A Look At: Fredrick Reads

fred reads finalBooks In Common recently interviewed Elizabeth Cromwell from Frederick Reads about the evolution of their Community Reads program.

Would you tell us a bit about your program?  For instance how long has Frederick been hosting a Community Reads event, how did it get started, and how have you seen it change since your involvement with it?

Frederick Reads started about nine years ago, in a bagel shop.  Several friends were discussing a recent report that was in the news, stating that the average American adult reads less than one book per year.  (The report was “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America,” published by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004).

One of those women was Marcia Hall, who at the time was both an elected official for the City of Frederick and an academic librarian. She first came up with the idea of Frederick Reads. We had all heard about “One City, One Book” types of programs, and thought that our community might benefit from this type of celebration.

From the beginning, we wanted to make the celebration accessible and popular, and the last thing we wanted to do was to make people feel guilty about their reading habits (or lack thereof).  We wanted to excite people but not intimidate them by our choice of reading material. We thought if we developed a day of events with a celebrated author, people might become curious to read one or more of the author’s books before the events. So I guess we kind of worked backwards rather than pushing reading, we pushed the celebration, and the reading came as a result.

We made a fortuitous decision by inviting sports writer and Maryland native, Frank Deford, to be our first Frederick Reads author.  Deford is a well-known sports writer, but he also is known from his stints on HBO Sports and National Public Radio.  He has written fiction, non-fiction, biography, etc., so we did not promote a particular book of his, but rather the entire body of his work.

We arranged three appearances in Frederick, which took place on one busy day. The audience was equally split between men and women. The first talk, at a local college, was full of sports fans who wanted Deford to talk about his favorite sports moments. The second talk, at a community college, was very focused on writing as a vocation. The third, delved into his poignant book about his late daughter. These topics were largely audience driven, showing how multi-faceted the right author can be. We have mostly stuck with the three-appearance formula in the years since, along with a fundraising reception of some kind.

Since that first year, the committee has grown into a consortium of 25-30 partner organizations at any given time. As Frederick Reads has grown in size and stature, we have attracted partners who want to align with this type of community-building, intellectually-stimulating celebration.

Frederick Reads is not intended only for people who love to read, although we love the book club groups who participate. It’s intended for everyone, and as the topics change each season, we meet new participants from diverse parts of our community. They become part of the core of our participants, many of whom began because of an interest in one author or topic, but who now support all of our diverse programs.

Frederick Reads seems to have a theme every year, how does incorporating a theme help guide programming and events? Do you select a theme before you select a title?  What determines the decision making process when it comes to a theme?

As Frederick Reads has evolved and grown, some of our best moments have come as a result of stumbling blocks! Moving to a thematic approach a few years ago was one of those moments.  That year, there was tremendous demand for a particular author, and our largest funder indicated they would pay the entire appearance fee if we selected that author. The problem was that this author would not agree to do more than one event. With multiple funders supporting Frederick Reads, how could we only pick one location and leave our other partners out?

We did book that author, and with some additional fundraising, we were able to secure a completely different kind of author for the other location. While they were nothing alike, they shared a theme that united the season.  And our community was able to attend both author events.

There was another factor in moving to the thematic approach — around that same time, other organizations in the community began to approach the committee about how to host a speaker or author event after seeing how successful our programs were becoming. Rather than competing with Frederick Reads, we encouraged them to join forces. By offering a theme, we were able to absorb many of these types of events under the Frederick Reads umbrella and help these partners create successful programs.

So at this point, we only produce a few events ourselves, but we act as a centralized publicist for all of the other community events that want to tie-in to the season’s theme.  In 2013, for example, our theme was Food for Thought.  Frederick Reads hosted the “main event,” author Will Allen, and other groups produced 55 events that celebrated the intersection of food and literature.  They created events that spoke directly to their audiences, and yet belonged to this greater Frederick Reads movement. We also connected partners to each other to create programs that could not have happened without Frederick Reads making those connections.  And that is how we continue to evolve.

