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Magazine Feature

Lit Sparking Community Connections with Dynamic Book Programming

by Julie Biando Edwards, Kelley Rae Unger, and Melissa Robinson on November 28, 2016

JULIE BIANDO EDWARDS is Associate Professor, Mansfield Library, University of Montana. KELLEY RAE UNGER is Community Relations and Public Programming Coordinator, Peabody (MA) Institute Library. MELISSA ROBINSON is Senior Branch Librarian, Peabody (MA) Institute Library West Branch. Contact Julie at julie.edwards@umontana.edu; contact Kelley at unger@noblenet.org; contact Melissa at mrobinson@noblenet.org. Julie is currently reading The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine. Kelley is currently reading The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman. Melissa is currently reading American Treasures by Steven Puleo.

In October 2015, Alberto Manguel wrote a fascinating editorial in The New York Times arguing for “reinventing the library.” Among those of us in the profession, and especially those of us who have passionately embraced and argued for libraries as community-centered institutions, such a title would have led us to expect an article focused on the many ways in which libraries, through creative programs and services, are establishing new relevance for themselves in the digital age. In Manguel’s essay, though, the reinvented library isn’t about makerspaces, concerts, yoga classes, or PokeStops. The reinvented library is about . . . books?

The most recent Pew Research Center study indicates that “large numbers of library users cite fairly traditional reasons [for using the library]. These include borrowing printed books . . . or just sitting and reading, studying, or engaging with media.”1 Still, Manguel writes that:

most libraries today are used less to borrow books than to seek protection from harsh weather and to find jobs online, and it is admirable that librarians have lent themselves to these very necessary services that don’t traditionally belong to their job description. A new definition of the role of librarians could be drafted by diversifying their mandate, but such restructuring must also ensure that the librarians’ primary purpose is not forgotten: to guide readers to their books.2

His argument is rooted in the realities of political and financial support for libraries, which he sees as pushing librarians towards roles they have not traditionally played and are not currently equipped for:

Librarians are not trained to act as social workers, caregivers, babysitters or medical advisers. All these extra tasks make it difficult, if not impossible, for librarians to work as librarians: to see that the collections remain coherent, to sift through catalogues, to help readers read, to read themselves. The new duties imposed on them are the obligations of civilized societies toward their citizens, and should not be dumped pell-mell onto the shoulders of librarians. If we change the role of libraries and librarians without preserving the centrality of the book, we risk losing something irretrievable.3

Four months after this article was written, a voice from within the profession pulled far fewer punches. Writing in Publisher’s Weekly, Brian Kenney wrote that librarians need to “stop the book shaming” and went on to say that “at conference after  conference, keynote speakers argue that public libraries should be community centers, agents of innovation, knowledge creators, and makerspaces.”4

It is a criticism that hits close to home. We’ve been arguing for years that this is exactly what libraries need to be doing, and we’ve been successfully implementing community-centered programs into our libraries. We’ve also been gratified when the recent Aspen Institute Report on Public Libraries and ALA’s 2016 State of America’s Libraries report pointed to the evolving roles of libraries as community-centered institutions that play vital roles in the lives of communities and individuals.

Manguel and Kenney don’t completely discount the new roles that librarians are playing in their communities. Manguel writes that “libraries have always been more than a place where readers come to read” and Kenney argues that “it’s not that libraries aren’t successfully assuming all these roles—we are, and more.” But they do lament the move away from books, especially because, as Kenney notes, “in survey after survey, the public still overwhelmingly views the library brand as books.”

These arguments resonated with us. Like so many librarians, we are passionate book lovers. We seek out bookshops, visit other cities’ libraries, and browse the bookshelves in the homes of friends. We read to the young people in our lives, follow book-related news, and build up stacks of books faster than we can get through them. We unabashedly geek out over Anne of Green Gables, love a good literary debate, and like to compare our favorite Harry Potter characters (among the three of us, it’s two to one for Sirius Black).

At the same time, we’ve focused much of our professional work on library programming and outreach that isn’t necessarily book related. Some of it is, of course, but more of it is, at most, only tangentially related to books. And this got us thinking. How can we combine our personal love of books, the historical and symbolic role of libraries, the public’s perception of our “brand,” and the community-centered programs that we care so deeply about and view as the future of library services?

