There’s strength in numbers. Take inspiration from a group of organizations who collaborated on one virtual event that brought Lab Girl author Hope Jahren to eight separate audiences across America.
Photo courtesy of Hope Jahren.
During the past year, many arts organizations pivoted from the stage to the small screen to continue serving their audiences. This shift is no small feat. Programming in the virtual space can be difficult, especially for smaller organizations. Juggling logistics, contracting, technology, and internet availability amongst prospective audiences is hard work.
Despite these challenges, moving programming online also offers new opportunities for innovation. Advantages can include reduced speaker fees, flexible presentation dates, lower overhead costs, the ability to reach a broader audience, and new ways to collaborate across distance.
An NEA Big Read Case Study
In April 2021, a group of eight organizations worked together to coordinate a virtual keynote featuring world-renowned geobiologist and author Hope Jahren.
In this hour-long webinar, panelists from the Miami Book Fair, Fishtrap, and Wichita Public Library share how they worked separately and in collaboration with other grantees to bring virtual programs to their communities and beyond.
The organizations were from every corner of America, but they had one thing in common: they were taking part of the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read, a grant program that brings communities together around the shared activity of reading and discussing a book. Their communities were reading Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl and participating in programming designed to inspire conversation and discovery.
Working together, these organizations pooled their funds, know-how, and technology to bring Jahren directly to their audiences for an insightful and inspiring lecture.
We caught up with some of the organizers of this event to ask them about their experience and what advice they would have for other communities that are planning similar events.
What was most successful about planning the event?
Orange County Library System (OCLS) – Having a virtual event made it possible to work with different organizations from across the country. From this partnership, we could all provide the author of the book for a keynote presentation (which is not always possible with funding). It was also a safer option for our audience to attend with the COVID-19 pandemic. The virtual event was convenient for customers if they missed the event because they were still able to view at their own convenience after the airing.
Morton Library – The fact that we were able to give our patrons this opportunity at all made it successful. There is no way we could have afforded this without the partnership.
What was the response from your community like?
Lincoln Land Community College (LLCC) – The community initially had a very confusing time with the registration process. Once it was simplified, things were smoother. Everyone was so glad that we got to hear from the author. Many came away from the presentation energized and ready to purchase the speaker’s other book. For those that could not attend the live event, they were very thankful that it was recorded for them to watch later.
What do you think was the most meaningful part of this event?
Chillicothe Public Library – It was very cool to have the opportunity to host the speaker and that our community could connect a bit more personally with an author whose book many of them read over the preceding weeks.
What specific technologies did you use to make the event possible?
Morton Library – One partner did much of the technical work. They allowed us to use their Streamyard account to stream the event and hosted it on their website. We also used a live captioning system called Caption Access. Our library utilized YouTube Live for our patrons to watch the event so they didn’t have to create an account.
What was challenging about planning this event?
OCLS – At times, communication was challenging while working with the partnering organizations. We were in different time zones and with several email chains, and it was hard to know if people were staying on top of the latest message. The logistics on how we had originally planned to present the event needed to be modified due to the agreement with the speaking agency. Ensuring everyone understood and could comply with the agreement was part of the communication.
LLCC – The most challenging aspect was the amount of time it took to get it all finalized. Since it was the main event, we wanted to highlight it on all of our marketing pieces. We had to delay poster and brochure printing until everything was worked out.
Morton Library – Working with the booking agency to make sure we did or didn’t do everything/anything in or out of line with the contract. Figuring out all the technical details to putting on an event of this scale with people tuning in from several different time zones.
What have you learned from this event that you plan to use in the future?
Chillicothe – We have hosted other virtual author talks and presented other programs in partnership with groups of libraries, and none have been this complicated. It’s a reminder that the more expensive authors are, the more complex the contract may be, requiring a lot of time and communication.
For future programs, it will be helpful to clearly lay out the logistical details for the live stream early on and make sure they work for everyone and are in accordance with the contract. This may leave time to adjust things if need be, while saving the effort of multiple pivots. Along these lines, I think it’s much simpler if all the partners present the program in the same way (e.g., all registering through the same link, sharing a platform, etc.).
Morton Library – Have a detailed agenda for the event and give to everyone involved behind the scenes. Communication between all stakeholders is key. Start a new email thread for each different topic among the group because it quickly got overwhelming to go back and find information.
What advice would you give other communities making plans for virtual author talks/events?
Chillicothe – Give yourself way more time than you think you will need to work through all the details. If partners are working with different timelines as to when they need info for publicity, etc., make sure there’s a plan to get everyone what they need when they need it. Make sure to maintain clear lines of communication among your partners. Clearly designate who is in charge of doing what.
OCLS – When negotiating with the author/agency, have a detailed plan on how you would like to present the event. Know the platforms you intend to use and make sure the author/agency understands how the platform will work. Then you will have all the details and agreements in writing before moving forward with the logistics. If you plan to work with multiple organizations, make sure everyone agrees to the contract details and can provide the technical support needed. I would also recommend having in the contract an event “run through” with the author before the presentation to test AV equipment and presenter’s technical skills. This way everything is in place before the event.
Vail Public Library – Do it! I really feel that by making this one virtual event that was shared by several organizations allowed us ALL to be able to bring the speaker to our communities. Her schedule may not have allowed for 7 separate speaking engagements but we collectively provided this event for our distinct communities all on one day.
Meet the Organizers
NEA Big Read; Lab Girl – Meet the Organizers
Orange County Library System
Lincoln Land Community College
Chillicothe Public Library District
Vail Public Library
Maryland Public Television
Owings Hills, MD
Miami Book Fair
OC Public Libraries
Orange County, CA
The National Endowment for the Arts Big Read, a partnership with Arts Midwest, broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. Since 2006, more than 5.7 million Americans have attended an NEA Big Read event, over 90,000 volunteers have participated at the local level, and over 40,000 community organizations have partnered to make NEA Big Read activities possible.
Interested in applying for an NEA Big Read grant in the future? Get more information here.
National Endowment for the Arts Big Read is supported by the Endowment in partnership with Arts Midwest.