Planning the Reading of a City: CPL’s Jennifer Lizak

Just before the most recent season ended on April 30, 2018, Mihaela Stoica of the “Reading Chicago Reading” project team sat down with Jennifer Lizak, Coordinator of Special Projects for Cultural and Civic Engagement at the Chicago Public Library to discuss the work that goes into planning, creating, and promoting events for the One Book One Chicago program. With only a few days of respite after the end of a successful 2017-18 program, and just before she started thinking about the upcoming season, Lizak gave us a glimpse of what goes on behind the curtain of this annual citywide program.

Considering Genre and Theme

Having chosen nonfiction for the last three consecutive seasons, Lizak said she feels a need to choose fiction next. Some library patrons prefer nonfiction while others favor fiction, and there is a considerable effort to balance the needs and interests of both. Although Chicago-related topics seem to attract more visibility and public participation in the overall OBOC program—past examples include Dyja’s sprawling history of the city, Wilkinson’s history of the Great Migration, and the latest, Kot’s biography of Mavis Staples—it is not a requirement in order to be chosen as an OBOC selection. From a more pragmatic standpoint, however, she says it makes it easier to have a Chicago-based writer or someone who still maintains strong connections to the city. For example, Dyja’s Chicago family often brings him back, and aside from knowing the neighborhoods and the library system well, he was very generous with his time. Similarly, Kot’s knowhow and city connections made it easier to get creative with the programming. Generally, the author’s familiarity with the city and the library, and reduced travel costs, factor into book and event selection. For the new upcoming season, more than likely, we can expect fiction as the chosen genre. Ideally, Lizak says, one year it is a memoir-type book, the next year a novel.

 

But while genre seems to be easier to decide upon, choosing a theme is tricky. Many great books do not have an obvious, or singular, theme or—given the length or subject matter—do not inspire a variety of city-wide programming events to fill up a six months season. The most challenging aspect of planning consists of coming up with a variety of programming for an entire season that relates to the chosen theme, particularly events that appeal to the diverse interest of the general population. They should have the potential to attract a wide audience, and can be approached in ways that are serious but also fun, such as history or music related lectures and performances. Typically, themes that come up regularly during Lizak’s departmental brainstorming sessions are connected to current events, but not every theme is easy to implement into a season-long city-wide program. Food, music, sports, Olympic and amateur sports, theater, art, and immigration, adventure, travel and exploration, and nature — all been considered, and several already chosen — as OBOC themes. Race and ethnicity also has come up quite a lot, Lizak says, but it is a painful and difficult topic in a city that still has not come to terms with its own historical past or present.

 

The process involved in choosing the next One Book begins as an open forum. The department starts thinking about possible themes and books about one to two years in advance and takes suggestions from the public, librarians, partners, and anybody who wants to make a contribution. Anything suggested in the last 4-5 years becomes part of a spreadsheet from which a first round triage eliminates obvious books that do not fit the criteria, such as children’s books or self-published memoirs—which interestingly seem to be common suggestions.

 

OBOC Selection Criteria

So what makes a book worthy of city-wide attention? One Book One Chicago selection criteria include quality, reader accessibility, format, and other considerations. Quality is unsurprisingly the main criterion; books well-reviewed in professional venues such as Library Journal and Publishers Weekly are read by several CPL staff who can vouch for their value. Ideally, OBOC books should be no longer than 300 pages, and must be accessible, interesting, and engaging to a varied audience with many levels of educational attainment. Availability in multiple media — paperback, e-book, audiobook, and formats accessible to the visually disabled such as talking book or braille, and offered in popular foreign languages (Spanish being the second largest language on demand, as well as Polish and Chinese) are also important considerations. In addition, authors and books that reflect Chicago’s diverse cultural communities are given special consideration, as well as those books that tie into a historic anniversary or large-scale observance. Books that relate to other mass initiatives in the city or region are favored to make the cut, like the anniversary of the Burnham Plan, for example, when Third Coast was tied in to the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Finally, the book’s availability in the library system and the ease with which it can be distributed among other CPL branches can also be a contributing factor.

From the spreadsheet with suggestions the next OBOC pick will most likely be chosen. The list is scaled down to a few entries of possible themes and books that Lizak and other staff will read in order to identify one or two options that she and Craig Davis, Director of Cultural and Civic Engagement, will present to the CPL’s Deputy Commissioner and Commissioner for a final thumbs up. As a last step, the book goes through the Chicago mayor’s office for an honorary endorsement.

Getting to this stage takes a lot of thought, effort, time, and, as it turns out, personal involvement. Asked how she feels about being considered “a culture broker,” or even “evangelist of culture” (as sociologists Wendy Griswold and Hannah Wohl call organizers of mass reading events like OBOC) [1], Lizak politely demurred. She is aware of the significance of her contribution, but also acknowledged the entire department’s large-scale influence in setting the tone for citywide dissemination of cultural trends, one season at a time.

[1] Wendy Griswold and Hannah Wohl, “Evangelists of culture: One Book programs and the agents who define literature, shape tastes, and reproduce regionalism.” Poetics 50 (2015): 96-109.

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