Picturing America Connects: Project Directors Engage Librarians at ALA Annual Conference

Picture this: a midnight Paul Revere ride to get the word out and bring the people together. Isn’t that what librarians try to do in their own way every day?

We all know libraries are about building networks—connecting people, connecting communities, connecting institutions. Picturing America is a perfect example of the fruit that is borne of such partnerships. On Saturday, July 11, at ALA Annual Conference, the current project directors shared their experiences and programming ideas with 40 to 50 attendees from public and school libraries across the country and invited their feedback.

Tom Phelps, Director of the Division of Public Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities, discussed how Picturing America found its genesis in the “One Book” programs (now known as the “The Big Read”). “We were thinking that we were thinking big but we thought bigger since then,” he said, explaining how the project grew thematically. Starting with a simple desire to bring a greater understanding of art to the public, the ambitious project eventually ran into distribution issues trying to send oversized binders with laminated art posters to hundreds and ultimately thousands of libraries. But difficulties spur growth—new connections. ALA stepped in to help with distribution and the IMLS with financing. Verizon provided funds for a Web site and money came in from the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services. The project evolved into a cozy, multilayered collaboration.

As if those partnerships across the public and private sectors weren’t enough, Marsha Semmel, Deputy Director for Museums and Director for Strategic Partnerships, Institute of Museum and Library Services, further described strategic partnerships to bring educational programming to school and public library constituencies. She sees Picturing America as IMLS’s contribution to an ongoing conversation between museums, libraries and educators on “21st century skills”—the skills necessary for a person to survive and thrive in the new digital world. In our quickly evolving creative continuum which strives to unleash individual imagination, one much-talked about skill is visual literacy—which dovetails perfectly with the objectives of Picturing America. She detailed IMLS involvement in expanding the project nationally. But don’t mistake that for someone claiming center stage. Semmel “loves the partnership NEH has with ALA and IMLS” and envisions libraries using Picturing America to spur more local partnerships. In her view, the most important thing is that “these wonderful resources get used in creative ways.” Nothing should stay on the shelf!

To that end, Lainie Castle, Project Director with the ALA Public Programs Office, explained features on the freshly launched support website, Picturing America for Public Libraries. It offers numerous publicity suggestions—press release templates, sample media alerts, and sample letters to community groups. Logos for the major sponsors are included for flyers and promo materials. A special bookmark PDF creator allows local library and event information to be added to beautiful pre-designed bookmarks. While some of the how-to material was already online, Picturing America recipients who log in will find downloadable images unavailable elsewhere. Sixty-three high-quality images are available for individual download. The digital files will allow libraries to project the images on big screens—far larger than the posters themselves—during programs. Additionally, the site offers downloadable audio material along with further programming ideas and tools created by the first round of libraries that received grant materials. While there is currently no upload option, anyone can email in material they would like to share on the site.

One pilot library for Picturing America was the Washington, D.C., Public Library. Nancy Davenport, their Acting Director of Library Services, shared colorful images of D.C.’s “teens of distinction” in action with Picturing America posters. She also touched on her own role in rethinking how the iconic American images could be freshly presented to the public in a manner different from the tradition of art historians. For example, rather than analyzing the paintings’ formal qualities and lecturing on contextual details of the artists’ life, the images could be viewed as examples of immigrants’ experience in America—inviting the viewers to see the New World anew. The Picturing America materials have been especially helpful in her library on “minor Monday holidays” such as Presidents Day and Columbus Day, for which the D.C. city government has requested that libraries remain open and offer programming on the American experience.

Finally, the audience broke into groups (children, teen, and adult programming) to share ideas to adopt or adapt in their local libraries. As if coming back to earth after the high-minded ideals of Art and America, my group couldn’t avoid the practical realities of attracting audiences to the library programs: food and music! The teen and children’s group generated many ideas for integrating with school curriculums. Sure enough, not a few people suggested staging Boston Tea parties with the program. The amount of questions and feedback from the sessions showed high audience enthusiasm.