In 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) issued To Read or Not to Read, its comprehensive study on the state of literacy in America. It reported a decline in the number of American adults reading literature and reading for pleasure. It was a real wake-up call for all of us at Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL).

The report revealed a strong correlation between frequent reading and professional and academic success, civic engagement, and physical health. At the time the report came out, circulation of physical books was still king, and our numbers were steadily climbing. But the report emphasized what we knew: that if CCPL was to survive and thrive, we needed a community that valued reading and recognized the library’s role in fostering a reading public.

So, in January 2008, CCPL used the NEA study to examine the reading habits of the adults we serve. The good news was that we found that the reading for our community, by volume, was higher locally than national. But we were concerned that 61% of adults reported that they usually got their books from sources other than the library. And even more concerning, was that 33%, a full third of our community, said the reason that they didn’t read more often was because they didn’t know of any good books to read.

Clearly, there is and was no shortage of great books. And thankfully, our board of trustees recognized this finding for what it was: an opportunity to impact adult reading habits and to deepen the library’s commitment to readers and literacy. As a result, we launched the Reconnect with Reading (RWR) campaign.

The Essential Role of Books

Libraries today perform lots of services in their communities, and CCPL is no different. But reading is foundational. So we created RWR to emphasize books and reading in the CCPL mission, services, and brand.

As a director who came to the profession through my love of books, I was thrilled to strengthen CCPL’s focus on reading. We reached out to America’s favorite librarian, Nancy Pearl, who visited us for one week each month for 10 months to generate excitement among our staff and build momentum for the RWR initiative. We created a RWR action team and emphasized advising readers as an essential staff skill among our staff. And we worked hard on new ways to help our staff connect our customers with that next great read at the library.

For example, we established successful new programs like a weekly “night owls” Facebook discussion and our online reader’s advisory service. Through these programs and our rich book club offerings, we became known for promoting that next great book to readers of all ages.

We also launched an advertising campaign to support RWR, featuring key messages about the benefits and pleasure of reading. Local celebrities including Iron Chef Michael Symon, author Regina Brett, and football player Josh Cribbs participated as the faces of the campaign. Even my own larger-than-life image appeared on a bus—and I must admit, I felt tremendous pride that my personal brand had become so firmly associated with books and reading.

Over time, we saw our circulation of books (both physical and digital) rise. At the same time, we came to understand that RWR was less about circulation statistics or a marketing campaign and more about something fundamental to our values as an organization. We truly believed that our community would be thrilled to see books and reading assume their rightful place as a service priority. Since 2008, customer service surveys and polls have confirmed our belief that reading should be our top priority.

So in the past 10 years we have increased our investment in RWR. Our adult services programming manager Bill Kelly serves as our lead in this area, and we have maximized Bill’s expertise and national exposure to focus his work on bringing authors to our library system. He works collaboratively with publishers, CCPL colleagues, and local colleges, universities, bookstores and community organizations to host outstanding author events. We present these author experiences as part of the “Beyond the Book Jacket” series, which gives readers of all ages the opportunity to meet the authors of the books they love.

Last summer we hosted 32 author events. You might think such a high level of programming might cause some level of reader fatigue. Not so—all were all well attended, many filling our 400-seat auditorium to capacity.

I try to attend these events as often as possible, both as director of the system and as a reading enthusiast. Among my recent favorites was Rainbow Rowell’s appearance. Her adoring fan base poured in, accompanied by their parents. Watching this shared experience between reader and author, and teens and parents, was a reminder of the important conversations that can come from books.

I spent another memorable evening with children’s author Dav Pilkey Jr., who was joined by his character, Captain Underpants. The giggles and laughter of delighted children and families sounded like joyful music.

From Michael Eric Dyson’s thoughtful and provocative conversation on the 50th anniversary of Carl Stokes’s legendary election as mayor of Cleveland to the sweet storytelling of Jojo Moyes, who traveled all the way from the U.K. to speak with eager fans at a sold-out event, we have seen new and returning readers line up for a chance to meet the people who inspire and delight with their writing. Even local hero and beloved Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar joined us, and received a standing ovation before he spoke a word about his book Bernie Kosar: Learning to Scramble.

And our lineup for spring and summer of 2018 includes Lisa See, Temple Grandin, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kate DeCamillo, to name a few.

Paying Off

Our commitment to reading extends across all levels of the organization. The president of CCPL’s board of trustees, Patty Shlonsky, is the Cleveland partner-in-charge at the law firm Ulmer and Berne—but I personally think of her as a professional reader.

Patty moonlights as author of her law firm’s book blog, From Brief to Books, writing reviews and recommendations for literary readers. And she was a primary supporter of our recent One Community Reads program, which featured Matthew Desmond’s Carnegie Medal–winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. She truly sees the power of books to generate important civic dialogue: she even led book discussions of Evicted at her office and the City Club of Cleveland.

And our commitment to reading has paid off. When OCLC reported that “books is the library brand” in their 2010 Perceptions of Libraries report, we saw many libraries fight the image, seeking “sexier” or tech-ier customer services. At CCPL, however, we doubled down on reading, and we have seen it pay off in active use of the library system as well as in gifts to capital and annual fund campaigns. Over the past decade our most significant donors have been readers. Some recognize the “priceless” experience of engaging with their favorite writers at the library, while others simply love books and want to ensure that everyone has access to benefits that reading provides.

At CCPL, we chose to be known as a community leader on the local book scene. Reading remains our top priority. We continue to foster a community of enthusiasts for the written word. And over the past decade, I have found myself at the forefront of a literary revival.

The hardest part is finding more personal time to read more books! Over the years, I have tried to step up my game by adding breadth to my reading choices. Because when people catch me at a dinner party, or in the supermarket, or at the dry cleaner and ask, “What are you reading?” I can honestly say that I am living the library’s mission.

PW Libraries Columnist Sari Feldman is executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio, and a former president of both the Public Library Association and the American Library Association.

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