Navigating the Virtual Book Festival

The 2020 National Book Festival was always going to be special — it’s the 20th year of the much-loved annual celebration of books and reading, after all. But exactly how unique it would be, no one could have foreseen.

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic makes it impossible to hold the festival in its usual venue, the Washington, D.C., convention center, where 200,000-plus book lovers typically come together. It’s vast, but there is no way a crowd of that size could social distance, even in that space. So, the festival will be entirely virtual this year.

It will take place Sept. 25–27 and culminate in a national television broadcast on PBS stations.

No doubt, many regular festivalgoers may worry they will miss meeting favorite authors in person or navigating the happy chaos of the convention center. Yet, the virtual version of the festival — titled “Celebrating American Ingenuity” — offers unique advantages.

For one, attendees can see every author they wish to — no hard choices have to be made. For another, no queuing is required. For yet another, links and interactive features will make it possible to engage with Library collections throughout the event — a festival first.

In other ways, the festival experience will approximate what fans have come to expect. There will be book talks across multiple genres — more than 120 writers, poets and illustrators are presenting this year — and audience members will have opportunities to address questions to authors. There will be book buying through Politics and Prose, the festival’s official bookseller. And there will be virtual spaces where attendees can chat with Library staff and festival sponsors and discover an array of fun activities and resources for children and teachers.

Live engagement with the festival will occur through a special National Book Festival platform, accessible on the Library’s website at loc.gov/bookfest/.

“The platform aims to provide the best representation of the amazing content festival attendees are accustomed to,” Jarrod MacNeil of the Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement said. He directs the Library’s Signature Programs Office, which manages the festival.

Once festivalgoers register on the platform, they can build schedules. All of the authors recorded presentations in advance that can be viewed anytime during the festival and afterward. In addition, dozens will participate in question-and-answer sessions each day of the event. Attendees might want to first add live question-and-answer sessions to their personal calendars — the festival schedule lists times for them — then fill out their calendars with prerecorded on-demand videos. Or, they can forgo a schedule entirely and just follow their interests.

The festival will launch on Sept. 25 with a daylong celebration of children’s and teen literature. The timing — a Friday — coincides with a school day, so teachers and students can listen to author talks together. On-demand videos for children’s and teen stages will be released at 9 a.m., and live sessions with some of the authors will follow — among them Gene Luen Yang, the 2016–17 national ambassador for young people’s literature, and Mike Curato, whose first graphic novel, “Flamer,” was published this month.

Other children’s and teen’s authors will appear live during the festival’s following two days, and videos for all the other festival stages will be released at 9 a.m. on Sept. 26. Live sessions will begin at 10 a.m. that day and continue through Sunday.

All on-demand videos will be made available simultaneously on the platform, the Library’s YouTube page and the National Book Festival site. So, festivalgoers will have options as to where they view prerecorded presentations.

Live interaction will occur exclusively on the platform, however. Live sessions will be recorded as they occur and posted on the platform soon afterward — anywhere from an hour to a few hours later, depending on a session’s length, to ensure quality.

Between author talks, attendees might choose to engage in favorite festival activities in a virtual version of the traditional expo floor.

“We have spaces for communicating as if you were walking the expo floor,” MacNeil said. “You can talk with sponsors. You can talk with Centers for the Book from around the U.S. You can engage with Library staff to talk about specific content areas.”

Significant Library collections materials in an area titled “Explore the Library of Congress” will link to three newsworthy threads that thematically tie together books across the festival’s stages.

  • Fearless Women” marks the 100th anniversary this year of women’s suffrage by highlighting books by and about strong women for readers of all ages — from Chelsea Clinton’s new children’s book about American Olympians and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s memoir about leadership to Melinda Gates’ book about women’s empowerment and Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s account of the life and times of Harriet Tubman.
  • Hearing Black Voices” showcases Black voices across genres — biography, sci-fi, poetry, memoir. The lineup of more than a dozen writers includes two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead, winner of the Library’s 2020 Prize for American Fiction, in conversation with the Library’s literary director, Marie Arana, and Jason Reynolds, the national ambassador for young people’s literature, who will talk about “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You,” the young adult title he co-wrote with National Book Award winner Ibram X. Kendi.
  • A third theme, “Democracy in the 21st Century,” brings together books for all ages focusing on where democracy stands today. Children’s writer Don Tate will present the remarkable, little-known story of William Still, known as the father of the Underground Railroad. Authors Christopher Caldwell and Thomas Frank will discuss “The Road to Populism.” And three of America’s most notable political journalists — Peter Baker (New York Times), Susan Glasser (New Yorker) and George Packer (The Atlantic) — will explore how Washington works and the statesmanship necessary to navigate it.

New to the festival this year is the Family, Food and Field stage. It centers around books about the home, family life and recreation. Jesse Dougherty will present his new book, “Buzz Saw: The Improbable Story of How the Washington Nationals Won the World Series,” while Bill Buford will discuss “Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking.”

An all-time favorite festival activity — book signing — will take place in advance of the festival. Many authors are signing a commemorative 2020 National Book Festival book plate that will be included with book purchases while supplies last. Attendees can buy books through links provided with author videos that will take them to the Politics and Prose online store.

Toward the end of the live segment of the festival, at 5 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, a system-wide notification will invite attendees to view the PBS broadcast special on their local stations. At 6 p.m., interactive functionality will close down.

Unlike in past years, however, attendees can end their days with no regrets: If they missed seeing an author during the festival, all is not lost. They can view all the festival content online right away and for as long as they’d like — certainly one of the best benefits of an all-virtual festival.

The event platform will remain accessible for two months after the festival itself, and videos will be available in perpetuity through the Library’s book festival and YouTube sites.

The 2020 Library of Congress National Book Festival will celebrate its 20th birthday this year. You can get up-to-the-minute news, schedule updates and other important festival information by subscribing to the National Book Festival blog. The festival is made possible by the generosity of sponsors. You can support the festival, too, by making a gift now.

7 Comments

  1. Eleanor Heginbotham
    September 12, 2020 at 11:43 am

    This sounds wonderful, but I don’t see a link to registering. When and how does one do that?

  2. BarbYES
    September 13, 2020 at 1:00 pm

    Thank you.

  3. Jessica Olzak
    September 16, 2020 at 3:26 pm

    Is the entire Festival free?

  4. Cassy Ammen
    September 18, 2020 at 2:00 pm

    I keep seeing suggestions to view the video before sessions. I am unable to find the videos. Where are they?

    Also, some author bios do not list the time of their presentation. Such as Jon Meacham. When will this information be posted?

    Thank you.

    • Neely Tucker
      September 18, 2020 at 4:26 pm

      Hi Cassy,

      We’re developing all the links to this now; as you can imagine, arranging this many video sessions, each from a different place, takes a bit of set-up. We’ll have it added to the site as soon as we have it all confirmed.

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