Big Read, Big Success? For City-Wide Reading Programs, Results Can Be Hard to Prove.
How do you measure joy? Can we calculate the pleasure of learning to read? Is it possible to quantify the satisfaction of reading an amazingly good book?
For the third year in a row, the Trump administration is trying to remove all federal funding from public libraries. The idea, for many readers, is categorically absurd. But readers or not, we live in a world where economic realities demand facts and figures. Multiple studies show libraries’ positive economic impact, but when it comes to measuring the success of city-wide reading programs like One City, One Book and Big Read, often there’s no number to be had.
In 1998, former Seattle Public Library executive director Nancy Pearl founded If All Seattle Read the Same Book, a public initiative to get the city’s then 536,978 residents flipping the same pages. At the time, the goal was to improve literacy — a number that can be measured over time. By the program’s seventh year — 2005 — Seattle, Washington had become the most literate city in the nation. Today the goal and name are slightly different: The library site says Seattle Reads is “designed to deepen engagement in literature through reading and discussion.”
That’s not unlike Big Read, an initiative from the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency Trump also tried to defund. NEA public affairs specialist Elizabeth Auclair says Big Read’s goal is to “broaden our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book.”
Since 2006, the NEA has seen this joy manifest across the nation, granting more than $19 million to more than 1,400 communities. Neighborhoods can apply for up to $15,000 in matching funds per application cycle. More than 400 towns do One City, One Book — Big Reads alternative tracked by the Library of Congress. The American Library Association also provides resources for One Book, One Community — another option — and in Connecticut, the state organizes One Book One Region. Either way, from Barrington, Illinois to Locust Grove, Oklahoma, readers are experiencing joy.
“When a community applies for a grant, they have to tell us about the programs they want to do that make sense for their community,” says NEA director of literature Amy Stolls. Applicants don’t have to be independent cities — individual neighborhoods in The Bronx, for example, participate — but Stolls says each applicant must show local capability for success: “That’s how our review committees are looking at these. They’re not saying Los Angeles is doing this and Louisville or a small town in Kentucky [has to do] that.” Instead, application criteria address local organizational capacity.
How these neighborhoods achieve joy is up to them. After reading Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel by Emily St. John Mandel that frequently mentions Shakespeare, a Southern community established the town’s first theater troupe.
And in Santa Barbara, California, reading the book helped participants bond during the Thomas wildfire. For other places, Stolls explains, success can be discussion groups that bring residents back to dying downtowns, help them see the world from another point of view, or meet a living author for the first time.
Whatever they define local joy, two-thirds of Big Read grantees are repeat participants, having supplied program-end reports with participant numbers for years past. But New York, which organizes its own program, program organizer Katherine Drew, associate commissioner of media strategy for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, doesn’t track a thing.
It’s not that New Yorkers’ joy is more difficult to measure, rather that Drew’s office isn’t doing the work. One Book, One New York’s primary goal isn’t to bring the city together — although Drew does encourage readers to talk to each other on the subway. It truly is economic: “We have the five biggest publishing houses here in New York City,” she explained, noting program goals are threefold: “We wanted to champion the publishing industry. We also wanted to help independent bookstores” and showcase New York’s 219 public library branches.
Unlike community spirit and other success indicators that are harder to measure, economic growth always comes with a number. But the mayor’s office has never asked bookstores measure the program’s effect on sales: “We do not ask for [growth metrics] nor do they want to give us those exact numbers,” Drew says. In fact, she adds, the publishers actually give the program thousands of copies for free. “I know you’re looking for stats,” she says, “This is not a stat-driven program,” refusing to disclose budget.
In Seattle, Library Journal reports the program cost $70,000 per year to get going, the first three years funded by a Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Foundation grant with an additional $500,000 in funds awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities the third year. In Chicago, early annual costs were $40,000 and in Syracuse, New York, $80,000.
How these cities spend the money is as diverse as their goals. Santa Monica, for example, paid to have author Mandel come speak. In New York, Drew says, “The only funding that we do for the office for the program is for the advertising that you see in the subways and the buses.” New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library finance their own partnership programming.
Putting the initiatives in perspective, Stolls says there’s only so much any town can expect from just one book: “It’s really about community and bringing the community together, focused on discussing and the joy of the book. So we hope that and trust that there are benefits to the program.” Ideally, she adds, these benefits would include “more patrons to the local libraries and that people are discovering new books,” reading more, “getting to know community members that they didn’t talk to before and…learning about new topics.” When held accountable as to how communities spend the money, Stolls indicates this is the feedback they share.
“We don’t have specifics at the moment to back that up,” she says, but the NEA is on its way to correcting that, starting a national, small scale study to gather data, one town to the next. “It’s in the very beginning stages,” Stolls says, explaining that early metrics on joy may be available by the end of the year.
(This article was originally published by The Outline May 1, 2019.)