Featured Grantee Q&A
Above and beyond isn’t enough to describe these grantees. Each month, we’ll be featuring a new interview with an organization from our NEA Big Read community. This month, the Santa Barbara Public Library talks community, perseverance, and reading through adversity.
Tell us a little bit about your organization!
The Santa Barbara Public Library serves areas of southern Santa Barbara County through seven branches, from Carpinteria to Buellton. With a mission to provide information services, reading materials and educational resources to residents of all ages, the SBPL System reaches a diverse population of patrons through its services. We aim to educate, captivate and connect.
The cover of the Santa Barbara Reads program guide. Photo courtesy of the Santa Barbara Public Library
Who is your community and how do you connect with them?
Our patrons represent the diversity that is our community. From seniors to infants, affluent to economically strained, artists to engineers, rural to semi-urban, and all the walks of life therein, our libraries welcome and seek out all the members of our community. The Santa Barbara Public Library offers a wide variety of in-house programs at all our branches, as well as a number of outreach activities. We offer bilingual storytime, homework help, reading with dogs, technology classes, computer coaching, adult literacy, hiking lectures, Friday matinees, book clubs, civic programs, author talks, hands-on workshops, poetry reading, theater performances, baby storytimes, job skills coaching, and more. We connect in person and online, inside the library and out in the community.
Librarians and patrons holding up their contributions to the Santa Barbara Reads Museum of Civilization. Photo courtesy of the Santa Barbara Public Library
What makes your NEA Big Read unique?
Our program was unique with our thunderclap approach to a year’s worth of programming in a single month — across the entire library system, at every branch, in each community. We also partnered with a variety of community organizations to discuss and engage with the themes of Station Eleven in unique ways, spanning from an original performance by the local theatre organization DramaDogs, to the Spanish language disaster preparedness workshop facilitated by Listos. Some of these partnerships were new, but many were existing relationships, which enabled us to have deeper engagement. This led to mustard seeds of an idea from Station Eleven burgeoning into explorations of broader themes, such as community connection, family, and the meaning of art, which was then presented in full form to the public.
In the variety of programming we did, we also augmented a number of our regular programs, like our Friday Movie Matinees and children’s storytimes. For the film series, a thematic line-up was selected, from films like Contagion (Pandemic) to 10 Things I Hate About You (Shakespeare). While this is a regularly-run program, the audience of this program does not always find themselves in the stacks of the library and this crossover encouraged a wider curiosity that then sparked conversations of the themes of our NEA Big Read program. Our preschool storytimes, at a number of the branches, read the Caldecott-winning Blackout, by John Rocco, allowing for our young patrons and their caregivers to talk about what it is like when the power goes out, and share songs and rhymes about bravery and finding community.
Companion reads for younger readers. Photo courtesy of the Santa Barbara Public Library
Why did you select this particular book and how have you seen your community engage with your selection?
Set 20 years after a devastating flu pandemic has destroyed civilization, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven tells the story of a small band of actors and musicians moving between the settlements of the altered world—until they encounter a violent prophet who threatens the tiny band’s existence. Mandel describes a world of hope, of people coping with nostalgia and loss, both in the present and the future: of the power of art and relationships to fulfill us, sustain us, and nurture us back to our best selves.
We firstly chose to go for an NEA Big Read grant, which immediately gives a starting place for titles. We invited all staff from across the system to weigh in on which book(s) they thought would be a good choice for our community this year. We took the top five selections and asked staff to read the books and read about the books and then we had everyone vote. It came down to three titles, which we discussed at the administrative level. Our criteria were that the book must be available in paperback, the author must be alive (and willing/able to travel), and it must appeal to a huge demographic. We also wanted a book that was available in Spanish.
The themes within Station Eleven are varied and immediate and we thought that this would provide for great discussions, whether the individuals liked the book or not. We were pleased it was a new choice for NEA Big Read/Arts Midwest and that the author was young and female. We liked that the genre was an unusual choice for us, having never chosen anything in science fiction/fantasy. We loved the themes of Station Eleven, which allowed us to vary our programming from Shakespeare to Star Wars, pandemics to posterity.
High school students gathered to hear Emily St. John Mandel speak. Photo courtesy of the Santa Barbara Public Library
What aspect (event, discussion questions, audience outreach, etc.) of your programming do you feel has been the most impactful?
One of the most interesting programs to watch in action was our “Museum of Civilization.” In Mandel’s novel, the Museum of Civilization is a collection of items from contemporary society that have become relics in the post-pandemic world. The characters collect these items to preserve the history of the world as it was (and as they hope it will become again). Station Eleven’s Museum contains everything from credit cards, passports, and cell phones to high heeled shoes and comic books. Our Museum was stocked by library staff in response to the question posed by the novel: “What would you miss?” This display remained in the lobby of the library for the entire month of Santa Barbara Reads, allowing every patron who walked in the door the opportunity to interact with it. We have displays every month, but the Museum of Civilization was one of the most looked at and discussed. In fact, at many of our other events, from the book discussion groups to the Wilderness Survival Skills lecture, our patrons asked about and engaged with the “artifacts” in the Museum of Civilization.