In our book, Transforming Libraries, Building Communities: The Community-Centered Library (Scarecrow, 2013), we emphasize that librarians need to take a proactive approach to services. Rather than focusing on how we can or can’t compete with other institutions (including the Internet) in the digital age, we need to focus on what we do well and build on that. We borrow from community development literature to apply an asset-based community development approach to our services. In the book we talk about what libraries do well and itemize their assets: we connect people to each other and to their communities, we are trusted by the public, and we are deeply invested in our cities and towns. We also have knowledgeable and creative staff and a deep commitment to our ideals. Finally, we can’t discount the value our physical spaces offer to our communities.

All of these are our assets, of course. But in enumerating our assets we glossed over books, and recently we’ve been rethinking that. Driven by a deep belief in the importance of stories and books, we started thinking about how to integrate books into our programs in ways that stretch beyond traditional storytimes and book groups. We still think that libraries should continue to offer creative programs and services that strengthen their communities, but we also want to focus on how these programs can connect people to one of our strongest assets—books—and how, through books, we can connect people to each other.

We argue in our book that access to information isn’t the only thing, or even the most important thing, that libraries do. But we also know that books are about so much more than information. We know that reading makes us more nuanced thinkers and better writers, and builds our vocabulary. We know that books have been used as therapy, and that reading makes us more empathetic. We know the delight that we, as readers, feel when we connect with someone over a shared book. We know that our book discussion groups, which are thriving, and Melissa’s Literatea program, where she booktalks over tea and treats, are among our most popular programs. We also know that we reinvigorate our programs and our professional passions when we approach them in new ways.

One of the joys of librarianship is connecting people with books that mean something to them. As Kenney says, “reading is a maker activity—and a profound one. When a reader engages with a text, her own experiences interact with the narrative to create something entirely new.”5 With this idea in mind, we’ve pulled together a list of some of our favorite book-based programs. These inspired us because of the ways in which they connect people not only with books, but through books to each other.

A Musical Partnership

he Northfield Public Library in Minnesota partnered with the Minnesota Opera to host a very unique story time that turns books into song.6 Opera singers share stories through a combination of reading and singing that brings literacy and music education together in perfect harmony. In addition to creating a wonderful experience for community members of all ages, the program generated two new partnerships for the library, one with the Minnesota Opera, which presented the program, and another with The Northfield Arts Guild, which agreed to host one of the programs while the library’s building was under construction. Along with the partnerships came an expanded audience for the event.

Thoughtful Civic Reflection

There has been, and will continue to be, a lot of discussion about how much of our civic discourse now takes place in the digital world and what effect that has on our political rhetoric and public policy. Libraries in Denmark, along with universities, newspapers, and public radio, are making a concentrated effort to bring discussions of the “big issues” back to the physical realm. The Pause to Think program gathers residents together at their public libraries to discuss broad, important themes such as hope, trust, terror, and truth. A companion book for each series is made easily accessible and authors help lead the coordinated dialogues. In an era when social media too often creates polarizing debate, Danish libraries are using the power of books and face-to-face discourse to “ensure that the citizens reflect on the knowledge they acquire, and provide the opportunity for independent opinion shaping.”7

Making Magic

Sometimes the best book related programs are the ones where participants get to tell their own stories. When the Peabody Institute Library in Peabody, Massachusetts, wanted to host a major summer program for teens in its Creativity Lab makerspace, staff came up with a two-week series that brought together twenty lovers of fantasy and superheroes to create their own photo comics. “Maker Academy: Conjuring Characters” and “Maker Academy: Spellbinding Comics” asked participants to create their own characters and then bring them together to tell their stories. During the program, teens developed their own fantasy and superhero characters, learned costuming skills to outfit themselves as those characters, worked in groups to write stories that featured their characters, and took photographs of each scene that they then edited for the photo comic. Maker Academy teens learned to use the Creativity Lab’s sewing equipment, graphic design software, digital cameras, and green screen technology, but most importantly they used their impressive collective imagination and creativity.

