What if Everyone in Town Read the Same Book?
The One Book, One Community idea sprang from the mind of Nancy Pearl, librarian and author of the Book Lust series, in 1998 during her tenure as the Director of the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library. By 2005 libraries in all fifty states had started a One Book program. It was a simple, elegant idea — strengthen a community by having them read and discuss the same book — proved an easy sell to libraries across the country serving a wide variety of populations. The American Library Association embraced the idea in 2003 and, through the Public Programs Office, helps libraries launch and market these programs. Local, regional and even state-wide One Book programs show the way this idea can scale given the need of the community involved. And despite the pandemic, many libraries have decided to move forward with their One Book programs, following local public health guidelines.
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For an example of how selecting a book works, I asked Esther Knox-Stutsman, the Operations Manager and librarian who is on the committee that chooses the One Book in my community of Broomfield, CO, to explain the basic steps. After deciding to pursue this program and putting it on the calendar, a selection committee is formed. This includes librarians, a representative from the city council as well as library patrons the community. They look at books recommended by both the librarians and the community. The guidelines for these books are deliberately broad to encourage a variety of options, but a well-received book (each community has its own standards, but a good review from a major publication such as Kirkus or Publishers Weekly is often preferred) that holds local appeal by a living author willing to come and give a community talk is the ideal. The selection committee reads all the books that fit their criteria and chooses the book for that year, although in some communities the committee selects a small number and then allows the public to vote on the winner. After the announcement, the book is made available in several formats through the library a few months before the author’s visit in order to give the community a chance to read it. Programming themed around the book happens in the months leading up to the author talk as well, with the goal of engaging the community in interesting conversations and allowing people to meet others in their community that shares a common interest. The size and scope of the event and specifics of the community differ, but most One Book programs follow a similar format.
One Book, One Community programs differ from past models of how libraries served their communities. First, they encourage the library to engage with other community stakeholders, such as teachers and other education professionals, local media outlets, and local businesses — including bookstores — who can help underwrite the expense of these programs and are included in the decision-making process. The hope is that this will expand the library’s visibility into the community it serves.
Second, unlike Banned Book week or NaNoWriMo, which take place in September and November, respectively nationwide, One Book programs are not synchronized across library systems. Some libraries organize their programs in the Spring and some during Fall or Winter. It is also not always a yearly event, given the amount of work that goes into creating it. The last time the Detroit Public Library put on this program was 2013, according to Atiim Funchess, Assistant Director of Marketing and Communications. He explained that the amount of work and number of people involved in presenting programming at all 23 branches made these sorts of events impossible to do yearly.
COVID 19 has, of course, disrupted everything, including library programming, but many libraries have decided to move forward with their One Book programs, nevertheless, altering them to fit the current moment. The Great Reads Michigan, a state-wide program run by the Michigan Humanities, announced their book, What the Eyes Don’t See about the water crisis in Flint, in April of 2019, with the actual read to start in September and programming to run through all of 2020 and into early 2021. Given the variety of programming and the multitude of locations, due to Coronavirus they opted to conduct a few of the programs over Zoom and postponed all others until 2021.
On the other side of the country in San Diego, the One Book One San Diego program — managed by KPBS and partnering with the San Diego County Library and San Diego Public Library — is getting ready to announce their selection on August 29, 2020 along with their slate of related programming. While some One Books can easily pivot to providing digital books and programming, many other programs have been impacted significantly by the pandemic.
In Broomfield, where the book selection is announced in late July/early August, the selection committee hoped for the first time to narrow down the list to three and let the community make the final decision but shelved the idea when the library’s website needed to become an information hub on COVID-19. For public health reasons, they also chose the one author on their narrowed list that lived in Colorado and are still working on exactly how they are going to present programming, though they are determined to do so. And Mr. Funchess told me that the Detroit was in the process of partnering again in the near future for another One Book with the Windsor Public Library in Winsor, Ontario which sits just three miles south of the city across the Detroit River, but their plans have been delayed indefinitely due to the closure of the Canadian-American border.
Libraries continue to serve their communities during this pandemic, to help provide some consistency in these inconsistent times. One Book programs, with their long planning stages and rich community involvement, allow libraries to give their patrons something familiar that can still fit into current restrictions. With creativity and patience, most will go forward and bring communities closer, separately.