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The Joys of Virtual Programs—and Honoring Black History Month

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Participants in “The Maritime Underground Railroad” event, which airs on Wednesday, February 23, at 7 p.m. ET on the Library’s YouTube channel.

Shortly after the start of the pandemic, the Library of Congress—like other cultural institutions—substituted virtual programming for its in-person programs. For the Literary Initiatives Office, this meant not only adapting our seasonal programming but quickly redesigning the literary programs of the 2020 National Book Festival for an online-only format.

We faced a steep learning curve at first, but as we approach the two-year mark for the shutdown I’ve seen how our virtual programs can be uniquely compelling. I’d like to give you an inside look at our upcoming February 23 program, and a sense of what I mean in personal terms.

We in Literary Initiatives have pre-taped our virtual programs, which means we have the opportunity to review and shape the content. It’s a very different experience from a live event, when you work to get the presenters and the biggest possible audience in the same room together, and then see what happens. Also, with most of our virtual programs we tape the presenters from wherever they are—usually at home or in their office. This collapses the sense of distance among presenters and can create a real sense of intimacy.

Our February 23 program, “The Maritime Underground Railroad,” is a perfect example of this dynamic. In this event, the last of the Library’s Black History Month programs, we feature Timothy Walker, editor of “Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad” (University of Massachusetts Press, 2021), along with two contributors to the book: Cassandra Newby-Alexander and Cheryl Janifer LaRoche. John Haskell, the former director of the Library’s John W. Kluge Center, moderates the conversation. Make sure to watch the program when it airs at 7 p.m. ET on the Library’s YouTube channel, and afterward on the Library of Congress website.

We taped the conversation on the morning of February 2, and our presenters came to us from Massachusetts, Maryland, and Virginia. John Haskell had done a pre-taping conversation with our presenters the week before, to go over the general direction of the event, and so I had a sense that our three scholars (Walker and Newby-Alexander are professors of history; LaRoche is an associate professor of historic preservation) were very comfortable with one another and together able to discuss the topic in ways that could appeal to a more general audience. Still, I don’t think I was prepared for the magic that happened over the hour of our event taping!

John discussed with the panelists how they came to focus their work on the maritime Underground Railroad, the importance of waterways for those who escaped slavery, and why this method of passage has been largely lost to history—as well as the difficulties in creating a full accounting of the Underground Railroad. The image I had of how the Underground Railroad worked was wrong, I discovered—and the reasons for that say something about how historical narratives change over time. Our presenters talked with passion and conviction, and I was awed by their efforts to uncover this history. I also saw how much they supported one another in these efforts—not just as contributors to a book but as colleagues and supporters connected to this work in deep ways.

Danita Stenberg and I talking with the event participants.

My appreciation for the conversation only strengthened as I watched and re-watched the event recording. I followed up a number of times with Danita Stenberg, the event producer in the Library’s Multimedia Group and my partner-in-arms, to discuss: What should we take out? Do we want to reorder the conversation a bit? She was, as always, masterful in moving from shot to shot (during the event, you’ll see all three presenters and the moderator on screen throughout). And we had a particular, exciting challenge for this event: After the conversation “concluded,” Danita kept recording—and as our presenters continued to chat, they veered back into an exchange we wanted to make sure to include in the final event. Ultimately, Danita found a way to include this moment—I won’t tell you what it is, but I will give you a hint: It drove home the point of how heroic our presenters are, in a way that connects to the Library.

I hope you take the chance to watch this event—I know you will be as moved as I am. I hope it feels seamless, and it builds as the best sort of live event does. And I hope that afterwards you feel called to find out more about what our three presenters and other historians and preservationists do, to expand/re-shape our sense of the past in critical ways.