Northwestern's Art of the Story: Public Relations on a Grand Scale

Article excerpt

AN ACADEMIC LIBRARY TRANSFORMS ITSELF INTO A CULTURAL MEETING PLACE FOR STUDENTS, STAFF, AND THE GENERAL PUBLIC

Unless libraries undertake special efforts to present themselves as cultural and intellectual leaders in their communities--and to be these leaders--they are often lumped together with other community services that are appreciated, but otherwise little noticed.

At Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, the huge library complex, housing over four million volumes and a staff of nearly 400, has been described as "the biggest invisible building on campus." This invisibility is dangerous, for like the electricity coming out of your wall or good schools for our children, library services do not flow automatically. Rather they are complex and expensive investments, and their provision at a high level requires an equally high level of community awareness and support. The library is a cultural and intellectual leader, and we want our communities to know it.

This was our goal in bringing the Bologna Illustrators Exhibit from Italy to Northwestern this past spring--the first time the world's premier exhibit of original children's book art had traveled to the United States. We made it the centerpiece of a full-fledged program of events we called "The Art of the Story" that was geared to audiences of all ages and backgrounds. We presented noted children's-book authors and illustrators, children's theater, discussions between area K-12 teachers and faculty from Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy, and forums for publishers and librarians on children's literature. We also recreated the Illustrators' Cafe, a familiar meeting place at the Bologna Book Fair where students, publishers, children's-book artists, and editors intermingle and exchange ideas about art and the world.

Think globally, act locally

Our work on "The Art of the Story" began three years ago. Realizing that members of the library board of governors (which sponsors our external events) had professional ties to children's-book publishing and that we planned events to highlight the library's collections, we decided to focus on our burgeoning children's collection-K-12 curricular materials and children's literature from around the world. The collection serves the research and academic interests across multiple schools at Northwestern, but could also interest teachers and families within the surrounding community of Evanston.

So we brainstormed in late 1996 with a nucleus of people representing publishing, education, and libraries and, deciding to reach for the stars, we contacted the organizers of the Bologna Book Fair. We thought our plan wild and even a bit outrageous but nevertheless asked, "Why not show the 400 works by 80 international artists that they select and feature at the Bologna Fair at Northwestern University Library?"

The response was not the categorical "No!" we expected. The Italians embraced the idea--especially if a showing in the Chicago area coincided with booksellers' national convention, BookExpo America (AL, August, p. 30), drawing the attention of American children's book publishers and illustrators to the annual fair in Bologna. The Italians went one step further and gingerly sought the approval of their longstanding Japanese partners at the Itabashi Museum in Tokyo on behalf of our project. After Francesca Ferrari, director of the Bologna Book Fair, visited Northwestern in the spring of 1998, an agreement was sealed. Now, even in the aftermath of the complicated logistics and lengthy planning involved, when asked if she would explore future collaborations, she says, "Absolutely. There were so many positive echoes both before and after the actual show. We would work with Northwestern again immediately."

From the beginning, we envisioned the project as having impact within our academic community and among the general public, as well as being fun and instructive. …