October 31, 2014

One Book, One Community: One Great Idea

Why your library should get on the One Book, One Community bandwagon

ljx090901dempsey1 One Book, One Community: One Great IdeaIn 1998, Nancy Pearl and Chris Higashi, librarians working in the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library (SPL), had a brainstorm. Challenged with a grant to develop new audiences for literature, they were intrigued with the power of books to unite diverse audiences. With that in mind, they expanded the book club concept to encompass the entire city, launching a book discussion that incorporated all the branches, bookstores, and even cultural organizations. At the center was a carefully chosen book—one they thought would inspire meaningful discussions and whose author could engage audiences—Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, a poignant story of a town’s grief after a bus accident takes 14 children’s lives. The library called on local book groups to include the book in their schedules and organized library events and readings. The programming was supported by library-created resources designed to help explore the book and its author. Finally, Banks was brought in for a series of events. When a bus crashed in Seattle shortly before Banks’s arrival, the program gave the community a channel to express complex emotions.

ljx090901dempsey2 One Book, One Community: One Great IdeaIt was, of course, the first Seattle Reads, a programming “aha!” that has since been echoed more than a thousand times across the country, placing the library smack dab in the center of the communities where they’re held. The idea captured the imagination of the Chicago Public Library (CPL), which launched One Book, One Chicago in 2001, with a citywide read of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. CPL’s ambitious take swept the idea of community reads into the library programming spotlight and coined the famous “One Book” label.

Today, One Book programs are held in libraries, colleges, bookstores, and cultural centers across North America, Australia, and the UK. In fact, the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress (LC) tracks hundreds of One Book projects. The idea also leapt into the purview of the National Endowment for the Arts, which created “The Big Read,” a grant program that enables libraries and cultural organizations of any size and any means to pull off a community read (see “Big Read, Big ROI,” LJ 11/15/08, p. 26–29).

What is it about mass readings?

Why has this idea become a phenomena? Clearly, it strikes a chord for librarians, allowing them to be, well, librarians. “These programs bring all your different skills together: picking the book, programming, and finding information that relates to the book and the topic,” says Pearl, since retired from SPL and renowned in readers’ advisory (RA) circles and beyond. “They allow us to reconnect to reading.”

Pearl also feels One Book programs are naturally malleable, easily bending to fit any community’s needs or resources. Indeed, the breadth of versions is dizzying. For example, One Book, One Jewish Community gathers the Jewish residents of Philadelphia around works by Jewish authors. One Book, One Zip Code embraces three towns under a mantle that makes compelling the five digits at the end of an address. And, in the tip of Michigan’s mitten, TC Reads (as in Traverse City) celebrates the Great Lakes coastal lifestyle.

Perhaps the biggest contributor to the popularity of One Book programs is the ability of librarians to expand or shrink them depending on staffing and community size. One Book, One Chicago runs twice yearly, with months of programs in CPL’s 79 branch libraries as well as bookstores and multiple community affiliates. Its book announcements are anxiously awaited and received, making them true literary and publishing events. One Book, One Chicago book selections are circulated anywhere from 3500 to 4000 times, and area bookstores report sales increases of as much as 300% for selected titles. “We’re not Oprah,” says Craig Davis, CPL’s director of adult services. “But we’re coming close.”

More typical takes are found in such places as the Greenwood Public Library, a one-building system in suburban Indianapolis, and Maine’s Bangor Public Library. Greenwood’s Community Read has been going for seven years, organized and deployed by a small staff. During that time, Jane Weisenbach, director of development and marketing, has come up with a simple rule of thumb to keep programming manageable and the community engaged: one event per week for six weeks.

BangorReads has hit the eight-year mark after launching in 2002 with Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels. While it has expanded to other communities along the Penobscot River as well as the library at the University of Maine, it’s kept its small library flavor with a monthlong programming season and a $5000 budget donated by the Friends. Director Barbara McDade feels the key is picking books with a local connection.

