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The History of the History Stage at the National Book Festival

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In less than a month, the 2020 National Book Festival will open its virtual doors to the public. There won’t be any crowds waiting in long lines to enter the Washington Convention Center, no throngs of children hoping to see their favorite authors, no signing lines that stretch beyond what the eye can see.

But what there will be is the same extraordinary assemblage of more than 120 authors, poets and illustrators all eager to talk about their latest works. Fans will even be able to get the signatures of many of their favorite authors in the form of signed bookplates, available for select books purchased from our official bookseller, Politics & Prose.

For this #ThrowbackThursday, let’s take a look at one of the longest-running stages, or “pavilions,” as we used to call them: History. The History stage (now called History & Biography) has, since the very first festival, on Sept. 8, 2001, welcomed the nation’s preeminent historians to Washington to discuss their latest books about climactic events and consequential personages, both recent and from long ago. And, for the past 10 years, the stage has been generously sponsored by Wells Fargo.

Author and historian David McCullough speaks at the 2011 National Book Festival. Photo by Barry Wheeler.

Michael Beschloss, one of America’s most renowned and beloved historians came in 2001, as did Stephen Ambrose. The stage has seen the likes of David McCulloughDoris Kearns Goodwin, Margot Lee Shetterly, Jon Meacham, Wil Haygood, John Hope Franklin and hundreds of other chroniclers of our world.

The History & Biography stage has not only been with us from the beginning but the subject has also proved to be among the most popular genres offered at the festival. Die-hard history fans are known to “camp out” in the audience by securing a seat to hear the first History author and staying until the last author finishes up in the evening.

The popularity of the stage has resulted in its being booked into the largest spaces in the Washington Convention Center, where the festival has been held since 2014. Last year, a 5,000-seat auditorium was still too small to contain all those who wanted to enter.

Author Margot Lee Shetterly discusses “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” in front of a large crowd at the 2017 National Book Festival. Photo by Shawn Miller.

A fortunate effect of this year’s all-virtual festival is that all are welcome and all may come – from across the country and from around the world. The entire National Book Festival – it’s 20th occurrence – will take place Friday, Sept. 25 through Sunday Sept. 27, culminating in a special television program of stellar authors at 6-8 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

So, no matter where you live, please join us for the Library of Congress National Book Festival, at

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 this blog. The festival is made possible by the generosity of sponsors. You can support the festival, too, by making a gift now.

Comments (4)

  1. Will there be National Book Festival posters?

  2. This sounds great!

  3. Searching for commendable, healthy and uplifting governmental activities, I discovered you! Would that we could convert militaristic spending into something so laudable !

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