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Campaigning for literacy

How the Library of Congress, 900 volunteers pull off the National Book Festival By Christopher Lancette

2009 Poster by Charles Santore, the latest in a line of distinguished illustrators who have created the poster art for the National Book Festival.
Last year's festival drew crowds.
The festival has quickly become a fixture in Washington.

When more than 120,000 people pack the Mall in Washington D.C. on Sept. 26 for the 2009 National Book Festival, they’ll see famous authors, a one-day-only book store, TV characters from PBS, and more opportunities to unleash their inner laureate than they could wave a festival poster at.

What they won’t notice is the command center.

That’s where the Library of Congress and its partners are running the show. They have more than 900 volunteers to manage, 70 authors, poets, and illustrators to deliver to adoring fans, CSPAN crews to assist, throngs of reporters pushing for interviews, and 40,000 programs to hand out. (Don’t forget the 50,000 posters.) They’re also working in concert with the National Park Service that’s responsible for the grounds and security forces focused on keeping everyone safe.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work but we have a strong, dedicated team that makes it happen every year,” says Roberta Stevens, the Library of Congress staffer who has headed the enterprise since Laura Bush conceived the idea more than eight years ago.

Even the word “tremendous” is an understatement.

Planning is a year-round effort that better resembles running a presidential campaign than a literary event. Stevens brings all kinds of disciplines to the table to make the event a success. Weekly meetings include specialists in fundraising and corporate sponsorship (needed to obtain $1.5 million in contributions each year), logistics, media outreach, author coordination, and volunteer management.

Stevens turns to The Junior League of Washington to provide a whopping 50 percent of the latter. The book festival is a huge undertaking for the community service-focused organization, and it takes on a big responsibility. League volunteers greet thousands of festival goers that pour out of the Smithsonian Metro station and work in pavilions related to various literary activities. Topping the list is managing the lines of people hoping to get their favorite authors to sign books—a task Stevens describes as the toughest chore at the event. Demand for signatures often exceeds time for authors to pen them, and Redskins fans aren’t the only people in the District capable of getting overly excited.

“The National Book Festival makes a major impact on D.C.,” Junior League of Washington President Natalie Laing says. “Our organization’s focus is on literacy, so working with the Library is very important to us. The festival teaches people about the value of reading and infuses books into the community.”

The plum volunteer assignment, though, is that of “author escort”—the select few lucky souls who guide the writers through the event, spending the whole day with them. That honor is reserved for Library of Congress staff.

“A lot of times, these volunteers develop close relationships with the authors,” Stevens says.

Selecting which authors to invite is no simple matter. The Library of Congress knows it must land big names and incorporate the full spectrum of genres so that it can serve the many interest of readers. This year’s list includes John Grisham, Judy Blume, John Irving, Ken Burns and Michael Connelly. The event can only host so many scribes, though, and it’s a tricky ordeal to work with publishers and authors to land just the right number.

“There’s a lot of back and forth,” Stevens says. “We’re going after authors we really want and determining who can make it and who can’t. We have authors in reserve if a slot becomes available. There has been an incredible response from authors over the years. They love it.”

Stevens and the volunteers do, too, even if they’re exhausted by the time they leave the Mall.

“It’s well worth the effort,” Stevens confirms. “The National Book Festival is fun for the authors, the people who come to see and hear them, and the volunteers who make sure the event is a success.”

There’s also the joy of serving a vital cause.

“We want to celebrate reading and life-long learning,” she reflects. “We want to get people excited about the worlds that are in books.”

Attending this year’s event? Learn how to avoid the mistakes the author of this article made last year.

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Former journalist Christopher Lancette is a Fine Books & Collections contributor in Washington D.C. who also often writes about books and American history.