Building real community

They’re fun and flexible, but, more important, One Book programs have the potential to create real dialog and memorable experiences for participants. What libraries seek to accomplish with “living rooms” and coffee bars, a good One Book event can deliver in spades. Book discussions offer opportunities for readers to connect with one another in meaningful ways and, in the process, learn more about their neighbors. Higashi recounts the year Seattle Reads chose Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine, an unflinching account of a Japanese American family’s internment in a Utah enemy-alien camp during World War II. Programming went deep into the community, as the library recruited older Japanese residents to run book discussions. Events drew huge crowds, and Higashi remembers one that was pivotal: “We had an event in a branch in a Japanese neighborhood, with 130 people smashed into a room for 100. The moderator asked those who had lived through internment to stand. There was an audible sigh as, one after another, people who had lived this experience that others were reading about rose. Thirty people stood. We had an opportunity to honor these people in a way that had never happened before.”

Less emotional, but still stirring, Annie Tulley, who manages One Book, One Chicago, remembers when the library chose Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and hosted an event in a bar. “It was an old-timey, slightly divey place. There was a reading by an actor, while we all drank Gimlets. It was such a cool experience, and we drew new people.”

ljx090901dempsey3 One Book, One Community: One Great Idea

BangorReads has built new context around routine connections. Consider its 2009 selection of Finding Amy, by mystery writer Kate Flora and Portland Police Chief Joseph Loughlin, a non-fiction account of a murder in a Maine city just south of Bangor. The library invited local police officers and prosecutors as guest speakers for discussions about the modern legal system and police work, engaging an unusual book group mix.

These kinds of experiences build community ownership of the library and elevate its presence as a curator of those experiences. Who else would host an evening with Isabel Allende in a community center in a disadvantaged neighborhood? When Seattle Reads did a selection of Allende’s books, it built a path into a community with little emotional attachment to its neighborhood branch. Six hundred people crammed into the center’s gym for Allende’s appearance, hosted by the library. “They were so impressed that someone of her stature would come to them,” says Higashi. “Now, that community loves the library.”

Point and click to find inspiration

Trailblazers such as Seattle and CPL are quick to point out that some years are better than others, and details can be tedious. However, libraries that want to get started have plenty of resources to tap.

Square one is simply to explore the breadth of programs out there. The Center for the Book at LC has a One Book web site (www.loc.gov/loc/cfbook/onebook) that tracks One Book programs on three continents and allows visitors to see programs by state or book choice. A couple of hours spent perusing web sites provides ample background—and inspiration—on both the variety of themes and popular book selections and the kinds of events that libraries plan and their time lines.

Chances are this inspiration will be accompanied by confusion on how these libraries implemented their ideas. Tulley describes the planning process as “sort of a Rubic’s Cube that has to be patiently put together.” Fear not. The American Library Association’s (ALA) Public Programs Office (bit.ly/1NiDDl) publishes One Book, One Community Resource Guide—exhaustive in detail and easy to follow. Download the PDF, or make a modest investment of about $100 for a CD that includes templates for posters, bookmarks, and other marketing collateral and a bonus tool kit that includes a budgeting worksheet.

Let your publisher be your guide

For book publishers, communitywide reads can drive the rebirth of a backlist title or propel a new author into the literary spotlight, and at the nuts-and-bolts level they drive sales. Seattle and CPL buy hundreds of books to stock branches, as does Greenwood PL, which gives away 300 books to patrons as they sign up for Community Read. Even in the smallest of programs, dozens of copies are purchased for library shelves, not to mention resulting bookstore sales. So publishers—and many authors, too—are eager to support libraries’ efforts. To wit, when Steve Lopez, author of The Soloist, appeared at July’s ALA annual conference he made a point of telling the audience his book made a great One Book selection (Philadelphia and Cincinnati have read it). And Random House stocked its ALA exhibit booth with a stunning catalog devoted to works ideal for community reads. With an introduction full of helpful hints from Pearl, it’s a key addition to a One Book toolbox.

