Gregory (Wicked) Maguire's opening keynote, "No Place Like Home", got the first Annual Empire State Book Festival in Albany, NY, on April 10, off to an inspirational start as a standing room only crowd listened attentively to his story of how he became a writer and the power of storytelling across different cultures.
"There are people and places without our resources," he suggested, "for whom hearing a story can be life-changing."
After Maguire's keynote, the Festival broke up into a series of scheduled signings by nearly 150 authors, along with an ambitious program featuring 42 different sessions--a mix of panel discussions, presentations and workshops--covering a myriad of topics and genres, from graphic novels and the importance of libraries, to poetry workshops and the requisite "Future of the Book" debate.
In "Poetry Put to Work", poet Charles R. Smith, Jr., noted that poetry was originally an oral form, and that the move to print had managed to separate it from people's everyday lives. He offered up an engaging mix of his own poetry and a couple of creative exercises to show how easy it is to engage kids (and adults) in poetry, even if they initially have no interest. "Poetry is a full-body experience," he explained. "You have to use all of your senses."
"Mankind has always told stories in pictures," said comic book writer, Ron Marz, setting the stage for the "Get Graphic" panel, where the discussion veered wildly from its library-centric description into a free-wheeling conversation that was unfortunately limited to superheroes, manga and the never-ending debate of Betty or Veronica, with only a passing reference to libraries.
"Teenagers are expressing themselves through comics," said graphic novelist Barbara Slate during the panel, noting that comics are no longer just for boys, and haven't been for years. It was arguably the most important point made during the session, and she encouraged librarians to offer more comics-related programming.
"In times of trouble, library doors need to be open more not less," said Marilyn Johnson, author of This Book Is Overdue, moderating a panel by the same name.
Librarians were a significant percentage of the audience at several sessions, but they were the majority at Johnson's rousing session, where she gathered three impressive examples covered in her book to tell their own stories: Kathryn Shaughnessy, Peter Chase, and David Smith.
"Librarianship doesn't change because of technology," declared Shaughnessy. "It's still about connecting people with information and each other."
Smith has been called the "Librarian to the Stars," and during his years at the New York Public Library, he connected many notable writers with the research they were looking for, along with each other.
Chase was a member of the "Connecticut Four," a quartet of librarians who sued US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in 2005 over a gag order related to National Security Letters that allowed the FBI to violate library patrons' privacy. "Over 200,000 Americans are under gag order via National Security Letters," he noted. "Only 5 have ever been released from those orders; all five are librarians."
At the Future of the Book panel--in which this reported participated along with Don Linn, Ron Hogan, and Jennifer Gilmore--the issue of discoverability was raised, and libraries were noted as being especially critical as the number of books published each year steadily increases, and the variety of channels, platforms and formats for reading them seemingly expands on a daily basis.
For some publishers, it was suggested that branding will play a critical role in reaching readers directly, while others will lean heavily on their authors to promote themselves.
"Publishers haven't found a way to utilize authors beyond their "products,'" Gilmore noted.
With e-book sales growing exponentially month-to-month, Linn put forward the inevitable tipping point question.
"The tipping point," predicted Hogan, "will come when Kindle and SONY Readers are below $199."
"The takeway," Linn summarized, "is that you ain't seen nothing yet!"
It was the perfect wrap-up to what, by most visible measures, was the launch of a successful event--an enthusiastic celebration of the book in all its form(at)s, produced by a group of its most passionate curators: librarians.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez is the Chief Executive Optimist for Digital Book World, as well as a poet, writer and opinionated blogger.