B.J. Novak Goes the Extra Mile for Libraries

B.J. Novak reading to kids at the libraryMost people know actor, standup comedian and author B.J. Novak from his role as Ryan on the television series The Office.

But they might not know about Novak’s special connection to libraries.

He revealed that connection during the recent American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference & Exhibition in Las Vegas.

It was during the question-and-answer session following his speech at the Closing General Session on July 1 that he made an even more direct connection.

One of the video clips, showing Novak reading to children at a charter school from his children’s book, The Book with No Pictures (September 2014, Dial Books for Young Readers), prompted Paula Beswick, director of the Bozeman Public Library Foundation, to ask during the question and answer session that followed, if he were doing any more public readings, She asked if he would ever consider coming to the Bozeman Public Library’s annual Children’s Festival of the Book for a reading. Novak said, “Actually, I’m going tomorrow for the Fourth of July. So, yes.”

He asked if the library would be open on July 4.

Beswick replied, “No….but we can be.”

It turns out that Novak was deadly serious. He was indeed traveling to Bozeman and Livingston, Mont., where he met with his friend singer/songwriter John Mayer. Novak and Mayer visited the Bozeman Public Library on Sunday, and Novak read from his book before a capacity crowd.

Beswick said that following their initial exchange, the details were arranged when she and Public Library Director Susan Gregory met him in the line for his post-speech book signing.

B. J. Novak with librarianInstead of July 4, they resolved on Sunday, July 6, so more people could attend.

The next day, he contacted Susan Gregory, the library director, and suggested 11 a.m. on Sunday.

“It was packed,” she said. “We had over 250 people.

“We had kids sit up front – a whole mob of small kids. And then parents and adults and a huge number of teenagers sat in the back.”

Novak told Gregory, “I want this to be about the kids.”   First, he explained the concept of a picture book with only words and no pictures to the children, who responded with giggles.  He then read the book to the crowd in what Beswick described as a booming, animated voice that prompted howls of laughter from the children.  Novak then took questions from the children, one of whom said he had read a book with no words but only pictures. Another asked him how space creatures fly.

After Novak took some questions from adults, he received a request to have the book read again. He suggested someone else read it. That was accomplished by the children’s librarian, Cindy Christin.

“It was great,” Beswick said. “B.J. was laughing and just soaking it up. And the kids loved it again.”

The reading received extensive local coverage from KBZK television and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, as well as KRTV television.

During his speech in Las Vegas, which was humorously illustrated by slides and video clips, Novak said that his first ambition – before he wanted to be an actor or a writer or a player for the Boston Red Sox – was to become a librarian.

“I was enthralled by the library in my elementary school, where anything could happen and where no one told you where your mind was supposed to be,” he said.

As a 6-year-old child in Newton, Mass., he even took the first step by asking his parents, before Hanukkah, to give him the gift of a date stamp.  He established his own library in his bedroom, but he can’t remember lending any books out.

“My parents must have had their own copies of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, he said. “But I didn’t mind. I loved that everything was catalogued and ready to go and that I was technically now living and sleeping in a library.”

Novak said he was extremely lucky to grow up in a house that was filled with the written word. His father, William Novak, was an author of such books as The Big Book of Jewish Humor and the ghostwriter of the autobiography of Chrysler executive Lee Iacocca.

Novak said his father is such a devotee of the Newton Free Library that he recently estimated he borrows up to 40 items a week on two different library cards. William Novak is also the host and master of ceremonies of the library’s annual Spring Fling Gala fundraiser – a showcase for authors, but, Novak said, “only one that my mom took a picture of this past spring,” B.J. Novak.

As his love of reading developed, he said he found himself drawn to humor and its sense of controlled rebellion.

“The world had rules and expectations, and when those rules and expectations were bent and broken, the results were exciting, interesting, fun.”

In the process, he noticed a difference between humor aimed at children and humor tailored for adults.

“Humor for adults takes the rules of the world that we all know to be true for granted and then twists them. The world has already provided the setup,” he said.

But humor for the youngest children needs to provide both the setup and the punch line, he said. In Dr. Seuss books, there is “an established sense of order that it would be particularly funny to disrupt.”

He mentioned one significant book in his development, a “fake” children’s book, Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book, written by Shel Silverstein that preceded that author’s activity as a children’s author. The book, among other things, urged children to steal money from their parents’ wallets and mail it to Uncle Shelby.

Novak’s appreciation for humor eventually landed him at his college humor magazine, the Harvard Lampoon, where he successfully ran for the position of staff librarian.

Later, as he ventured into stand-up comedy, he said he learned an important rule from his father.

“How about you only say what you like and you only keep what they like,” he said.

That rule held him in good stead when he embarked on his own career as an author, which began, he said, as he was trying to find himself following many years working as a writer and actor on The Office.

In 2014, Novak published his first book for adults One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories (February 2014, Knopf).  Soon after, he wrote his first children’s book.

In fact, he said, he tested out material for his first book in the same way he tested material for his stand-up work – on the stage, reserving a theater where he would read various passages.

He said he followed a similar process with the children’s book, testing the material on children.