In the infancy of One Book programs, the baseline check-in with publishers was to ensure they could support the program’s book needs—still an essential step. Those that didn’t, “learned to their horror that it was out of print, with no plans to reprint,” recalls Marcia Purcell, Random House’s VP, director, library and academic marketing.

Now, checking in with a publisher can also mean tapping a source of experienced, enthusiastic guidance. “We’re all in this together,” says Macmillan’s director of library marketing Talia Sherer.

Purcell and Sherer note that publishers can make book recommendations but they can also connect librarians to communities that have been particularly successful with those selections. Further, they know which authors are good with crowds—a critical piece of information if your goal is to connect readers and writers.

The web site Early Word has a convenient list of publishing contacts for librarians (www.earlyword.com/publishers).

Pick the right book

Veterans of One Book planning all agree: you have to pick the right book. Approaches vary—Seattle looks for books slightly under the radar, while Chicago trends toward classics. The BangorReads mission to stay local has provided a surprising amount of flexibility—fiction and nonfiction. No matter the mission, there are some common traits among the most successful books.

“It should be discussable…compulsively discussable,” says Pearl. “Whether you like the book is of lesser importance than the discussion it can generate.” Higashi recommends books with ambiguous endings and those with characters who make choices in difficult situations.

It also needs to be a book that readers can take seriously. “Go for something that will stand the test of time,” says Tulley. “Most of all, it needs to be well written.” She adds that 200 is a “magic” page count that provides enough meat without being seen as a reading chore.

These veterans say that you should go for broad appeal but don’t look for a book everyone agrees upon lest you end up with a compromise that is simply not offensive, rather than important. Seattle and CPL avoid such pitfalls by dealing with only a small number of people who are intimately involved with the program. Neither has a set process but report that book selections seem to happen organically.

In contrast, the Daniel Boone Regional Library (DBRL) in Missouri engages the public in the book choice for its One Read—now in its eighth year. Citizens nominate books several months before the event. Librarians gather reviews and other information on the suggestions and turn them over to a citizen panel—a dozen or so people in a demographic mix that matches the community—for evaluation and ranking. The community votes on the final three to make the final selection. A discussion for runner-up books eases any hard feelings. “The key to our program’s success is that, although the library provides the leadership, the community has taken ownership,” says Jenny McDonald, DBRL’s public relations associate.

Despite their different processes, both One Read and One Book, One Chicago have selected To Kill a Mockingbird. With some 70 communities having read it, Mockingbird tops the charts according to the Center for the Book’s tracking. But the list has impressive range (see “Brave Book Choices,” right), which creates ample opportunity to find works that incite the response Tulley hopes for from Chicago citizens: “Oh, that’s something I always wanted to read.”

Then, get them to read it

Picking the right book is a wasted exercise without community participation, and building enthusiasm starts in the library. In Greenwood, every librarian is encouraged to read the book in preparation. Weisenbach advises, “Keep it fun and get the staff excited about it…they are the first impression for your patrons.”

At Seattle, Higashi spreads the word through the library’s expansive list of book groups. “We have a whole network of groups that hold a spot open for us.” She also works closely with local independent bookstore Elliot Bay Book Company, which has deep connections with Seattle’s readers. Also important is Seattle Reads’ advisory board, which changes each year. “We fill the board with outside folks who add to the project,” Higashi says. “They help us brainstorm ideas, and they build connections into the community.”

Davis seconds the need for outreach that reflects the community. “Look to your town’s assets—the high school, the bridge clubs,” he says. All Pikes Peak Reads (APPR), led by Colorado’s Pikes Peak Library District, is an ambitious example. Christened in 2002, the program has grown to include nearly 40 community organizations and agencies, 13 public school districts, 24 private schools, and four colleges. The program includes annual curricula that fits into state standards and has been used in more than 1000 classrooms.

Beyond a great book, great community reads host events that inspire interest in and discussion of the book. Here, the variety and innovation are exhaustive. Author appearances are common (and often attract huge crowds) but certainly not essential. Small-budget programs often seek out expert speakers who appear for free, eager to share their knowledge. Movie screenings and theatrical presentations are clever, simple, and engaging. Venues run the gamut from bus terminals to museums.

