Top of page

How Stories Help Connect Communities: Developing “The Festival Near You”

Share this post:

The following is a guest post by Mary Murdock, a 2021 Junior Fellow in the Literary Initiatives Office at the Library of Congress.

2021 Junior Fellow Mary Murdock

After a year of isolation and online classes, my undergraduate career came to a triumphant yet bittersweet end in the spring of 2021. I was proud of myself for the learning and progress that I was able to achieve despite the circumstances: I finished my entire senior thesis without being able to set foot in my university library, and completed an internship with an on-campus community service organization that had to adapt its social justice programs to a virtual setting. Yet, I was acutely aware of the toll that the year had taken, not just on me (in fact, I remain relatively unscathed except for a warped sense of social interaction), but on the community surrounding me. Like many others, I found myself seeking connection, and wanting to move forward more intentionally about understanding and responding to the needs of those around me. As the barrage of questions, from within and from others, about what the future holds for me grew steadier upon receiving my degree, I became increasingly aware that this desire for intentional action would have to be part of the answer.

With a brand new B.A. in English Language and Literature in hand, I was more than ready to begin my first venture in post-graduate life as a Junior Fellow in the Literary Initiatives Office at the Library of Congress. I entered my first virtual day of work only three days after my commencement ceremony, eager to find out what project I would be tackling in my 10 weeks at the Library. I knew that I would be working to support literary programs for a premier humanities institution, and that some of that work would be in preparation for the 2021 National Book Festival this September. I didn’t know, however, just how novel and transformative my project would be, and how it would help me to begin to practice responding to the truths and stories of various communities in my daily work.

This summer, I had the joy of helping to launch an unprecedented initiative for the 2021 National Book Festival, called “The Festival Near You.” The goal of this project was to create a space within the National Book Festival website to house event information and Great Reads from Great Places book selections from our many state and local affiliates. Because this component of the Festival was entirely new, I had the opportunity to contribute to molding it into something that would meet our goals and serve our broadening audiences. Throughout the process of working on the Festival Near You, I have assisted by writing and organizing content including book descriptions, event descriptions and author bios for affiliates in all 50 states and two U.S. territories. I spent hours delving into the stories that each state and territory chose to represent themselves, and gaining a deeper understanding of how these stories help us connect with communities across the country. The books were diverse not just on the level of geographic origin, but also in the ages they catered to, the genres they embodied and the identities they represented. In addition to creating and organizing content, I was also able to attend a number of meetings centered on developing the Festival Near You. This gave me the opportunity to voice ideas about how we could best present the content on the website and what language and information we could use to effectively communicate this new initiative to the public.

Image of United States map
Explore your local events and Great Reads from Great Places on the 2021 National Book Festival “Festival Near You” feature.

One highlight of working on the Festival Near You was getting to attend a meeting of representatives from the affiliate Centers for the Book across the country. By attending this meeting, I got to see firsthand the joy and complexity of organizing an initiative that requires the input and effort of such a large number of partners from a wide variety of places. It was incredible to get to see people from all over the country work toward a cohesive vision for this project while also advocating for the needs and interests of their individual communities. All of my work on this project reminded me just how important it is for a national institution like the Library of Congress to reach out to people outside our immediate local community and our typical audience demographics.

As someone whose primary career interest is to serve and support quality arts and education programming for diverse communities, I have gained invaluable, applicable experience through this fellowship. In being part of an outreach and accessibility effort on such a large scale, I’ve been able to practice thinking not from a top-down perspective, but rather from the perspective of the many communities that we hope to serve across the nation. It is challenging, but incredibly rewarding, to be able to streamline information and content from far and wide, making it accessible to the people who most benefit from it. As the Festival Near You launches for the first time, I look forward to seeing how folks across the country engage with and respond to these efforts, and hope that we have built a foundation for even more robust National Book Festival outreach in the future.

Despite living just across the D.C. border for the last four years, I have not yet made it into the physical space of the Library of Congress. It’s strange now to feel like I’ve forged a tie to a place I’ve never actually been to. Yet, I think the fact that I was able to make such a connection says something about what the Library is. It’s not just the architectural marvel of the Jefferson Building, nor the collections, nor the National Book Festival. It is all of these things, but most importantly it is the people who curate and serve these collections and programs, and it is also the people who engage with them. All of these people have been the focus of my fellowship, and are the reason that I’ve come to feel a part of the Library. When I eventually set foot into the halls of the Library, I most look forward to finally meeting in person the people who make it all possible.