As he developed what would ultimately be a picture book consisting only of words, “I thought, ‘What if I designed a book that introduced kids to the power of the written word by showing them how to abuse that power.”

Novak said the book is an advertisement for the written word itself. It would be a huge honor, he said, to have it in libraries.

He said, “To me, there is no more fun and effective way for a kid to learn a rule than to learn how the rule can be used to their advantage. And to me, there is no more meaningful, important or exciting rule to introduce to children than the power of the written word. That the written word is something that can give them joy and power. That the written word is their ally in wanting to make the world a more exciting, fun and funny place.”


1. Article illustration: Actor/writer BJ Novak reads from his children’s book “The Book With No Pictures” to a capacity crowd and group of delighted kids at the Bozeman Public Library on Sunday, July 6, 2014. The book will be available on September 30. Photo by Paula Beswick.

2. BJ Novak with Susan Gregory, director of Bozeman Public Library. Susan coordinated with BJ to ensure a wonderful and unexpected event for the Bozeman community! Photo by Paula Beswick.

Libraries Transforming Communities

The following piece by American Library Association Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels appeared this week in American Libraries magazine.

A project for ALA and all types of libraries

All around us, libraries are transforming as they adapt to broader changes in the communities they serve and the environment in which they now operate. In the process, librarians have discovered that as they better understand their communities and their aspirations, the more deeply they are “engaged”; the more impact they can have on their communities; and the more support they will receive in return.

The new “Libraries Transforming Communities” project, supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will focus on the development of new tools, resources, and support that will allow librarians to engage with their communities in new—and deeper—ways. The project will strengthen librarians as community leaders and community change agents, and help promote innovations in library services.

ALA is working with the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation on this project, and leading this effort will be the ALA Public Programs Office (PPO). PPO is a perfect match for this job, having a long and successful history of helping libraries in their role as community cultural centers and as places of cultural and civic engagement where people of all backgrounds gather for reflection, discovery, participation, and growth.

The two-year project will include in-person training and coaching of librarians to support the transformation of library services and the expanding role of libraries as community conveners. ALA is offering a wide variety of distance-learning and conference-based opportunities, including four sessions at the 2014 ALA Annual Conference and Exhibition. (Thanks to support provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, ALA has already offered well-attended introductory training sessions at the 2013 Midwinter Meeting and Annual Conference.) While the project will focus initially on public libraries, the tools, techniques, and training developed will be applicable—and available—to academic, school, and other libraries.

In April, a cohort of 10 libraries—representing communities in a range of sizes and geographic locations—was selected. This group will be trained in the Harwood Institute approach in order to understand its potential for the field and create an active group of early adopters. The cohort librarians will provide models for use in diverse settings and will serve as mentors and ambassadors for the role of libraries as innovative community change agents.

Learning from the experiences of the cohort libraries, ALA will create, refine, and share resources and learning opportunities that will allow thousands of librarians to bring the tools of library-led community innovation to their own communities. Free resources are already available through ALA’s Libraries Transforming Communities website.

To reflect the shift in orientation and competencies that this project brings to libraries, ALA staff and member leaders will also train in the Harwood Institute approach. This will help build the Association’s capacity as a leader in supporting the transformation of libraries of all types and help support sustainability of the effort going forward.

Each library serves a unique community. Through deep knowledge of community aspirations, libraries will be better positioned to navigate and work with changes in community demographics, leadership structures, and local fiscal and social issues. Positioning librarians as facilitators of community knowledge and dialogue will enhance the library’s potential as community change maker, and deepen the reservoir of trust enjoyed by public libraries nationally.

The result: increased innovation, increased impact, and ultimately, a more successful community—and a more successful library.

Celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May

May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month – a celebration of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. A rather broad term, Asian-Pacific encompasses all of the Asian continent and the Pacific islands of Melanesia (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands), Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia) and Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Easter Island).

Like most commemorative months, Asian-Pacific Heritage Month originated in a congressional bill. In June 1977, Reps. Frank Horton of New York and Norman Y. Mineta of California introduced a House resolution that called upon the president to proclaim the first ten days of May as Asian-Pacific Heritage Week. The following month, senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga introduced a similar bill in the Senate. Both were passed. On October 5, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a Joint Resolution designating the annual celebration. Twelve years later, President George H.W. Bush signed an extension making the week-long celebration into a month-long celebration. In 1992, the official designation of May as Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month was signed into law.

The month of May was chosen to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants.

Libraries working to bridge the cultural divide

Starr LaTronica, president, Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association, writes in the Huffington Post about  “Libraries Working To Bridge The Cultural Divide.”

“Unfortunately too often children in the United States are not exposed to print or digital materials that reflect themselves or their culture. This can have harmful effects on a child, as such an absence impacts self-esteem. Similarly damaging is a child’s lack of exposure to other cultures, which fuels intolerance and cultural invisibility.

“Although we know the diversity of our country continues to grow, the percentage of children’s books released each year either by a person of color or with a multicultural theme has been virtually unchanged over the past 18 years. Every year since 1994, statistics gathered by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that just over 8 percent of children’s books published in the United States represented Nonwhites. The most current data from CCBC shows that out of the more than 5,000 titles published in 2013 only 253 were about Nonwhites.

