Libraries and Humanities Councils: A Perfect Partnership
October’s National Arts and Humanities Month offers a great opportunity to celebrate and expand upon a partnership that has been thriving for more than three decades—the partnership between libraries and state humanities councils. Since the state humanities councils were created in the early 1970s, libraries have been their most consistent and rewarding partners, and councils in turn have been among the local library’s most committed supporters.
In a recent year, according to information gathered by the Federal-State Partnership of the National Endowment for the Humanities, state humanities councils supported more than 5,000 events in libraries, serving an audience of more than 1.5 million. Figures show that for that same year, councils supported more than 14,000 discussion events, many of which took place in libraries, as well as 4,600 literacy events.
The long and successful collaboration between libraries and state humanities councils has taken many forms, but at its heart is a common belief in the value of books, reading, and group discussion and reflection. For this reason, the most popular library/council program over the years has been the library-based reading and discussion series. Among the earliest reading and discussion groups were the ALA-initiated Let’s Talk About It (LTAI) series, for which many councils provided support right from the start.
The genius of the LTAI model was its simplicity. It joined local scholars with members of the community in thoughtful discussion, over several weeks, of books they had all read, centered on a theme. Typically, the series involves four to six books, with discussion of these books, all of which related to specific theme, taking place over a period of at least that many weeks. A scholar/facilitator leads the discussions and provides continuity from one session to the next. The library provides an accessible, familiar setting. The council provides the scholar, discussion guides, books, and publicity packets for audience recruitment.
Many councils continue to support LTAI programs, but the model has also been adapted as the basis for a wide array of other council-supported reading series in local libraries. Some councils have developed programs customized for their own states, using local themes and authors or addressing topics of particular interest to the residents of their states. But they also explore themes addressing national and global issues, using books written by authors who span time and geography. The Kansas Humanities Council catalog, for example, offers themes such as “The Great Plains Spirit” and “Kansas Literary Heritage” alongside “Encountering Asia,” “The Immigrant Experience,” and “Women Around the World.” The Pennsylvania Humanities Council offerings include “Pennsylvania Writers” along with “Facts in Fiction: Civil War Era.”
The application for funds to support reading and discussion programs is quite simple. Once you have arranged for the program, what then? The following guidelines, included in the “What Is New Hampshire Reading?” section of the New Hampshire Humanities Council website, are typically straightforward:
- publicize the program effectively (we can help you with this!);
- recruit participants (a minimum of ten per program; seventeen to twenty is ideal at each program);
- reconfirm the scholar(s); and
- choose a coordinator from your library or organization who will:
- serve as contact for the scholar(s) and NHHC;
- be present for each session, taking care of set-up and closing, and crediting NHHC for its support;
- pay the scholar (usually done at the end of the program);
- distribute and collect evaluation forms at each session;
- return the host and audience evaluation forms to NHHC within two weeks after the program; and
- return books on time.
Reading and discussion programs might be the most popular activity libraries and state humanities councils undertake together, but they are by no means the only resource councils offer in connection with libraries. Many councils offer family literacy programs in the library setting. The largest, initiated by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and offered in libraries in fourteen states is 2009, is PRIME TIME Family Reading Time, which uses books and storytelling to emphasize “the importance of families reading together to discuss significant cultural and ethical themes.” The Missouri Humanities Council’s READ from the START program particularly focuses on outreach to at-risk families, helping parents “understand the importance and experience the joy of reading and telling stories to their children.”
Finally, many councils work with libraries to bring humanities speakers to their communities, offering intellectual stimulation and highlighting the library’s role as a center of learning. The Vermont Humanities Council, to cite one example, offers a series titled “First Wednesdays” that brings nationally and regionally renowned speakers to libraries for public lectures on the first Wednesday of every month. The 2010–2011 season includes such luminaries as Civil War historian James McPherson, writer and National Park superintendent Rolf Diamante, and NEH Chairman Jim Leach.
To find how out the state humanities council in your state is working with the library community, go to the Federation of State Humanities website and click on your state. You are sure to find a wealth of opportunity in the programs, and the phone numbers listed there will lead you to some of the most committed and helpful people in the country.