February 16, 2018

Libraries Offer Chapter and Verse on Citywide Book Clubs

By Reported by Michael Rogers

In Seattle, Chicago, Syracuse, and even some states, the concepts and tactics vary, but collective reading grows

Book clubs have long been a staple in libraries, attracting small groups of diehard readers. The concept of the localized book club was amplified to the tenth power by the Washington Center for the Book at Seattle Public Library, which launched a citywide book club in 1998 in which patrons throughout the system all read Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter. The program has been remarkably successful, and other cities, from Chicago and New York to Milwaukee and Syracuse, have adopted the plan. The concept has even moved to the states: Arizona launched “One BookAZ” in April with Tucson author Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams. Georgia and Arkansas also have such programs.

Getting a dozen book lovers together is one thing, but organizing thousands of people is quite another. In interviews, LJ
learned that there is no simple formula: different libraries took different tacks and had divergent experiences.

Getting started

Nancy Pearl, executive director of the Washington Center for the Book and godmother of the one book, one city idea, said that starting from scratch proved trying. “It took us a year to get all the pieces in place including choosing the book and bringing the author in for a three-day residency,” she said.

By contrast, Chicago PL’s “One Book, One Chicago” moved swiftly. The library decided to proceed in April 2001, selected the book June 1, ordered the books immediately, and quickly lined up its bookstore partners. Said Commissioner Mary Dempsey, “We announced it mid-August and encouraged everyone to read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
in September to prepare to discuss it during Chicago Book Week… the second week of October.”

Financing the book club

With budgets already tight, how does a library finance a large book club? Pearl said Seattle PL had allotted roughly $70,000 each year, which included the author’s honorarium and travel expenses, the books, and printed programs. The first three years were funded via a grant from the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Foundation. In the third year, the library received a $500,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and raised $1.5 million for future programs.

Chicago did it faster and cheaper. The library spent $40,000, which included about 2500 copies of the book (with 200 in Spanish and 150 in Polish), publicity, and marketing. Said Dempsey, “We decided this was important enough, so we took it out of our marketing and acquisitions budgets.”

She added that the library had a lot of free help: bookstores put up displays using One Book, One Chicago signage, lapel pins, and Chicago PL resource guides. Starbucks held book discussions at five coffee shops. High school teachers and librarians also got involved.

Size matters not

Small city operations—with equally small budgets—face similar challenges. The experiences of Lorelei Starck, director of communications and marketing at Milwaukee PL (MPL), and Tom Dydyk, executive director of the Friends of the Onondaga County PL (OCPL), Syracuse, NY, remarkably paralleled those of Chicago and Seattle.

“We worked on it about six months,” Starck said. “We don’t have a budget for it. We’ve received some marketing support from McDonald’s, and they’ve contributed in the neighborhood of $12,000 as well as providing posters and advertising the event in their restaurants.” OCPL’s club took six months to assemble, said Dydyk. In contrast, it secured the $80,000 necessary “from a number of local foundations and the Verizon Foundation. Nothing came out of our budget.”

Selecting the book

Finances are one hurdle, but an even larger one is identifying the right title. Said Seattle PL’s Pearl, “Keep in mind that this is a library program, it’s not an exercise in civics, it’s not intended to have literature cure the racial divide. This is about a work of literature.” So Seattle seeks a “character-driven novel that raises interesting issues about the way we live and function in the world”—one that will provoke discussion.

Seattle PL also requires that an author be not only willing to come to the city but also good at engaging an audience. “Once you add that little kicker in, that eliminates even more books,” said Pearl. After Banks’s work, the library selected Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying, then poet Bill Moyers’s Fooling with Words, and currently Molly Gloss’s Wild Life.

In contrast, Chicago’s Dempsey said a book can serve as a civics lesson: “If you can get a city excited about a book or even disagreeing about a book, then you’ve made a significant contribution to the cultural life of that city.” Chicago also wanted books with a compelling story that would make for provocative programming. “In the case of Mockingbird, three high schools decided to put on the play,” noted Dempsey. “Harper Lee doesn’t travel, so we had the foremost expert on her do a program.” Chicago recently selected Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir Night as its second book, and Dempsey says programs might involve not only Holocaust survivors but also immigrants whose countries (e.g., Bosnia, Rwanda) have suffered recent atrocities.

Like some other libraries, MPL selected David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, a process that took four or five months. Starck said that some titles (e.g., Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451) seemed inappropriate after September 11, but Guterson’s book, which deals with racial profiling during World War II, seemed more suitable.

OCPL, collaborating with a local theater organization and a community group committed to dialog, also chose Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying. Dydyk said that not only had the book been successful in other wide-scale book clubs, it also had been turned into a drama that could be staged—which generated a contribution from Syracuse University.

What to do with 1000 books?

Once the process is completed, however, what do you do with all those books? “We buy 500 – 600 copies of each book,” said Pearl, “and the library foundation buys another 300 – 400 to send out [as thank yous] to donors, [who are then invited] to a reception with the author.” Some 50 – 60 copies remain in the collection, while the others are sold at Friends sales.

Chicago has kept Mockingbird, which is on the required reading lists of most Chicago high schools, and “and as they become worn and tattered,” says Dempsey, “we’ll retire them.”

Programming guides

Libraries have issued guides that go beyond the usual page of book club questions. Chicago’s resource guide, compiled by librarians, includes quotes from Lee, Gregory Peck (who appeared in the film version), and Mayor Richard Daley. It has ten discussion questions, the background of the novel, a historic time line, and a bibliography of related titles. The library published roughly 50,000 guides for Mockingbird and for Night, which were also posted on the library’s web site.

The Washington Center for the Book has put together reading group “toolboxes” that include questions, an author biography and interview, and suggested readings.

Is it worth it?

Are these projects worth the expense and effort? Though no hard numbers were available, all the libraries LJ contacted reported that since starting their book clubs they have enjoyed increased circulation and issued many new library cards. “Qualitatively, what we’ve seen is that more people come to library programs,” Seattle’s Pearl said, adding that attendance at book discussions has grown continually.

She advises other libraries considering this endeavor to “make their criteria for book selection very clear” and says that even small libraries can launch a book program.

Innovative ideas to attract the public also are helpful; OCPL, for example, convinced a local newspaper to reprint a chapter of Gaines’s novel and also to post it on its web site.

For those interested in joining the numerous cities with book clubs, Seattle provides materials to other libraries. Chicago has produced a comprehensive report on its project as well.

Controversy in New York?

While other municipalities seemed to have avoided controversy, when the single-book theory was proposed in New York City, the media pounced on dissension in the ranks. Although BookExpo America (BEA) officials attempted to bring together all interested parties, so the kickoff could occur at this year’s BEA in New York City, two groups independently announced they had chosen different books. Subsequently, said New York Pubic Library’s Nancy Donner, “That rush to get the word out precipitated conversation amongst us all. Now we’re working together to come up with the best scenario.”

Now the three library systems of New York will spearhead a multiorganization effort behind Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker. “We’ll launch a six-week program in September, timed with the New York Is Book Country [event] and other reading festivals.” Given that New York City libraries are faced with a $39 million budget cut proposal, the systems will look for private funding.

The New York Women’s Agenda (NYWA) had instead selected James McBride’s The Color of Water. NYWA works with the Board of Education, so that book will serve high school students, said Donner. Nonetheless, the media tempest prompted much discussion about the purpose of such “one book, one city” efforts—and may just get more people reading.