Pages and Pirouettes

The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County in Ohio partnered with the Cincinnati Ballet to offer a program that  combines performance and book discussion.8 Patrons who attended “Ballet at the Barre” viewed a rehearsal for the ballet’s upcoming performance and then discussed a ballet-related book. This partnership brought community members together in a unique setting for a very special arts and culture experience.

Read Global, Think Local

Community Read events are no longer new to the library world, but creative librarians are continually reimagining them in ways that increase their value to their communities. When the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library decided to host a Big Read event, they jumped on the chance to use one of the program’s new novels, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, to connect with and celebrate their county’s growing Ethiopian population. Cultural programming included cuisine sampling, musical performances, a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, and an exhibit highlighting the local adoptions of Ethiopian children. The library formed partnerships with everyone from local churches all the way up to their sister cities in China, Germany, Croatia, Italy,
and Brazil to ensure that their project fostered open minds and relationship building. Still, Dinaw Mengestu’s novel remained the heart of the project. The library’s Director of Strategic Planning and Assessment summed up the value of keeping books at the center of what we do perfectly when he said, “You can take a book and use it to do something powerful like bring people together.”9

Creative Conversations

The Book to Art Club run by the Library as Incubator Project provides a model easily replicated by interested libraries and private groups. The goal: “to find hands-on, creative ways to engage with literature—where the process of art-making is more important than the product!”10 There are multiple options for running a Book to Art Club, but our favorite involves participants reading the books beforehand and then coming together to work on their own individual book-related art projects during the meeting. Discussion happens at the same time as the art creation, and projects are shared at the end of the program. Although the stated program goal is to find “creative ways to engage with literature,” we’d argue that this program’s greatest strength is providing a creative way to engage with others through books.

Literary Lots

We strongly believe that one of libraries’ greatest assets is, and will always be, the physical gathering spaces they offer their communities. When libraries combine a strong sense of place with a desire to make books come to life, something truly
magical can happen. The Cleveland Public Library provided a charming example of literary placemaking when they worked with local businesses, community organizations, and artists to turn an underutilized public space adjacent to the library into a book themed playground. The visually compelling spaces were a celebration of storytelling and play that brought families and the community together for a whole summer full of fun and reading aloud.11

These examples highlight just a few of the ways in which public librarians are using book-based programs to connect people with the written word and with their communities. We join Brian Kenney in exhorting librarians to “embrace our bookish selves; let’s unapologetically celebrate reading as the life-changing activity that it is, and tout our role as reading experts.”12 We want to see librarians using their considerable creativity to not only celebrate books and reading, but to leverage the power of stories to strengthen the relationships our readers already have and build new bridges with their fellow community members. Using books in programming—in fact, using books as the foundation of our programming—demonstrates how we leverage our libraries’ strongest assets (books, people, and place) to build assets for the individuals and communities we serve. If books are our brand, continuing to connect people to them, and through them to each other, will not only reinvigorate our libraries, but will help us revitalize our programs so that we continue doing the important work of building communities and developing assets in new and engaging ways.

References

  1. John B. Horrigan, “Libraries 2016,” Pew Research Center, Sept. 9, 2015.
  2. Alberto Manguel, “Reinventing the Library,” New York Times, Oct. 23, 2015.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Brian Kenney, “Three Ways Publishers and Libraries Can Work Better Together,” Publishers Weekly, Feb. 12, 2016.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Leesa Wisdorf, “Singing Stories: Minnesota Opera and Northfield Public Library,” The Library as Incubator Project, Sept. 9, 2015.
  7. Laurie Putnam, “How Libraries are Curating Events, Becoming Community Debate Hubs,” MediaShift, May 2, 2016.
  8. Angela Hursh, “Ballet at the Barre at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County,” The Library as Incubator Project,
    Oct. 29, 2015.
  9. Samra Khawaja, “The Big Read Spotlight on Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library,” Art Works Blog, National Endowment for the Arts, Apr. 29, 2016.
  10. About,” The Book to Art Club, accessed November 28, 2016.
  11. Felton Thomas, Jr., “Literary Lots: Literacy and Community Engagement,” The Library as Incubator Project, Aug. 21, 2014.
  12. Kenney, “Three Ways Publishers and Libraries Can Work Better Together.”

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