Shirlington library offers book speed-dating to draw in young professionals

October 3, 2012

Libraries aren’t known as hot spots to meet singles. But the dimly lit conference room in the Shirlington Branch Library in Arlington County sounded more like a house party than a place for inside voices. On a recent September evening, men and women young and old exchanged phone numbers, e-mail addresses and book recommendations.

They aren’t in a book club. They’re speed dating. On the third Sunday of every month, bookworms arrive in the hopes of meeting someone special through a common love of reading.

Courtney Conklin, 30, who teaches kindergarten in Woodbridge, was attending her first session last month and said she would definitely be back. It’s tough to meet young men in her profession, she said, and books make it easy for strangers to bond.

“Books can show an intimate part of you,” she said. “Having the book as a prop helps you not to worry about awkward pauses and puts something you’re passionate about on the table. And when you know the person across from you loves reading as well, it’s something you share off the bat.”

The idea came about in the fall when Mary Prisbrey, newly hired as the branch’s librarian, was asked by her manager to find ways of drawing in young professionals. Through Google, she discovered a library in Fargo, N.D., that had put a bookish twist on dating.


Mary Prisbrey, Shirlington branch librarian, who started the branch’s speed dating event with a literary twist.

The concept is simple: Each person brings two or three books he or she is reading or already loves and uses them to spark conversation. The mini-dates last about five minutes — enough time to see whether there’s chemistry but to leave you wanting more.

“There’s a gap in most people’s lives when they leave the library,” Prisbrey said. “They come a lot as children, and they come back when they have children, but the in-between years are hard to capture. The hope is that programs like this will remind young people what we can offer.”

Shirlington held its first speed-dating session last October. In the year since, groups have been as small as nine people and as large as 39, spanning their late 20s to early 60s.

Fifty-two-year-old David Leitzia of Alexandria, an engineer, has been to three sessions. When he first saw a flier for the program, he was surprised he hadn’t heard of book speed dating before in the area.

“This city is full of singles, intellectuals and professionals, all of whom are pretty pressed for time,” he said. “Mary must have picked up on that, because she has taken the idea and run with it.”

In Prisbrey’s eyes, the end goal doesn’t have to be romance. Many people leave having made good friends and return the next month to make more, she said.

“There is a liveliness in these interactions,” said Pat Lucas of Alexandria, who has been to six sessions. “It’s not combative like political discussions can be; everyone just wants to share our joy around books. There have been groups of us who get together at the end and shut the library down.”

So, just what books would their future lovers have in tow?

Leitzia said he’d like to see a woman carrying one of his guilty pleasures, such as “High Fidelity.” Lucas prefers nonfiction. But Conklin has figured out a way to work the system. She brought in “Shantaram,” Gregory David Roberts’s 2004 novel tracing his escape from an Australian prison and subsequent flee to India. Conklin is more of a “Jane Eyre” type, but she figured “Shantaram” was guy friendly.

“I mean, what guy is going to want to hang out with me because I read ‘Jane Eyre?’ ” she said. “But a book about an ex-prisoner who ends up in a mob in Bombay? That’s hot.”

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