5 Questions: Siobhan Reardon on How “One Book” Brings Philadelphia Together

"We want to be that sacred place that brings people together."

This year’s “One Book, One Philadelphia” book is The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, which “tells the story of a young soldier struggling to find meaning in his harrowing experiences in Iraq, while suffering profound guilt over his friend and fellow soldier’s death.”

There will be two months of readings and other events around the city to promote and discuss the book. Siobhan Reardon, director of the Free Library of Philadelphia since 2008, this week talked with Philly Mag about why the “One Book” program is important, how The Yellow Birds was chosen, and about the continued relevance of libraries in the digital age. (The discussion occurred before Wednesday night’s kickoff event was postponed due to snow.) Some excerpts:

This is the twelfth season of “One Book, One Philadelphia.” Why does the program have value in the community?

Well, it gets an entire community reading the same book, and as a community we talk about what’s important. And it’s also the themes around “One Book, One Philadelphia” that make them important to who we are as a city. So this theme is about veterans’ issues and its about Iraq and its about all these things we hear and talk about, have been hearing and talking about for years. For us, it’s the kind of book that is not only literary in nature but also highly impactful..

The book this year is The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers—take us through the process. How and why is the book chosen?

So there is a committee of staff, board members of the Free Library of Philadelphia—as well as members of the public, teachers, we have folks from the community college participating. We all put together our best and most favorite books that we’ve read over a period of time. And the list can get up to about, say 40 books that we begin culling through. From that 40, we can get it down to about half that, maybe down to 15. And then all of us are reading the same 15 books—and then narrowing it down to that final one, two, three. I have to say, Yellow Birds was one of those books that we all read and went “yeah.” It wasn’t a very hard process for us this year, whereas in prior years we were battling back and forth around a couple of books. We came to this selection fairly quickly this year.

Looking over the last 12 years of “One Book, One Philadelphia” choices, two themes jumped out to me. One is Americans at war—you have this year’s selection and The Things They Carried, which was in 2005. The other is that the books tend to have a very international flair, either by virtue of the settings, or by characters who have perhaps arrived in America and overcome their own struggles here. Is there a conscious effort, perhaps, to uproot Philadelphia readers from their own surroundings? 

That’s a very good question. I don’t think we do it consciously. I think what we try to [do]… Philadelphia is a very international community, so we’ll begin there. We try to make sure that it’s a book that’s reflective of the community. But you can’t ignore what’s constantly in newspaper and what’s constantly on TV screens, relative to literature that comes out. So, to answer your question, I think we’ve come to it a little bit unconsciously, but it’s that consciousness around who and how people live here in Philadelphia that sort of makes the selection a pretty global selection.

In an era where people can check books out electronically from home and never even have to venture into the library, how and why do you bring folks into common public space to celebrate and discuss literature?

I would say that’s the evolution of libraries now. And it’s all about how the libraries sit at the center of community on lots of levels. And we want to be that sacred place that brings people together, that sort of engagement space. So it’s less about the stuff that we have in the collections and more about the conversation that gets created around good literature or around good art.

But it’s the importance of that engagement and having a library and that space and place that creates the energy around it. “One Book, One Philadelphia” is the forefront of this evolution when you think about it, and how libraries have been transitioning towards this space slowly but absolutely surely. And it’s a lot of the work that we’re doing here at the Free Library—sort of transition more outwardly facing towards community, versus, as a professional word, very internal. .

There are going be many events going on throughout the month with this project. What’s the one that readers absolutely should not miss if they can help it?

We have a great panel (March 18) at National Liberty Museum in which Kevin Powers will be present, and we’ll be speaking about how the community can support our veterans and we’ll have members of many different veterans organizations out there. The readings by Kevin Powers are more literary, whereas this is more action-focused.


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