In a Nutshell: A Collaborative Adventure in Library Programming

Sheli Hay and Hillary Kativa leading teens in an exploration of Sendak’s background and artistic style at the Haverford Township Free Library.

It was January 2011, and I had only been working at the Haverford Township (Pa.) Free Library (HTFL) for three weeks. My director handed me an announcement of an opportunity titled “Traveling Exhibitions Exploring Jewish History and Culture.” She and I had just been discussing ways to expand our programming at the library, so I was game. Although I had worked in educational programming in non-profit organizations for ten years, this was my first time planning programs in a public library. The Haverford Township Free Library envisions itself as a community hub for life-long learning, creativity, and culture. In order to be that kind of presence in our community, our programming not only needs to be for the community, but informed and inspired by the community’s need and interests. The experience of applying, planning, and hosting the exhibit “In a Nutshell: The Worlds of Maurice Sendak” and accompanying programs taught me about the importance of collaboration in library programming, both with my colleagues and with other community partners.

Patrick Rodgers, Traveling Exhibitions Coordinator, Rosenbach Museum and Library and Christine Faris, HTFL Director at the opening reception.

Patrick Rodgers, Traveling Exhibitions Coordinator, Rosenbach Museum and Library, and Christine Faris, HTFL Director, at the opening reception.

As I prepared to apply for “In a Nutshell,” I found myself in uncharted territory. All I knew about Sendak was his well-known book Where the Wild Things Are that my mother had read to me and I had read to my own children. After reading the synopsis of the exhibit, I realized how complex and interesting Maurice Sendak’s experiences and background were. Living and working around Philadelphia for twenty years, I turned to the best Sendak source I knew: the Rosenbach Museum and Library. Through a friend who worked there, I was put in contact with Patrick Rodgers, traveling exhibitions coordinator. At the time, I had no idea that he had curated the original exhibit! Patrick was a willing and terrific sounding board to float some of my ideas for programs. He not only gave me a number of suggestions of people who could help develop and present some of my programs, but also agreed to speak at our opening reception and to lead a Rosenbach gallery tour for the library. In addition, the Rosenbach offered free admission to all Delaware County library card holders to their current exhibit, “From Pen to Publisher: The Life of Three Sendak Picture Books.”

Once we had been selected as an exhibition site for “In a Nutshell,” I had to find funding for some of the program ideas I had. That is when I turned to the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC), a state partner for the National Endowment for the Humanities that supports hundreds of organizations throughout the Commonwealth to offer humanities programming. I wrote and received a $3,000 grant from PHC to do programs related to the Sendak exhibit. PHC also gave me suggestions for humanities scholars for some of my programs.

We found that we had great support from our local Jewish community. As I planned programs, I benefitted from consulting Jewish organizations and area synagogues. They helped me get the word out to their membership, gave recommendations for presenters, attended our programs in large numbers, and donated money to support our final program in the series, a tribute to Sendak through Yiddish songs and stories.

Further support came from a local independent children’s book store, Children’s Book World. They sold Sendak books at many of our programs and donated proceeds from those sales to the library. They also promoted the exhibit and programs at their store and helped us identify other funding sources.

Collaborating with my colleagues at the library also helped me tremendously as I planned programs. They helped me think through the feasibility of my program ideas, formats, and audience targets. Our youth services librarian and teen specialist worked with me and a local educator to develop programs for children, teens, and intergenerational audiences.

In my original application to ALA, I proposed two programs for the Sendak exhibit. As it turned out, we hosted seven! We were especially pleased to have programs with very diverse formats that reached a number of different age groups. The program series included:

  • an opening reception with remarks by Patrick Rodgers of the Rosenbach Museum and Library and curator of “In a Nutshell”;
  • a lecture program by a Jewish studies scholar titled “L’Dor Vador: Sendak Connects With his Roots” that provided an historical context for Maurice Sendak’s work;
  • a book discussion group that examined Sendak books such as The Sign on Rosie’s Door and Brundibar and their connection to exhibit themes;
  • a Wild Rumpus! in our Children’s Room, where participants could make Max crowns, have staring contests, and create life-sized cutouts of themselves as Wild Things;
  • a performance/presentation by a Yiddish singer with accompanying klezmer band titled “Yiddish in the Nutshell: The Stories and Music that Shaped the Wild Things!”;
  • a gallery tour of the Rosenbach Museum and Library’s exhibit “From Pen to Publisher: The Life of Three Sendak Picture Books”; and
  • a hands-on art program where teens learned about Sendak’s background as well as art techniques to inspire them to create their own illustrations and find their own influences.

While working on Sendak programs I greatly enjoyed the opportunities I had to connect with my new colleagues at the HTFL, but also with individuals and organizations in the community. It reinforced for me the importance of collaboration and its critical part of program planning for an institution that serves the public. The programs we produced and hosted were of far greater quality and had a larger impact than ones that I could have developed on my own.

I was very surprised and saddened by the news on May 8, 2012, of the passing of Maurice Sendak. I was also grateful that we had the opportunity to host this exhibit and to celebrate Sendak’s life and work. Patrick Rodgers summed it up well in an email to me; “I was in touch with the Public Programs Office (ALA) and we were talking about how amazing it’s been to have been touring the panel show when we did. I guess we can now think of it as a farewell exhibit.” Farewell Maurice Sendak; thanks for your amazing creativity!