For all the talk about the changing digital world and its impact on the future of libraries and reading, the opening session of the 2013 American Library Association Midwinter meeting focused on a subject librarians know well: authors. With some 10,000 librarians, publishers and vendors gathered in Seattle, Wash. the Midwinter meeting kicked off with an opening session titled “The Novel is Alive and Well,” featuring four very different Pacific Northwest novelists--Terry Brooks, Ivan Doig, Gregg Olsen, and Ruth Ozeki--whose engaging conversation centered on the role of place in fiction, especially the Northwest.

“Rain is the ink of the Northwest,” declared Doig, whose novels are famous for capturing the history and spirit of the West. “The great rain coast, stretching from northern California to Alaska, with its mild climate and precipitation, is perfect for holing up and writing.” Doig went on to list a range of artists, from the Native Americans carvers or columns to Ken Kesey to Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam, “none of whose work could have happened in Kansas.”

“I grew up here, and all my fiction is set here,” said crime writer Olsen, whose books include both fiction and non-fiction. “There’s something creepy and dark...about the Northwest,” Olsen said. “When it comes to serial killers, we have the best and the brightest in the world.”

As evocative as the Northwest may be, a small midwestern town can prove equally inspirationally, if only by pushing a writer deeper into his imagination. Describing life in prosaic Sterling, Ill., fantasy writer Brooks said “I pretty much invented role playing,” describing a childhood that involved extending the plots and characters of books into real-life games.

Of course, the conversation couldn’t avoid the issues now affecting the world of reading and writing and writing, and In response to audience questions, the panel went on to discuss how things are are changing. Ozeki, an early e-reader who uses an iPad, remained bullish on the future of print books. E-books “will never replace books, the bound object. I like to have both, but enjoy the visceral experience of the object.”

“I hate those Kindles,” said Brooks, while acknowledging that there was room in this world for a variety of ways to read.

Olsen was most concerned about the book’s shrinking footprint in major non-bookstore retailers, like Wal-mart and Target. Thankful that he started his career “when a book was a book,” and that he now had a following, he wondered how new authors would be able to be discovered, and whether e-books are going to earn new writers “a readership.”

“Publishing is changing, but publishing, books, and novels aren’t going away,” said Ozeki. "Yes, the business models may have to change. But there never was that great a readership for novels. I think we have more readers today than ever before.”

Doig's appearance was sponsored by Riverhead Books, Olsen's by Sterling Publishing, Ozeki's by Viking, and Brooks by Random House.

ALA Furthers Community Initiative with Harwood Institute

It’s not just about the books. While libraries have always been crucial hubs of community engagement, that role has become more important in the digital age, ALA officials say, and at the 2013 ALA Midwinter meeting, ALA president Maureen Sullivan joined philanthropist and public advocate Rich Harwood to discuss an ongoing partnership with the Harwood Institute to further the library’s role in meeting a range community needs.

“We live in a tower of Babel,” said Harwood, the founder and president of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. Public discourse, according to Harwood, is often negative, focused more on placing blame than looking toward new possibilities.

“We need to find a way to come together to get things done. Not to just volunteer for an hour or sign an online petition,” said Harwood, speaking at “Community Engagement and the Promise of Libraries,” one of four programs at Midwinter that investigated the role libraries can play as transformative community agents.

Libraries today are exploring ways to bring value to their communities, often expanding existing roles. These roles, from community engagement to maker spaces, situate the library as a place where people gather to share and create--as opposed to just checking out content or seeking information.

“People are looking for trusted organizations to bring us together, to share aspirations,” said Harwood. Libraries, as one of the most trusted institutions in the country, “ are uniquely positioned to take on this role, a role they are already engaged in but can deepen.”

Carlton Sears, the former director of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County (OH), described how his county was “rife with corruption,” with many of the public officials jailed and with a citizenry that had little faith in public institutions. The library was considered “nice but not necessary.” Rebuilding civic capacity became one of the library’s goals. They started small, opening up meeting rooms, inviting seniors to ongoing discussions. In time, the library took on the role of “the village green,’ and was responsible for helping overcome the racial and economic segmentation in his community.

With libraries so closely associated with the book brand, does reading play a role in Harwood’s vision of community building? Harwood conceded that “one book, one city,” type programs could be an effective catalyst for community conversation. “But if it is just promoting reading, then no.”

This is the second year in which the American Library Association has been working with the Harwood Institute. The initiative was begun by past president Molly Raphael, and has been continued by current president Sullivan.