Claiborne “Clay” Smith, director of literary initiatives at the Library of Congress, arrived in Washington, D.C., last October, when he took over for longtime director Marie Arana, who left to write a book. One of the director’s primary responsibilities is to oversee the National Book Festival, and Smith has plenty of experience in that area—his previous job was director of the San Antonio Book Festival. Originally from West Texas, he says he has experienced “a little” culture shock since arriving in the nation’s capital.
Smith has moved around before, leaving Texas after earning his classics degree at UT Austin and becoming books editor for the Austin Chronicle in the 1990s. While working in Manhattan in the early 2000s, he got a call from the Texas Book Festival asking if he was interested in the position of literary director. “I thought that sounded pretty great, because I wasn’t loving living in New York City as much as I was told I was supposed to,” he remembers. Being back in his home state was less the draw than learning “how to program outside of New York,” he says.
Smith returned to journalism in 2012 as editor-in-chief of Kirkus Reviews, but soon heard from the San Antonio Book Festival. “Their director had left, and they were in a tight spot,” he says. “So, for seven years, I had two jobs.” Meanwhile, his husband began law school in San Antonio, so in 2019 Smith quit Kirkus and devoted himself to the festival.
“I never thought I would end up in Washington with a federal government job,” Smith says. “One of the main reasons I applied was the National Book Festival. I do feel that it gives me the chance to program for the nation at a moment when it’s important to think about the whole nation.”
This year’s theme, in fact, is “Books Bring Us Together.” Smith notes that has a literal interpretation in 2022, as the NBF goes back to an in-person event. “Attendees will be together with other book lovers.”
For the first time, the Library of Congress will host a panel with the D.C. Public Libraries at the NBF, kicking off the DCPL’s annual DC Reads program. That’s just part of how Smith and his team plan to bring new audiences into the long-running festival. “For us it’s not just a question of diversity but also of accessibility,” he says. “Every festival has to grow. So how do I want to change this one, which is so well established? I don’t want to mess with the things we do right, but we do need diversity of subject matter.”
One change that’s already in progress, Smith notes, is a “lifestyle stage,” for “maybe the biggest publishing category of all,” which includes self-help, service, and handbooks. “Any session attended will include specific exercises or information,” he explains. “If an author has written about mindfulness, we might have her conduct a five-minute mindfulness session for the audience.”
Smith has already learned that part of working as a government employee means accepting that new things take time. “It’s been a big learning curve for me,” he says, “but [Librarian of Congress] Dr. Hayden has encouraged me to play the long game.” As the director of Literary Initiatives, Smith also oversees the nation’s literary ambassadorships, including the poet laureate, the national ambassador for young people’s literature, and the Library of Congress Prize for American Literatures, along with the Bollingen Prize in Poetry. And there are also a host of year-round D.C. events, including three in fall 2022 for children and Live at the Library, which features a recent interview by Smith of novelist Joy Williams.
Live events in the district matter, but so does expanding the reach of “America’s Library”: “We have a willingness to step out of our own huge footprint and work with other library systems,” Smith says. “We also work with all of the state centers for the book to create programming that reflects and adds to the NBF lineups. The reach of the Library of Congress is something that matters to us quite a bit.