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 University of Wisconsin-Parkside Library talks survival skills, long-term partnerships, and the magic that happens when a community gets lost in a book, together.
Tell us a little bit about your organization!
The University of Wisconsin-Parkside Library is an academic library at a four-year comprehensive university in Southeastern Wisconsin, serving about 4,700 students. We have sixteen staff members and a NEA Big Read team of ten, which includes two enthusiastic members from our Creative Services department. Being on campus allows us to draw from our friends in other departments to help drive programming. These include campus police, faculty members who lead talks and discussions, student activity leaders, student-run organizations, plus the university foundation and campus administration.
Emily St. John Mandel with the Parkside Library team. Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside Library.
Who is your community and how do you connect with them?
On the one hand, our community is anyone who wishes to connect with us. Deliberately, we have reached out to the two communities surrounding our campus that partnered with us in a 2014 NEA Big Read effort, the cities of Racine and Kenosha. We’ve worked with public libraries, schools, non-profits and businesses in both of those cities to offer programming at a variety of venues. This year we reached further west to public library partners and their constituents in Burlington, Salem, and Twin Lakes, WI. Of course, we see our own campus, its students, faculty and staff, as well as local educational institutions of Gateway Technical College and Carthage College, as partners. The latter two institutions have distributed books and developed programming.
Library student workers posing with the novel. Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside Library.
What makes your Big Read unique?
Our team’s enthusiasm and creativity is what makes our NEA Big Read programming so successful. We pull in a lot of community partners that also get caught up in the enthusiasm, which results in a variety of different types of events. The team looks at the book from a broad perspective and develops ideas around many different themes. For example, with Station Eleven, we were able to do pandemics, survival, the role of art in life, Star Trek, Shakespeare, end-of-the-world, comic books, and more. From there we were able to develop ideas for a number of events which included a survival orienteering run, films, survival skills sessions, a trivia night, science nights, and art shows, in addition to book discussions.
We’ve really been inspired by what many businesses and nonprofits are already doing in our community, and working with them for a brief period of time on NEA Big Read activities provides a breath of fresh air for our library’s skills and opportunities. For example, one partner, Kenosha Creative Space, created a life-sized game based on the book and invited families out on a Friday night to play the game. We had been really struggling to think of how to get families and kids more involved in such a sophisticated book and Kenosha Creative Space came up with an innovative and popular program that fit the bill! One of the best outcomes of participating in NEA Big Read has been learning more about the community’s needs and making connections with innovative groups and businesses [for more on the University of Wisconsin-Parkside Library’s NEA Big Read programming, see their full program guide].
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.
To be honest, we weren’t too sure about this title at first. A lot of us thought, “Dystopian fiction? That’s too popular right now, and it’s not really my genre.” Once we started reading the book, though, our opinions changed completely. It’s refreshing to read a dystopian novel that’s not focused so much on the apocalyptic event or its immediate aftermath as it is on the characters that have to live on into the future. It helped that the novel is incredibly well written and the story is complex and engaging. Perhaps most importantly, we were able to tease out a broad range of themes from the narrative that worked well for programming ideas that we felt would appeal to our community.
Student holding up a copy of the novel. Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside Library.
What aspect (event, discussion questions, audience outreach, etc.) of your programming do you feel has been the most impactful?
As a team, we’re always surprised and delighted that so many people attend the book discussions, since there are other exciting things like movies, lectures, craft nights, and beer tastings from which to choose. We are really able to tap into our university experts for these book discussions and find unique locations for them. A few popular locations were breweries, an old-fashioned feed store, and a local art museum. Our faculty easily make connections between their areas of expertise and specific parts in the book, while community members make connections to their own lives. We love that we can get people from different intellectual areas together in one room chatting and sharing ideas!
One of the community book discussions for Station Eleven. Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside Library.
More generally, what do you think makes a program impactful or successful? Why?
The beauty of the NEA Big Read is that it gets the entire community together to be active in something that is positive. It gives everyone in our community, from children to older adults, the chance to participate. Having a variety of events has given the community the opportunity to come together and focus on the arts, which always has a positive impact, and allow everyone to get lost in a book; and there’s something magical about that. It allows our imaginations to soar as we read and takes us to another world. It enables us to be creative and provides an escape from a world where technology is ever-present. It allows our community to come together to participate in a powerful project, together.
