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20 Years Ago Today: Remembering the First Festival

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Laura Bush (center), Dr. James Billington and others open the first National Book Festival Sept. 8, 2001 outside the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Photo by Yusef El-Amin

It was a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning on Sept. 8, 2001. I was one of hundreds of excited Library of Congress employees and volunteers getting ready to host the very first Library of Congress National Book Festival here in Washington.

This was before the Festival was a vast tent city on the National Mall (2002-2013) or a huge, expo-style event in the Washington Convention Center (2014-2019) – and certainly before it was the virtual event that we’ve seen in the past two years, compelled by the COVID pandemic. Back then, it was a totally new idea, envisioned by first lady Laura Bush, who founded the Texas Book Festival when she was first lady of that state. She suggested a national festival to then-Librarian of Congress James Billington at a reception at the Library the night before George W. Bush was to inaugurated as 43th U.S. president in a ceremony to be held just across the street.

A national book festival was a big idea and would be a big undertaking. We didn’t even have social media to talk about it back then. We advertised this new Festival the old-fashioned way: newspaper ads, announcements to TV, radio and other media, and good old word-of-mouth. Working as part the team responsible for publicity, I was frankly a little anxious as we approached our starting time. Would people show up?

Boy, did they ever. Thousands were on hand as Dr. Billington and Mrs. Bush formally opened the Festival at 9:30 a.m. (She went on to serve as the National Book Festival’s honorary chair through 2008.) “We’ve come together to revel in the joy of the written word,” she said to a big, cheerful crowd.

What a day it was! Some 30,000 book lovers of all ages crowded the halls of the Library’s Capitol Hill buildings and tents set up on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol to hear 60 of their favorite authors, visit with players from the NBA, listen to Library curators and hang out with Clifford the Big Red Dog. Writers signed books and posters, answered questions, and bumped elbows with their fans.

Streets around the Capitol and the Library were cordoned off, and it all felt like a small-town fair. I remember being on the plaza outside the James Madison Memorial Building, which had become a makeshift open-air dining area with a few food trucks. There I was, munching on a hot dog, when Mrs. Bush strolled by, casually checking in to chat with surprised festival-goers and enjoying the day just about as much as anyone.

Here’s a story from our Library of Congress Information Bulletin with more details about our first Festival. And here is a selection of author talks from that day.

Three days later, on September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks changed the world – and the Capitol Hill campus of the Library of Congress was not immune to those changes. Since that sunny, happy day, there have been lots of changes in the way we get around in Washington and on the Library’s campus, as well as changes to the National Book Festival through the years.

But none of these changes have kept the Library and our Festival sponsors from celebrating books, authors, poets and the love of reading with a nationwide audience every year. It’s been my great joy to have worked on every National Book Festival since it started. I may be biased, but I think this year’s will be the best one yet.

Join us for the 2021 National Book Festival, Sept. 17-26. Audiences are invited to create their own festival experience this year, with programs in a range of formats. Subscribe to this blog for future updates on the festival, and visit the festival website.

Author Liz Carpenter, who was Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary and chief of staff during the Johnson administration, captivated a crowd in one of the author tents set up on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Christina Tyler Wenks

Comments (9)

  1. Congratulations on this milestone! I attended that first National Book Festival in 2001 and have attended many since. What a great way to celebrate the power of books and reading!

  2. I was there!!! I still have my volunteer t-shirt and a poster in my office.
    Beth Sheffield
    Greensboro Public Library

  3. I was in charge of operations on the 6th floor of Madison twenty years ago; we stacked up the chairs in the Mumford Room to make room for children to sit on the floor to hear David Macaulay talk and draw on poster paper. I was terrified the fire warden would appear. The public thought security was tight and lines long getting into the Madison Building—little did they know how it would be after 9/11. Long lines also waited to get into Dining Room A and The West Dining Room—-but authors and Library staff kibitzed with people as they waited in line for seats.
    John Hope Franklin allowed his son to talk as well as himself, so they ran into Doris Kearns Goodwin’s allotted time. She was ten minutes into her well-crafted talk, when my walkie-talkie sprang into life. Goodwin was needed to sign books on the Jefferson lawn—-people were fainting in the heat. I explained she had just started talking and cut whomever I was talking to off. Five minutes passed and a voice said, “I am on the First Lady’s staff—do I need to come over there and get Mrs. Goodwin?” I replied I would get her. I got down on my hands and knees to avoid being seen by camera and inched—and I mean inched—my way toward the podium. When I reached it, Goodwin looked down and said, “Yes?” I told her she was needed on the Jefferson lawn—and she replied, “Five Minutes.”—everybody clapped—taking up precious time.
    The next year, I handed out National Book Festival flyers at Metro Stations.

  4. I see my favorite author, Sue Geafton, was there. Loved her work. Thanks you for high-lighting the importance in reading. you can travel the world with a good book.

  5. And like so many others, I was there too. I didn’t work it then (that had to wait for 2016 when I retired) but me, my sister and my niece all took Metro down to attend. It was like a country fair. I remember that those working it were having a problem getting all the authors to where they should be – first for their talks, and then for them to sign books. My highlight was having Margaret Marion take a picture of me, my sister and my niece all together with Barbara Mertz (AKA Elizabeth Peters!)- I still have it and I remember on 9/11 thinking back that it was such a beautiful day for the Book Festival.

  6. I was there on that first day and it was a wonderful event. I have attended many times since and appreciate that they extended author talks throughout the year before the pandemic.

  7. Congratulations on this 20th anniversary. I attended the the first with a cousin who happened to be here from Florida for a conference. He was a fan of John Feinstein and was thrilled to see and hear him in person. I have been to most of the book festivals since and marvel at how they have grown. I especially loved it when the event was held on the Mall, but am grateful they have continued at the Convention Center when the Mall was no longer available. Thank you LOC staff and volunteers for the work you do to make these events succeed.

  8. I do believe that this was the largest group of Newbery and Caldecott winners ever assembled
    Listening to Patricia MCKissack tell about her trip to the Public Library had me in tears Sitting in a tent watching Walter Dean Myers, Christopher Paul Curtis and Richard Peck was amazing . I was able to attend four festivals in the Bush years and they were all amazing But I will never forget the first one

  9. Congratulations on 20 wonderful years!!

    I am a retired L.C. employee and I attended the first festival with my dear Mom on Sept. 8, 2001. It was a gorgeous day and I still have the poster. We never could have imagined how much the U.S. Capitol Complex and our lives would change in three days!

    Serving as an “Author-Escort” at subsequent Festivals was a joy.

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