Planning a first-time One Book program could be made easy by selecting a book that has been a success in other communities and culling the best from the array of programming. Resource guides vary as dramatically as events but generally include the list of events and background information on the author, the setting, and the book’s context. CPL’s guides are especially useful. “We’re always ambitious,” says Tulley. The resource guides, she says, “not only list all of the events, but they look beautiful and are very extensive. We point the readers back to the library for online resources and related fiction and nonfiction, but we also have stuff that’s just informative and fun. When we did The Long Goodbye, we included a whole list of Chandler-isms.”

Do they work?

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that One Book programs bring new audiences to literature and to their local library. For example, All Pikes Peak Reads started with a healthy 22,000 participants and over the years has more than tripled that figure, with 72,000 readers. Seattle Reads attracts 7000 to 10,000 participants and routinely drives their book selection to best seller status in area bookstores, helping the local economy and making the library a hero with retailers. Multiply such figures by the hundreds of programs occurring annually in North America and it is easy to see that One Book is buoying libraries’ collective presence. And while the breadth of impact is impressive, Higashi feels the experience of the program is even more important. “The goal of Seattle Reads is to deepen engagement in literature through reading and discussion,” she says. “From the beginning we’ve been most interested in how a reader’s appreciation of a book is enhanced by hearing other readers’ response to that same book.”

Soon we may have hard data to guide libraries even more specifically toward their goals. Beyond the Book (www.beyondthebookproject.org) is a Canadian research project that aims to calculate the effect of mass readings. Its focus is whether this literary phenomenon really attracts new readers and marginalized populations. Researchers hope to develop definitive guidelines that help One Book organizers fine-tune programs for maximum impact.

In the meantime, there’s a wealth of ideas and resources waiting to be explored and tested in new cities and towns. And the results are well worth the effort, as Higashi eloquently describes: “We build community…we build connections across and within cultures and generations. It’s an inviting way for people to learn to know the library.”


Author Information
Beth Dempsey (beth@bethdempsey.com) is principal of Dempsey Communications Group, a firm specializing in strategic communications for knowledge organizations

 

Brave Book Choices

Say “One Book, One Community,” and people often think of friends and neighbors getting together to share a big, juicy novel. But the communities that decide to read together are now making some bold and surprising choices. They’re picking demanding nonfiction like Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene; they’re exploring the more rarefied short story genre with ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere; and they’re taking a chance with graphic novels and reading Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.

Of course, books like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are still popular, and we all love stories that play out in our own backyards—hence the draw mid-country of Kent Haruf’s elegant Plain Song. But what’s most striking is how often readers are willing to take risks, reaching beyond their own communities and trying authors who aren’t necessarily household names.

Seeking to understand the grand mosaic that is America, communities have enjoyed novels like Diana Abu-Jaber’s Crescent, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Mistress of Spices, Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban, Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying, Diane Glancy’s Stone Heart, Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine, and Danzy Senna’s Caucasia. Nonfiction choices include Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway, Tamim Ansary’s West of Kabul, East of New York, and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Colored People, a 2006 statewide West Virginia pick.

Other communities have chosen to investigate hard truths abroad. Beyond obvious titles like Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, they have picked Ethiopian Mawi Asgedom’s Of Beetles and Angels: A Boy’s Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard; Dalia Sofer’s The Septembers of Shiraz, a debut novel set in Iran during the revolution; and Tahar Djaout’s The Last Summer of Reason, the Algerian author’s final work before being assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists in 1993.

South Bend, IN, celebrates Charles Darwin’s bicentennial by reading On the Origin of the Species. Racine, WI, ponders terrorism via Jim Defede’s The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland. And Cincinnati picks a little gem of a novel, Robert Olmstead’s Coal Black Horse. All great books, all brave choices, all proof of the power of community reads.—Barbara Hoffert

For the list of One Book events kept by the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress, go to www.loc.gov/loc/cfbook/onebook.

 

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