Objects waiting to be placed in the Museum of Civilization exhibit. Photo courtesy of the Santa Barbara Public Library
A librarian adds a yearbook from 2002 to the Museum of Civilization. Photo courtesy of the Santa Barbara Public Library
One of the Museum of Civilization exhibits. Photo courtesy of the Santa Barbara Public Library
More generally, what do you think makes a program impactful or successful? Why?
Success is not about number of attendees or press coverage. A program is successful when it is ultimately engaged in and defined by the community of readers. As much as we strive to introduce and encourage our communities with a new book, they are the ones who will read it and apply their experiences and thoughts to rich discussions, critical questions, and thoughtful reflections. Any time people from various generations, who have different backgrounds and speak different languages, can come together, share, and learn from one another is a powerful experience.
Could you talk about some of the events that you felt were more creative or participatory? What was the background or process behind those events?
November 1st was an exciting night as we came together as a community and kicked off our NEA Big Read for Station Eleven. The theme for the evening was a celebration of the lyrical and post-apocalyptic qualities and SciFi references within the story and we oriented activities around Shakespeare and Star Wars. As people picked-up copies of Station Eleven they were also invited to participate in a live reading of Verily, a New Hope and in a Star Wars and Shakespeare cosplay costume contest. This included the categories of “Best Shakespeare Cosplay”, “Best Star Wars Cosplay” and “Best Mash-up of Shakespeare and Star Wars”. (Yes, we realize there are more Star Trek references in the novel.)
Another event that was outside-the-box was our partnership with Old Kings Road, a local pub in Santa Barbara, and a local pub quiz master. We “took over” a regular pub quiz night with Station Eleven themed trivia. Surviving the Quiz Pandemic was a night of trivia related to pandemics, Shakespeare, and graphic novels. The pub quiz master enjoyed partnering with the library, as well as having a theme to inspire trivia questions. He promoted the library throughout the night and library staff were on-site to answers questions about the book and give copies of the book away. Our most participatory activity was one of the more simple implementations of the month. Boards with the questions “What is your post-apocalyptic skill?” and “What would you miss?” were placed inside the entrance to the Central Library. The question boards sparked community conversations and interactions throughout the month. Answers ranged from the poignant to the amusing, but all were meaningful and had our patrons thinking about how Station Eleven relates to their own lives.
Star Wars and Shakespeare costume contest participants. Photo courtesy of the Santa Barbara Public Library
Live reading of Verily, a New Hope, at the Santa Barbara Public Library NEA Big Read Kickoff. Photo courtesy of the Santa Barbara Public Library
Could you share any favorite anecdotes or stories from your community, about the book and the program?
“In a strange way, her visit and our NEA Big Read marked the end of our before: before the fire, before the flood. However, it also set the tone for our after—a community drawn together in shared experience.”
One woman (a long-time patron who attends many library events) expressed how she had been recently diagnosed with cancer, with a short time to live. Valuing each moment of every day, she spent a Sunday morning at an event at UCSB, in the afternoon attended the Santa Barbara Symphony, then stayed downtown to attend the DramaDogs performance at the Central Library. The DramaDogs performance moved her to great lengths and she shared it was by far one of the most powerful experiences she’d had in a long time. She expressed how the performance celebrated life’s fleetingness, regret, and the flight of the human spirit faced with adversity —a concept with which she had become intimately familiar.
Unfortunately, being able to intimately relate to the themes of the story went into almost immediate effect with our community as the Thomas Fire, the largest in modern California history, sparked the day before our final event with Station Eleven author, Emily St. John Mandel. In fact, the night of our author talk, the lights were flickering on and off until right before we began. Thus, shortly after our NEA Big Read concluded our communities were immediately faced with considering the questions of emergency preparedness, disaster response, and community recovery. There was something truly eerie and prescient about the outbreak of the Thomas Fire during Mandel’s visit — a natural disaster, the scope of which we couldn’t yet begin to guess, just beginning to loom as we discussed a fictional apocalypse with its creator. In a strange way, her visit and our NEA Big Read marked the end of our before: before the fire, before the flood. However, it also set the tone for our after — a community drawn together in shared experience.
Holding up a copy of Station Eleven at Emily St. John Mandel’s talk. Photo courtesy of the Santa Barbara Public Library
Emily St. John Mandel speaks at the Marjorie Luke Theatre. Photo courtesy of the Santa Barbara Public Library
Lastly: what is your favorite line from your reading selection?
“What I mean to say is, the more you remember, the more you’ve lost.”
–Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven