer Burek Pierce
Photo Credit: Karl Lang

In the book, she analyzes Nerdfighteria (a mostly online community that grew from the YouTube channel Green co-hosts with his brother Hank) in the context of print and digital culture. More specifically, she argues that contemporary reading is not limited to one person reading alone but is a practice that can include author-reader engagements online and in person; reader communities; and the production of art in response to novels. “There are physical spaces where people who are part of online reading communities meet up. Part of the way I’m discussing it [in my book] is the idea that we treat online communities as a place.” Simply put, her book argues that “reading is multimedia and reader response is multimedia.”

Dr. Burek Pierce can remember the moment when she found out John Green featured her book on his vlog. She was sitting in the passenger seat, stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic (thanks to a handful of Canada geese who decided to meander across the road), traveling back to Iowa City after a day trip. With her phone battery just shy of 5%, she tried to watch the video, a moment she describes as “surreal.” While the “stamp of approval” from John Green himself was rewarding, the idea that her scholarship helped him consider big-picture questions about his Nerdfighters community—such as concepts of place and ownership—was even more impactful.

Dr. Burek Pierce’s interest in community isn’t just limited to the Nerdfighters, either. In fact, her own classroom community inspired her to write Narratives, Nerdfighters, and New Media in the first place. “The conversations that we had in my class really led me to think about how readers were being characterized and how reading was being situated relative to place in a lot of the theory,” she explains. “Those conversations with my students in my seminar really illuminated these classic works in a different way and really led me to the way I developed the framework for this book.”

Community is the core of Dr. Burek Pierce’s research, and it’s unsurprisingly the driving force of her current project, in which she explores the history of author visits at libraries. She cites John Green as one such author who partakes in such visits and whose literary success can even be tracked through them. In what she describes as “a pivotal moment,” at a Chicago Public Library event, Green was flocked by over one hundred people instead of his usual handfuls of attendees. In her paper, “More Than a Room with Books: The Development of Author Visits for Young People in Mid-Century U.S. Public Libraries,” she attends to the practice of these author visits, attempting to understand their origins and role in library history. The essay even won her the 2021 Justin Winsor Library History Essay, an award given every two years by the Library History Round Table of the American Library Association, recognizing the best unpublished essay on library history.

Dr. Burek Pierce describes her research path as “organic rather than linear.”  She came to the University of Iowa to study librarians’ interactions with teenagers, as well as the dissemination of sexual and reproductive health information for teens. Both projects are rooted in the transmission of knowledge, albeit in different settings. The former has taken her everywhere from online reading communities to author events, whereas the latter saw her spending time in the John Martin Rare Book Room at the Hardin Library for the Health Sciences, looking at illustrated books with life-sized depictions of venereal disease cycles. While the project was fulfilling, she explains, “I was ready to look at something pretty. I wanted to look at something fun. And that pushed me back toward looking at materials meant for younger readers in libraries.”

This shift, combined with a cultural shift in the digital age, steered her toward digital mediums. Although there is an inherent ephemerality in such research—Dr. Burek Pierce recalls an instance when she, by sheer luck, had taken screenshots of an author’s Tweets before the author shut down her Twitter account, permanently erasing her history—there can also be that same ephemerality in print research, such as an instance when a company’s corporate history was essentially erased after a basement flood. While events like that are rare, they can disrupt projects and guide researchers in new directions, as Dr. Burek Pierce knows firsthand.

Regardless of medium and topic, Dr. Burek Pierce's work is always rooted in community. She is primarily motivated by “other people’s passion for reading and books,” which is why her research is grounded in library settings. Libraries are spaces for community members to gather and spaces that can awaken young people’s enthusiasm for reading. “I meet so many people who are interesting as researchers or librarians, people who have really interesting visions for how they are going to engage with their communities, whether those communities are readers, whether those communities are people who are more interested in games than they are in books, or whether those people are people who need to be connected to a community because they’re feeling really isolated.” At the end of the day, communities—and by extension, libraries—have remained the “anchor” for Dr. Burek Pierce.