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Community Reflections: UW Colleges

Earlier this year, the University of Wisconsin System (UW Colleges) brought the NEA Big Read to readers across Wisconsin. In this reflection, they share the strengthened connections, partnerships, and new community conversations that grew from their programming around Louise Erdrich’s The Round House.

The book

After many years of collaborating in the humanities, including a smaller Big Read on Blackfeet writer James Welch’s novel Winter in the Blood, we were very excited to take on an NEA Big Read project to explore writer Louise Erdrich’s work, with our NEA Big Read for The Round House. We were met with an overwhelmingly positive response from our community: we were able to arrange “unlimited” eBook copies of the book through Overdrive, which resulted in 3,882 checkouts between March 5 and April 26 throughout Wisconsin, providing more affordable and widespread reading access to library patrons as well as university and high school students. Most participating libraries provided 5-12 hard copies as well for patrons who would prefer them.


Participants purchasing books at the NEA Big Read finale keynote event. Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Reads The Round House.

For younger readers, tribal librarian Caryl Pfaff, Rice Lake Librarian Claire Parrish, and Project Director Lee Friederich collaborated on Birchbark House Kits, providing copies of Louise Erdrich’s youth novel The Birchbark House as well as several innovative activities, which were circulated to other libraries and schools/after school programs, as well as to individual patrons: particularly to parents providing at-home instruction to their children during the NEA Big Read. While some of the kits will remain in circulation at the participating community libraries, other kits were donated to local classrooms at the end of the project.

The connections

Our programming also fostered further collaboration among women’s advocacy groups in Barron County and the Lac Courte Oreille Tribe, with more than 70 members of the public from both the Rice Lake and LCO tribal areas joining together for a march against violence kicking off the Big Read in Rice Lake. One of the many projects that The Round House led us to was a red scarves project, in which local knitters from Rice Lake and surrounding communities knitted red scarves to sell as a fundraiser for Oakwood Haven Domestic and Sexual Violence Shelter in the La Courte Oreille tribal area.


Red Scarves Project in Rice Lake. Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Reads The Round House.

Those of us organizing in Rice Lake were very touched that so many tribal leaders in the women’s community at LCO attending the Rice Lake kickoff events, including a film viewing and discussion of Wind River, and sign-making gathering and march from the Rice Lake Public Library to Badger Brew Coffee House, where we kicked off Rice Lake events with speakers from our local women’s advocacy communities in both Barron County and LCO.


Speakers during the finale keynote. Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Reads The Round House.

The community

One of the great outcomes of our Big Read for The Round House was further collaboration between the UW Colleges (specifically UW-Barron) and Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College, both two-year colleges that face challenges in terms of things like funding and consistent leadership, and yet still manage to find ways to collaborate and bring our diverse communities together.


Louise Erdrich at the UW Colleges NEA Big Read finale keynote event. Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Reads The Round House.

Watch the keynote

Overall, the NEA Big Read allowed the UW Colleges to further develop its positive collaborative bond with its neighboring tribal college during a tumultuous time for higher education in the state of Wisconsin. This event allowed many to keep a focus on the Wisconsin Idea so important to higher education in our state—expanding the borders of the classroom to the borders of the state—while at the same time forging new bonds among tribal and non-tribal campus and community libraries, schools, and advocacy groups.


b: william bearhart’s Emily Dickinson tattoo. Photo by Joshua Feist.