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“We Aren’t Afraid to Have the Numbers, and They’ve Showed Up”—Heights Libraries on their 1619 Project Programming

by Brendan Dowling on February 24, 2021

For over a year, Heights Libraries (Cleveland Heights, OH) has held monthly programs surrounding The 1619 Project, The New York Times‘ long-form journalism project that investigates how slavery molded the United States’ economy, politics, and social structure. Outreach Librarian John Piché spoke with us about best practices for holding your own program, community engagement, and partnering with local organizations.

How did this program come about?

The program came about because we noticed that when the 1619 magazine was released, a lot of people were asking for it. We only had two copies, and they were both non-circulating. People were coming in and trying to read the entire magazine in one sitting, and that was impossible. I pitched the idea to my boss that we print the articles and have those available, so we’d have extra copies. [The demand] just never stopped, people kept coming in. Then I pitched the idea of having a program, just a one-shot discussion of the 1619 Project, like a book discussion basically. We made some flyers and put them out. People started asking for the articles. I went through and created PDFs of just the text using printfriendly.com. We printed that as a booklet and then gave it out to people with the promotional flyer in the lobby. There was tremendous interest and we couldn’t keep them on the shelf.

The night of the program, we were expecting fifteen, twenty-five people, maybe. For a good program, thirty would be exceptional. Ninety-six showed up. We had to break them into two groups. I pulled a colleague from circ in, to do one of them. Luckily I had questions, because the Pulitzer Organization had created reading questions to go along with it. All of the reading material was there, all we had to do was provide the articles for the public. Initially we had thought about circulating the booklet,  but that became too labor intensive for tech services, so we just gave them away. After the first session, people really wanted to continue doing it. We had people afterwards contacting us, asking, “When is the next one?”

We did another one two months later. Again about a hundred people showed up. The first four [programs] we had we had over four hundred people show up. Then COVID hit, and we had to change the program. It went to Zoom. The highest on Zoom was thirty people. It’s been a little bit different.

When we were in COVID we created a website that was a clearinghouse for all the information to go on the library site. It had the readings and other articles. I’ve been doing libguides, reading lists, podcasts, movies, basically any digital media that you could get through the library. I also reached out to a professor I knew who had written a book about redlining in Cleveland. We did a Zoom interview and put that on the website. I reached out to a civil rights lawyer in Columbia, Alexis Hoag, who worked with public defenders in Cleveland to get a reversal of a death penalty conviction for a gentleman whose jury selection had been tainted. His sentence got commuted, in part, because of her work. We talked a lot about the criminal justice system. We’re expanding through the videos. They’re on the website and they’re on Facebook. It’s been exciting to offer these supplemental things as well. We’re creating content as well as distributing content.

Because people have signed up with their email, we have an email blast that goes out once a month that promotes our reading list and any other programs that are in line with the 1619 Project. For instance the local history librarian just did an interview with a professor at Cleveland State about a book he wrote that deals with integration in Cleveland, specifically Cleveland Heights. He talked about our local community and how as African-Americans moved in there was a white flight, just the history of that. She had fifty people show up. We’re going to put that on our 1619 page as well. It’s hard to tell if there’s an interest in local history or we’re building off the 1619, but there’s definitely more people coming to these programs as a result.

Your website has such a comprehensive list of further reading and podcasts pertinent to the topics covered in the 1619 project. How did you compile these resources?

Basically it was easy to do some of them, because our vendors created lists when the Black Lives Matter took over the mediascape. In educating myself to do the programs, I’d been doing a lot of reading and exploration myself, so the [lists of] podcasts and the YouTube videos I’ve just done through basic research and put them all together. The history of U.S. policing list I did came together very naturally because everyone at the moment was dealing with it. NPR had a piece, various podcasts did deep dives into the history of policing. I read a couple of books on it. It was doing lib guides and bookmarks. We do bookmarks all the time as librarians. This is just curating our collections in a different way.

It seems like an amazing way to partner with other groups in the community as well.

Going back to the initial programs, [before] the second program a group here in Cleveland Heights contacted The New York Times directly. They’re a non-profit group of history teachers who provide supplemental material to high school classrooms. They had gotten hundreds of copies of The New York Times Magazine and they donated them all to us. We were able to hand out actual copies of the magazine for about two months in preparation of the second and third programs we had. I also have to say that we’re very lucky here in Cleveland Heights because our director is very dedicated to the program and has allowed us carte blanche to do packet printing. I would estimate we’ve printed over a thousand packets of all the different readings.

