November 19, 2017

Coffee Cup Stories | Programs That Pop

ljx150101webProgramsPopEspresso culture arrived a bit late in Parkes, New South Wales (NSW), as urban trends often do in Australian country towns. Yet sometimes it’s possible for a small community to outpace the zeitgeist. In ours, we decided to connect the community to libraries and literacy through coffee.

I’m the teacher librarian at Parkes High School, serving a community of 15,000 in rural NSW. In 2012, Parkes Shire’s branch librarian Tracie Mauro and I launched a community writers’ group, “­Author-rised.”

The enthusiastic response thrilled us. The group has welcomed into its ranks everyone from teachers, students, and homemakers to farmers, nannies, and council employees. The name Author-rised came from the concept of giving ourselves permission to write.

A cup of creativity

In late 2013, Author-rised brainstormed ideas for promoting reading and writing in the shire. Matt Finch suggested that the group write stories on coffee cups, inspired by a project in the Aussie artistic metropolis of Melbourne. Finch was the town’s reader in residence, a role funded by our high school principal Sandra Carter via a national literacy program. Parkes Shire Library partnered with the school to improve literacy levels for the community as a whole. We wanted to increase awareness of the role libraries play across the region, give our writers an avenue to publish their work, and “create small talk that is deeper than chat about the weather,” as Author-rised ­convener Dan Frederiks described it.

How to write a single serving

We were careful that the stories should be compelling and original. We wanted to smash stereotypes of country towns: Australian clichés of drought-weary farmers on tractors and the local footy team winning against all odds. Instead, we aimed to engage locals and out-of-towners alike with sophisticated and surprising tales. Finch guest-hosted a series of writing workshops to inspire the community. Some people tried poetry, and others wrote a few sentences about a moment in time, a memory, something they’d seen.

Writing such a small piece did prove challenging. With a strict word count, the few lines needed to have an immediate impact. There was no time to build suspense or get to know a character. It was some weeks before there were enough stories from which to choose. Submissions were anonymous, with the winning entries chosen by a panel.

Getting the words out

The State Library of New South Wales provided grant funding for library marketing, which let us buy 40,000 cups. Council arts manager Shellie Buckle admitted, “The decision to buy recyclable coffee cups was one of the most difficult work decisions I have had to make. I can spend large sums on ebooks and not blink, but buying something that is not traditionally ‘library’ made me pause.”

The cups are now in every café in town, including the Dish Café at our famous radio telescope, which played a crucial role in the 1969 moon landing. (“The Dish” is even featured in one of the stories.) The cups are used at the weekly café held in our school library. They have also appeared at seminars for teachers and parents.

“The staff and customers of Parkes’ coffee shops have responded enthusiastically.” said Buckle. “Owners report that customers have come in and asked specially for a library cup—even changing to a different cup size in order to read a different story. We are delighted at how the community has jumped on board. The initiative has strengthened our relationship with local businesses, too.”

A well-brewed plan

This simple idea is effective on so many levels. Locals wonder who wrote the pieces—is it someone I know? Travelers passing through town get a sense of the Parkes Shire spirit. Café owners are overwhelmed that they are getting the cups for free and from the library!

Both the town and school libraries are featured on the cups, which raises recognition of both—perhaps parents will choose our school—but also creates awareness of the collaborative relationship we have established. Readers will see that both libraries are not just depositories of books but are in the forefront of making and creating as well as engaging and supporting the community. The stories themselves, one hopes, will make people think differently about country towns.

This idea is already having a big impact by engaging the whole community in literacy. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were as addicted to reading and writing as we are to coffee?

Tracy Dawson is teacher librarian at Parkes High School, New South Wales, Australia

This article was published in Library Journal's January 1, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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Comments

  1. I really like this idea! I would love to have something similar. Kudos to you all!