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 Mendocino County Library chats with us about the importance of unique partnerships, the active volunteers in their community, and an NEA Big Read that brought YA literature to new audiences in Mendocino County.
Tell us a little bit about your organization!
Mendocino County Library is a county library with five branches and one bookmobile. The County Library recently went through a consolidation and is now under the Cultural Services Agency with the County Librarian overseeing the County Library, County Museum, and County Parks. Mendocino County Library is unique in that it is able to have a strong county library system while maintaining branch distinction and individuality; each of our branches is supervised by one Branch Librarian, guaranteeing high-quality programs geared towards specific audiences.
Who is your community and how do you connect with them?
Mendocino County is a large and diverse community, covering a distinct geographical region. All of our libraries have an active and supportive volunteer program and Friends of the Library group that help us to connect to the community. Each branch of the library serves their individual community while sustaining a strong county system; this helped us to have a unified NEA Big Read program despite the vast distances between branches.
Community members at “The Wrong Grave” burial craft event. Photo courtesy of the Mendocino County Public Library.
What makes your Big Read unique?
One unique aspect of our NEA Big Read is that our community helps us select the book around which we base our grant application. This fits into our larger approach to programming for the NEA Big Read: not with the intent to impress, but the intent to have fun, to engage new audiences, and to help spread the joy of reading in our community. We make sure that there is a personal touch at every program, so it always feels very intimate.
Some of the specific unique things that we did were to have the Board of Supervisors of Mendocino County issue a proclamation declaring October as Big Read Month. We conducted radio programs on local radio stations, where we read and discussed the Big Read. We even entered a local pumpkin decorating contest with a Pretty Monsters themed pumpkin!
Megan Dukett’s Pretty Monsters-themed pumpkin. Photo courtesy of the Mendocino County Public Library.
Why did you select this particular book and how have you seen your community engage with your selection?
The heroes of the ten magical and macabre stories in Kelly Link’s collection Pretty Monsters are mostly teenagers in familiar settings grappling with angst and alienation, awkwardness and awakening desires. That they are also grappling with unexpected monsters, ghosts, dueling librarians, pirate-magicians, possibly carnivorous sofas, and undead babysitters should give readers a hint to keep their expectations in check.
When we first decided to apply for an NEA Big Read grant, we knew that choosing a book that represented our diverse and geographically vast community would be a challenge. The best way to select a book that truly represented Mendocino County was to have our community decide. We offered six titles that the Library could create a quality NEA Big Read program around, and held a Big Read book selection survey for about a month. Residents throughout the county could go online, use social media, and answer paper surveys at their branch to select the book they would like chosen for the Big Read. The winner of that survey was Kelly Link’s Pretty Monsters! By selecting it this way, the community was involved in the process of applying for the grant, and had personal investment in selecting the book.
November 2018 1st Friday Art Walk with live music by singer-songwriter Steve Hahm. Photo courtesy of the Mendocino County Public Library.
What aspect of your programming do you feel has been the most impactful?
We had some really great programs and we were able to include different segments of the population and reach a wide segment of our county. What was really most impactful is when we went outside our library walls and had programs where we partnered with other organizations that were a little more unusual for us. One such partnership was with the National Landmark Program through the Forest Service and in conjunction with the California State Parks. They conducted a guided hike through the Pygmy Forest along the Mendocino Coast as part of the NEA Big Read. This connected tourists and other segments of the population who were not regular library users; they received books and we were able to tie in magical world and natural wonders with reading.
We also had a booth during City of Ukiah’s PumpkinFest and had over 1,500 people come to the library booth, where we handed out copies of the NEA Big Read book, promoted our events and spread the joy of reading. We interacted with a diverse segment of our population and handed out hundreds of children books and had Pretty Monster themed crafts and games to get everyone involved in our programs. We also had special graphics put on our Bookmobile that travels throughout our county, advertising the NEA Big Read throughout our large, rural county.
The NEA Big Read book and raffle booth at Mendocino County’s PumpkinFest. Photo courtesy of the Mendocino County Public Library.
More generally, what do you think makes a program impactful or successful? Why?
A really great program is one that entices the public to come; something where the marketing or description moves people to check it out. Then once the public attends the program, there is instantly a feeling of belonging and being included. For us, what makes a program successful is not how many attend but the pleasure they gain from attending the program and that they walk away being more attached to the library, become regular visitors to the library and attend more programs. The goal of having programs is to provide more creative ways for people to utilize the library and gain lifelong library users and lovers.
An NEA Big Read-themed pumpkin. Photo courtesy of the Mendocino County Public 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?
Our library is known for creative programming, so we had a lot of fun intergenerational programs that celebrated the Big Read. We also spent some time creating Big Read Seed Packets, as all of our libraries have seed libraries. We also held many Halloween programs, with Pretty Monster costume contests, storytimes and crafts that brought the Big Read to families and children. Another program we did was to partner with a local bookstore to hold an author panel all about YA books while a professional actress conducted dramatized readings of the some of the stories. This really helped to highlight YA books in addition to Pretty Monsters, reaching a different audience that normally wouldn’t read YA books.
We also conducted an art and short story contest centered on the interpretation of the book. The process was to make sure we had a variety of programs and did outreach to really reach all of our county residents. We had library hours on local radio stations that discussed and read excerpts from the book; we even had table at program for county employees so people that worked at the county could get a copy of the book and learn about the Big Read and our programs. We took the outreach and programming that we normally do for the library and turned it up a notch, looking specifically at partners that we hadn’t worked with before.
The NEA Big Read short story contest display. Photo courtesy of the Mendocino County Public Library.
Could you share any favorite anecdotes or stories from your community, about the book and the program?
There were so many great programs and the Big Read really help to create fabulous partnerships for the future. A particularly wonderful program was a book discussion at the oldest civic organization on our coast, the Mendocino Study Club. It was a great discussion and a group that we hadn’t spoken to before.
Another amazing program was a partnership with the County Museum and a local group, Out of the Ashes, who came together to help survivors of the October 2017, Redwood Fire, through art workshops. We partnered together to host a Big Read Poetry Reading at the Museum, this impactful program really highlighted how reading and words can help bring a community together in times of need as the one-year anniversary of the fires were acknowledged. It was inspiring to see how art, reading, and writing could really bring people together.
Poet Laureate of Ukiah, Michael Riedell, talks about his Out of the Ashes poetry and writing workshop. Photo courtesy of the Mendocino County Public Library.
Lastly: what is your favorite line from your reading selection?
“How could I love you? How could I love a ghost? How could I love something that I have to keep hidden in my pocket?”
Kelly Link, The Constable of Abal