“Since there is a lack of diversity in children’s books, as a parent how do you find high quality materials that highlight your culture and a host of others? How do you find print and digital resources, programs and events that will introduce your child to new cultures? The answer is simple – at your local public library.

“One way that libraries are working to bring more culturally diverse programs to their communities is through El día de los niños/El día de los libros (children’s day/book day), commonly referred to as Día! Diversity in action. This national initiative emphasizes the importance of literacy for children of all linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Librarians across the country use Día resources to celebrate our nation’s rich tapestry of cultures. On April 30 and throughout the year, library staff connect children and their families to a world of learning through multicultural books, programs and events.”

Read the rest of the post here:


Program Idea: Steve Jobs Biographer Walter Isaacson to Deliver Free NEH Lecture

2014 Jefferson Lecturer Walter Isaacson (Photo by Patrice Gilbert)

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) will present its 43rd Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, May 12. The talk will feature Walter Isaacson, best-selling author, acclaimed journalist, and president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, an educational and policy studies organization.

NEH is offering a high-definition video of the lecture online — both during the presentation and for one year afterward — for use in community programs across the country.

In “The Intersection of the Humanities and the Sciences,” Isaacson will touch on the careers of Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, Ada Lovelace, Walker Percy, Edwin Land and others who fused humanistic thought with scientific discovery.

“Walter Isaacson’s masterful biographies of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin, among others, capture the connection between research and imagination,” said Carole Watson, deputy chairman of NEH. “His ideas on these fundamental issues are among the enduring themes that have made the Jefferson Lecture an important Washington event for the last 42 years.”

The lecture will be held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. In-person tickets are free of charge and distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. Requests may be submitted beginning April 22 through an online form on the NEH website.

The lecture will be live-streamed online and will be archived at the NEH website, where it may facilitate reading and discussion of the Humanities and STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. Check www.neh.gov for further details.

Groups around the country are sponsoring gatherings and film discussion groups to consider “The Intersection of the Humanities and the Sciences” within their schools, communities and states. Go to http://www.neh.gov/jefferson-lecture/event-form to let the NEH know of your plans, and share your thoughts and comments with viewers across the country by using the Twitter hashtag #JeffLec2014.

The Jefferson Lecture is the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.

ALA announces 10 public libraries selected for Libraries Transforming Communities Public Innovators Cohort

The American Library Association (ALA) has announced the 10 public libraries chosen to undergo an intensive 18-month, team-based community engagement training program as part of the Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC) Public Innovators Cohort.

The cohort, selected through a highly competitive peer-reviewed application process, is part of ALA’s LTC initiative, a national plan to help librarians strengthen their role as core community leaders and change-agents.

The selected libraries represent the range of American communities in terms of size, location, ethnic and racial diversity and socioeconomic status, and they all face challenges including illiteracy; unemployment; a “digital divide” in their community’s access to information technology; an influx of new and immigrant populations; and disparate access to services.

The following libraries make up the LTC Public Innovators Cohort:

  • Red Hook (N.Y.) Public Library (pop: 1,900)
  • Columbus (Wis.) Public Library (pop: 5,000)
  • Knox County (Ind.) Library (pop: 33,900)
  • Suffolk (Va.) Public Library System (pop: 85,000)
  • Hartford (Conn.) Public Library (pop: 125,000)
  • Springfield (Mass.) City Library (pop:  153,000)
  • Tuscaloosa (Ala.) Public Library (pop: 195,000)
  • Spokane County (Wash.) Library District (pop: 255,000)
  • San Jose (Calif.) Public Library (pop: 980,000)
  • Los Angeles Public Library (pop: 3.8 million)

Through in-person training, webinars and coaching — valued at $50,000 — teams from each library will learn new community engagement techniques and apply them within their communities. Each library also receives an $8,000 cash grant to help cover the cost of their new community-engagement work.

In partnership with The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, Libraries Transforming Communities addresses a critical need within the library field by developing and distributing new tools, resources and support for librarians to engage with their communities in new ways. The initiative is made possible through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Public libraries have long served as trusted and treasured institutions, and librarians today can leverage that strong position for the betterment of their communities,” said ALA President Barbara Stripling. “As a longtime champion of library-led community engagement and innovation, ALA is primed to provide the tools and support that will enable librarians to more effectively fulfill this vital role.”

“People want to reengage and connect with one another,” said Richard C. Harwood, president and founder of The Harwood Institute. “They want to come back into the public square, and libraries should be a central part of that movement.”

Libraries Transforming Communities is grounded in The Harwood Institute’s approach of “turning outward,” which emphasizes changing the orientation of institutions and individuals from internal (institutional) to external (community-facing). These practices will be shared at four “Turning Outward” sessions at the 2014 ALA Annual Conference and through webinars and digital resources, now available for free download at ala.org/LTC.

The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation is a national nonprofit organization based in Bethesda, Md., that teaches and coaches people and organizations to solve pressing problems and change how communities work together. The institute is guided by Richard C. Harwood, whose transformational work during the past 25 years has spread to thousands of communities nationally and worldwide, from small towns to large cities.