One Book combines many different voices
In 2002, Greensboro, N.C., Public Library employees wanted to discourage racism while encouraging literacy in the community. So they turned to the “One Book, One Community” program, a national, loosely organized movement in hundreds of communities in which residents read and discuss one selected book. A committee picked Ernest Gaines’ “A Lesson Before Dying,” the story of an African-American man sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. “It was a book set in Louisiana that we translated through our program to apply to Greensboro,” says Library Assistant Director Steve Sumerford.
The One Book program began in 1998, when the Seattle-based Washington Center for the Book, part of the city’s public library system, created “If All Seattle Read the Same Book,” choosing Russell Banks’ “The Sweet Hereafter” as the first selection. Now known as “Seattle Reads,” the program recently selected “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi. The Library of Congress and the Chicago-based American Library Association (ALA) picked up the idea, and it spread steadily to large and small cities across the country. Each program takes an approach specific to its community. “That’s what I love about this project. It is locally based,” Sumerford says.
The Greensboro library recruited volunteers to serve as facilitators, sending them to discussion groups at churches, schools and other public buildings around the city. The groups pondered the book’s themes and how they applied to community issues. “The topic becomes bigger than the book,” Sumerford says. In September, Greensboro read “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl,” and program participants put on plays, concerts and art exhibits. Local Holocaust survivors also attended some discussion groups. So far, about 10,000 people have participated in the program, Sumerford says. Also, from Feb. 20 to March 20, the library will host a related program, “One City, One Author,” that will include lectures by Toni Morrison on her novels, “Beloved,” “The Bluest Eye” and “Sula.”
Library officials do not have to start from scratch if they choose to sponsor a “One Book” program. Lainie Castle, a program officer with ALA’s Public Programs Office, says the organization has an easy-to-follow national model and provides a guide for running a One Book program. The guide presents ideas on setting program goals, creating a budget, building partnerships and picking a book. Also, the ALA sells a CD-ROM with reproducible material such as promotional posters and bookmarks, as well as budget and marketing materials.
The ALA has another program similar to One Book called “Let’s Talk About It,” in which group discussions are led by scholars. The ALA distributes grants of about $2,500 for curriculum and other expenses, such as sending a local program director to one of several training sessions held at various locations around the country.
The One Book and Let’s Talk About It programs usually target adults with the goal of promoting a literate society and bringing attention to local library systems, Castle says. The libraries usually buy many copies of the book in advance so participants can check them out.
Officials with the Manchester, Conn., Public Library system were looking for ways to bring people to the library when they began the “One Book, One Village” program earlier this year, says Barbara Pettijohn, the library’s head of reference. A committee chose Oral Lee Brown’s “The Promise” as the first book. Pettijohn says the committee purposely chose a living author and invited Brown to visit Manchester to speak about her book in July. During August and September, the library held related events, including a mural painting by a local artist and the performance of a play written by a resident who was inspired by the book. Several thousand people participated. “It was great publicity, not only for the library, but for the town,” Pettijohn says.