Staying Relevant the Old Fashioned Way: Planning a Community-Wide Reading Program

By Jim Gill
Director, Dover Public Library

One of the biggest challenges that public libraries face today is staying relevant in these every-changing, technology driven days.  As the director of a small public library in Ohio, it is very tempting to always feel that we are falling behind the competition, whether that is with neighboring libraries, book stores, or the Internet.  Because most small libraries have funding constraints, it can be frustrating knowing that you can’t keep up with the Jones’.  “The library up the road is circulating the new iPad for their patrons—why aren’t you?”  Or, “You aren’t hip if you aren’t allowing your patrons to download music through Freegal.”  The bottom line is most small libraries simply cannot afford to jump on every new trend in library service.  Remember those huge wagon-wheel sized laser discs from the 90’s that you had to flip over half-way through the movie?  I think most of us are breathing a huge sigh of relief that we didn’t decimate our book budgets so we could stock up on those.  Although we need to be in tune with new trends in library service we shouldn’t feel the need to self-flagellate ourselves because we can’t hang with the rich suburban libraries featured in Library Journal.

Libraries are definitely more than just books and storytimes in today’s world.  In this age of tai chi classes at public libraries (yes, Dover PL is offering that this summer—yikes!), libraries simply cannot do business the way they did five or ten years ago.  That being said, one way we can be relevant in our communities is not forgetting what pays the bills:  books (print or digital) and reading.   One way of using reading to connect with the community is through a grass roots community reading project such as One Book, One Community, The Big Read, or other similar programs.  In the fall of 2008, Tuscarawas County began its very first One Book, One Community reading project.  This grass roots reading program held annually to build community was intended to draw attention to reading and literacy and to create a meaningful dialogue about the written word.  The book chosen was The Man Who Created Paradise, by Gene Logsdon.  Because Tuscarawas County has a rich history of coal mining, we decided to focus on this wonderful short novel.

The fable, inspired by a true story, tells how young Wally Spero looked at one of the bleakest places in America—the strip-mined spoil banks of southeastern Ohio—and saw in it his escape from the drudgery of his factory job. He bought an old bulldozer and used the machine to carve patiently, acre by acre, a beautiful little farm out of a seemingly worthless wasteland. This charming story is the purest distillation yet of what Gene Logsdon has been writing as a journalist and author through the course of some twenty books of nonfiction and hundreds of magazine articles. Environmental restoration is the task of our time. The work of healing our land begins in our own backyards and farms, in our neighborhoods and our regions. Humans can turn the earth into a veritable paradise—if they really want to.

With very little funding, we were able to reach out to the community through a wide array of programs.  Our county Literacy Coalition and Friends of the Library groups assisted with funding.  The county Arts Center sponsored a photography contest.  Teens were invited to transform a junker car that was parked on the front lawn of the library into a work of art through the help of a local artist.  Book discussions were held at libraries and coffee shops throughout the county.  And to wrap it all up, author Gene Logsdon came to speak about his book before hundreds at our local branch of Kent State University.  All in all, the project brought our county together in an exciting new way.  In fact, all the public libraries in our county worked together on a shared project for the very first time!  A new culture of reading and conversation was born in our community! 

Here are past and future One Book, One Community titles for Tuscarawas County:

2008: The Man Who Created Paradise, by Gene Logsdon

2009: Friday Night Lights, by H.G. Bissinger

2010: The Good Good Pig, by Sy Montgomery

2011: Look Me in the Eye, by John Elder Robison

2012: Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

If iPads and Freegal downloads are not in your current game-plan, then a community reading project should be.  There are no rules for how it needs to be done.  You can realistically pull off a One Book, One Community reading event with very little money.  In fact, there’s no rule that you even need to bring in the author for a culminating event.  I would encourage you to give a community reading project a try in the coming year.  Consult with libraries that have done a similar project.  Use the Internet to find libraries across the country who have completed similar projects and learn from them.  You will be amazed at how something so simple as reading and conversation can transform your community in ways the latest high-tech gadget can only dream about!

For more information about starting a community reading project, go to:

http://publicprograms.ala.org/orc/discussionprograms/bookdiscussion/onebook.html

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