We select the theme before selecting the author(s).  We apply for some long-lead grants that necessitate developing our theme at least a year before we select the author. We aim to select a theme that is so broad, we can incorporate almost any age range and/or interest.  Our 2013 theme was gardening/farming. The breadth of ancillary programs was huge, incorporating agriculture, gardening, cooking, social issues of food security and race, inner-city issues, childhood obesity, etc.  Our partners included restaurants, businesses, schools, farms, churches, and many others.

I expect this season’s theme, The Language of Music, will spark a similar breadth of programs.

What did you learn from past years’ program that is helping you this year? What are you changing, and what worked well?

Some of our greatest advances have occurred as a result of great challenges. Funding is always a challenge. One big lesson we learned is to try to broaden your funding sources as much as possible. Until two years ago, we were receiving the majority of our funding from one source, a private college. When the college decided to apply those funds to an all-freshman read instead of a community reading celebration, our funding almost collapsed.

But then something wonderful happened.  First, Frederick Community College, a founding partner in Frederick Reads, not only maintained their funding but added to it. They saw the value of the program on the campus and in the community.  They have also made amazing strides in incorporating Frederick Reads themes into their classrooms, and also into their Institute of Learning in Retirement. Frederick Reads and Frederick Community College have a productive and symbiotic relationship.

The other positive outcome is that rather than having one large funder, we now have several smaller funders, and the decisions about authors, themes and events is more equitable.  I believe our committee members feel a true sense of ownership, as we have all worked together to create this program.

What advice can you share with others just launching a community reads type program, or who are considering it?

I only have my own community experience, and I have no idea what might work in other communities. But I think it is universally helpful to make sure your public library system buys into the idea and is integrated into the program from the start.

Frederick County Public Libraries (my employer) was open to the concept, and has provided tremendous value by allowing our staff to be deeply involved with Frederick Reads. Frederick Reads has become one of the library’s most visible partnerships, and the library has benefited from international recognition for its innovation. Library Director, Darrell Batson saw an opportunity to take the library outside its walls effectively through Frederick Reads.

Our committee operates more loosely than others, which has generally worked well for us. For example, I have seen other committees that plan every event and program, believing that they will have more participation if every detail is managed by the committee ­ and that may be right for them.

For us, however, we have found more buy-in if we invite (expect) the public to help create the programming. We support community members’ decisions about how they want to create tie-ins to the celebration and don’t dictate how they should.  We want to use Frederick Reads as a vehicle to let other organizations shine, and we can help guide their involvement to the best benefit of the community.  I often say that Frederick Reads sets up the bowling pins so that other organizations can bowl a strike! The organizations that we help shine including our libraries, schools, colleges, businesses, recreational clubs, and anybody who wants to participate as an individual or as a group. What we create as a group has become larger than any one of these organizations could have accomplished alone, so everyone wins.

What are some of your fondest or most notable memories so far?

A few random fondest memories:

  • Stopping in a hair salon between events so that Frank Deford could take a quick catnap in the chair with the big bubble dryer.
  • Discovering that Elizabeth Gilbert stopped by a committee member’s home for a quick catnap between events (are you sensing a pattern here?)
  • Taking author Diane Ackerman out to dinner at our local “celebrity chef’s” restaurant, VOLT. Chef Bryan Voltaggio is a Frederick Reads supporter and came out from the kitchen to give Diane a hug.
  • David Sedaris convincing me that I should dye my hair.  I did, and he was right.

But I’d have to say my favorite memories are seeing the looks on people’s faces at the author events. Some people in the audience know the author’s material intimately, others are just hearing about it for the first time. But they all seem thrilled to share in the common experience of coming from different walks of life to join forces at these special events. We have had some magical moments between the authors and the audience, and for that I entirely credit the people of Frederick. There is an extraordinarily engaging, fun, curious and positive group of people here, and without that, I don’t think Frederick Reads would be here today.

This entry was posted in Issue #7 and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Garth Stein: A SUDDEN LIGHT