Every time someone says “I loved this book! I couldn’t put it down!” or “Emily St. John Mandel’s keynote was wonderful!” the whole NEA Big Read team feels real joy. We have worked hard to put programming together that engages all ages. When those comments are made, we know what we are doing in our community is successful and people are enjoying the programming we have provided. That is something to celebrate and be proud of.
At the photobooth from the “End of the World” Extravaganza closing event. Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside Library.
Community members learning first aid at a Survival Skills Friday. Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside Library.
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?
- One of the most popular partnerships we’ve had in several NEA Big Reads now is with Public Craft Brewing Company, a local microbrewery in Kenosha. The head brewer believes that a pub should be a place for people to meet, discuss, and learn, so he has been a big supporter of our NEA Big Read book discussions and post-kickoff receptions. He has also brewed special beers based on NEA Big Read titles, based on some element of the novel! This year his beer is called “In Case of Emergency: A Post-Hopocalyptic Ale,” and it uses local ingredients and Lake Michigan water, just as beer brewed by the members of the Traveling Symphony might.
- Several of our committee members are passionate runners and suggested working with a group that organizes trail running events. We came up with the idea of a survival orienteering race across the acres of hills, prairie, and cross-country trails at UW-Parkside! Kenosha Running Company plotted out the course and dropped markers at each stop on the map. Needless to say, participants learned a lot about the area that they didn’t already know. We saw families make the run together as well and it was great to see everyone running outside on a beautiful winter’s day!
- Throughout the month of our NEA Big Read, we offered Survival Skills Fridays at noon in our university library. These were hour-long workshops that featured a basic survival skill that might be useful in the event of an apocalypse: self-defense, first aid, fiber arts, and gardening. The survival skills workshops were a nice way to get students involved during the school day and provided a fun break over the lunch hour.
- REI is a new partner for us this year. One of our staff members often attends the classes they offer at their store location about an hour away and asked if the outdoor survival class could be taught offsite—that is, at a nature center near our campus. REI agreed and offered the free class for only the cost of travel. Hawthorn Hollow Nature Center donated the use of their facilities. This class was the first of our NEA Big Read events to fill to maximum capacity, and that happened via online registration almost two weeks before the NEA Big Read began!
A family joining the Kenosha Running Company at Petrifying Springs Park to orienteer through a course cultivated on the UW-Parkside campus. Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside Library.
UW-Parkside mascot “Ranger Bear” teaching self-defense with a police officer on a Survival Skills Friday. Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside Library.
Learning fiber arts on a Survival Skills Friday. Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside Library.
Could you share any favorite anecdotes or stories from your community, about the book and the program?
A young audience member told Emily St. John Mandel that she had been particularly moved by the weighty final sentence of chapter two: “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.” She then said, “It hit me so hard. And I’m not supposed to have existential crises yet! I’m only 13 years old!”
So many people we talked to said, “I wouldn’t have normally picked up a book about the apocalypse but I’m really glad I read this.” We completely agree. The NEA Big Read exposes people to new genres and ideas and challenges their current tastes in literature. And the best part is that people told us that at our events! They not only read something that they wouldn’t normally have read, but they went out of their way to participate in a community event and learn more about the story, characters, plot and author. It just really shows the community buy-in we have and the hunger communities have for connection with each other.
Emily St. John Mandel at the NEA Big Read kickoff. Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside Library.
Lastly: what is your favorite line from your reading selection?We couldn’t agree on just one:
“‘What’s the point of doing all that work,’ Tesch asks, ‘if no one sees it?’ ‘It makes me happy. It’s peaceful, spending hours working on it. It doesn’t really matter to me if anyone else sees it.’”
“‘She lived in Praha and—’ ‘Oh,’ Clark says, ‘I believe when you’re speaking English, you’re allowed to refer to it as Prague.’”
“There was a reminder that the library was always seeking books, and that they paid in wine.”
And last but not least:
“But these thoughts broke apart in his head and were replaced by strange fragments: This is my soul and the world unwinding, this is my heart in the still winter air.”
–Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
A full auditorium for Emily St. John Mandel’s keynote conversation. Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside Library.