Arlington County, Virginia Reads 2010/11

ARTICLE | Jun 30, 2011

It appears that rumors of the death of the library have been greatly exaggerated.  On the contrary, public libraries today, especially those affiliated with local government, have a unique opportunity to cast traditional library programming within the context of government initiatives, thereby broadening the definition of library services and expanding the visibility of city/county enterprises. That's exactly what Arlington (VA) Public Library (APL) has done for the past two years with its annual Arlington Reads program. 

Arlington Reads is a community-wide reading program created to promote literacy and the joy of reading, build community by stimulating dialogue and involvement, and foster inclusiveness among a diverse citizenry. In 2010 APL transformed Arlington Reads by adopting Arlington County’s primary initiative for the year, sustainability, as its theme. To capture the interest of residents, the library extended the sustainability theme to food, something everyone needs, and highlighted two books: Farm City, by Novella Carpenter, a young urban farmer in Oakland, CA, and The Memory of Old Jack, by Kentucky environmental icon and literary legend Wendell Berry. Both authors came to Arlington and attracted large audiences, record-breaking in the case of Mr. Berry. 

To broaden community conversation, the library provided students with copies of Ms. Carpenter's book and the opportunity to meet with her during her visit.  We hosted a discussion of Mr. Berry's book, moderated by a Georgetown University professor; featured related films and a panel discussion with area farmers on Eating Local; brought in a beekeeper for a kids’ program called "Bee in the Know;" and presented preschool stories on planting and growing. Our monthly juried art exhibit, open to all ages, featured Food Art.

Our most creative venture was a vegetable garden to benefit Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC) in a raised bed at the entrance to Central Library. The garden pulled together nonprofit and government organizations and volunteers outside the norm of library partnerships (including Department of Agriculture, Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, local Girl Scouts, Potomac Vegetable Farm, and AFAC), supported a worthy cause, demonstrated the feasibility of producing food in urban spaces, and served as an educational laboratory unfolding before the eyes of the 2500-3000 people who visit the library daily.

Arlington Reads 2010 proved to be important internally as an example of how the County's messages and priorities can be reinforced and enhanced by a coordinated effort across departments, with each taking on a relevant facet that contributes to the whole. The library took the mandate of sustainability, demystified it by translating it into the familiar and doable, connected with nontraditional partners and created a fully integrated program and Arlington asset, the garden, which continues, literally, to take root within the community. We also created a program model that effectively assists local government in reaching a broader public and making the abstract understandable.

We applied that model to the County’s 2011 priority initiative, "Telling Arlington's Story." Looking for an aspect of that theme to bring to life and recognizing that this country is in two wars and that Arlington is home to military families, as well as Fort Myer, the Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery, the library selected The Soldier's Story: Serving Country and Community as its theme for Arlington Reads.  We again highlighted two books: The Things They Carried, about the soldier experience in Vietnam, by Tim O'Brien, and The Good Soldiers, about one battalion sent to Iraq in "the surge" of 2007, by Washington Post reporter David Finkel. The authors, in addition to appearing at the library, met with high school and college students who had read the books. Sara Holmes, author of Operation Yes, about a teacher whose brother is serving in Afghanistan, encouraged 175 middle school students to find ways to say "Yes" in life, to give back to veterans and extend friendship and support to military families. 

Georgetown University professor Nancy Sherman, author of The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds and Souls of Our Soldiers facilitated a discussion of the featured books; we exhibited The Combat Paper Project, cathartic works by veterans on paper they make using their uniforms turned to pulp, and screened related feature and documentary films; 1200 books were collected and sent to troops overseas through Operation Paperback; and kids made 462 cards sent to Darnall Army Medical Center in Texas.

Libraries live and operate in a continual state of redefinition and transformation, as new technologies change the formats of our materials and the platforms for our information seeking and communications with our users.  As departments in local government, libraries can play a transformative role in enhancing civic awareness through productive community partnerships, creative, nontraditional programming, and modeling of practical applications of new, important initiatives. Alive and well, libraries go to the heart of what communities value and can foster connections that take citizen engagement to a higher level.

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