We’ve started breaking up the discussion. Instead of handing out the entire 1619 booklet, we’ve broken it down to one article and two supplemental articles. It’s about six to eight pages. I’ve taken the article on prisons that’s in 1619 and then found two more on how prisons have developed and that becomes our reading for the month. Once that’s done, I can replicate that program yearly or as it comes up in the news again.

How do you compile the background supplemental reading?

I hit the academic databases first and find out academics or people who have written on topics. Then I try to find an article in a more mainstream news [site] that they contributed to or were quoted in. I reverse engineer something that is more scaled down and isn’t a dissertation, something that isn’t unwieldy to begin with. That’s how I found Alexis Hoag. I found information about the article she wrote about where she challenges the death penalty. She was mentioned in an article on MSNBC where she was interviewed.

What would your recommendation be to librarians who wish to replicate the program?

One of the first things I recommend is don’t be afraid to give away the material. We limit ourselves [by saying], “Oh, we’ll only make twenty-five booklets and once they’re gone, they’re gone. No one can get it ever again.” Then we say, “Why did only five people come to our program?” The other thing we don’t do is we don’t have registration. I can hear everyone in public libraries groaning at that, but my philosophy with programs has always been that registration tends to [suppress attendance]. We wanted to make people show up, but more often than not if you limit it to twenty-five people, the thirtieth person that gets put on a wait list isn’t going to come. We purposely didn’t do a waiting list. If we had registration, I don’t think ninety-six people would have shown up.

We aren’t afraid to have the numbers, and they’ve showed up. We’ve scaled our monitoring to meet it. For the second and third ones we had three people ready to go. We had three media rooms ready to go, we ended up only using two. The third person was used as a runner to get more chairs and make sure latecomers were ushered into the right rooms. We just threw staff at the problem and for an hour and a half on a Thursday night, we had a hundred people attend a library program. That’s the other thing we limit ourselves with, is staff participation with these programs and how much it costs us to do.

I’m very lucky at the library to have people who are willing to participate, staff-wise, to come in and moderate the discussion. The other thing I should touch on is that 1619 is very contentious and it’s incredibly political. When I pitched this idea to my coworkers, a couple of them said, “There’s no way I’m getting involved in that discussion.” I don’t understand that attitude, because we do book discussions on all sorts of things: true crime, mysteries. Some of the classics have the most awful things in them and we’ll sit in a room with five people and talk to them for an hour, but we won’t talk to people about current events or history.

Programming has to be a little bit more nimble. We shoot ourselves in the foot when we say, “We’ll do it, but we’ll do it three months from now.” We saw community interest and we acted on it within a couple of weeks. We got the meeting room booked, got the material out there, and had a tremendous turnout. That’s not to say that every program that we decided to do would be like that, but if the community looks like they’ll be interested in it, listen to them and act on it. They’ll show up.

Is there anything else that you’d to add?

The one thing I would say is that with the 1619 project, or any hot topic political issue, we’ve had pushback. People have bombed our Facebook page with, “This is disgraceful. I can’t believe my tax money’s going to this.” I’ve been called a race traitor, I’ve been called a race baiter. None of it’s true, so none of it matters to me.

Our library’s come out and firmly stated that we are for racial equity and we are for racial inclusion and religious inclusion. Our director, Nancy Levin, has taken a firm stance that we are inclusive. We are not supporting the 1619 narrative, we are creating a platform to discuss it. That’s our mission as a library. We have things in our collection that we don’t promote, but we have them available for people. That’s what the 1619 program has done. The pushback we’ve gotten is incredibly interesting to me, because the people who hate it will not come to talk about it. We’ve reached out to them and said, “Please come! We think it’s important to hear your perspective on reading this.” And they say, “There’s no way I would do that! This is propaganda.”

I was very worried when we did the Zoom that we were going to get bombed and it didn’t happen. I think people, especially online, the keyboard warriors, are very aggressive. But if you don’t feed the trolls they go away. Our PR department has been very good at saying, “I see you’re outside of the service area. Maybe you’d like to talk to your library about having a program like this?” It’s just pushing back. We’re very friendly. “You live in the area, why don’t you come and talk to us about it?” We haven’t been afraid of pushback, because the pushback doesn’t usually manifest in anything.

I do feel for libraries that are in  more conservative areas where something like the 1619 project might be more contentious. Doing something like the 1619 project plus the 1776 project together might be a worthwhile program, because people would come together and debate. The other thing about history is, it’s open to debate. There’s another layer to it that the community also wanted to explore. Facilitating it, I just ask the question and let them talk. If it gets too far off base, I’ll bring it back to the reading, I always bring it back to the reading, that’s how I stay out of my personal views.

This article has been edited and condensed for clarity.