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Baltimore County libraries engaging in monthlong discussion of activism with B.C. Reads

“You are strong.” “I appreciate you.” “Smile.”

These are just some of the messages that Julie Brophy, adult services manager at Baltimore County Public Library, said could be left on a Positive Post-Its board. The boards, placed at library branches around the county, will provide sticky notes and writing tools to let library visitors leave or take positive notes.

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The program is one of a series of programs planned for B.C. Reads month in April, a series described on the library system’s website as “promoting community-wide discussion through reading and the arts.”

Brophy said this year’s theme — “Speak Out!” — is about activism and how people can express themselves in a constructive way that stimulates change.

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“It’s all about just using your voice in a positive way,” Brophy said.

The program is one way the library system enacts its goal to engage the community, said Paula Miller, director of the Baltimore County Public Library system.

“We’re not just about the books and resources anymore,” Miller said. “We really are about community engagement and civic discussions and community issues, and meeting those community needs.”

Throughout this month, the county library system is hoping to inspire people young and old to use their voices in constructive ways. The annual program of author visits, film screenings and presentations is designed to spark conversation across the county, Brophy said.

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“We try to take a big theme and a big topic and distill it down, and try to present it in a way that engages our communities,” Brophy said. “We’re trying to create meaningful conversation and meaningful experiences.”

Changing role of libraries

Brophy has been working in libraries for 20 years; in that time, she said, “libraries have changed a lot.”

No longer are libraries silent places to browse through dusty tomes. Today, Brophy said, they are “social infrastructure,” a phrase popularized by sociologist Eric Klinenberg that describes spaces that knit together the social fabric of communities.

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The move toward libraries as a community space comes from the same root as the rise in popularity of places like Starbucks, a desire to exist with others in public space, Miller said.

“There really is a sense of community in a library,” she said.

County libraries today offer entrepreneurship courses, workforce development, book clubs, story times for children and classes for seniors. And Brophy said when a community needs to have difficult conversations, libraries are neutral ground.

“Public libraries are in a unique position in communities to be that nonpolitical, nonjudgmental safe space to have difficult conversations,” Brophy said.

So when Freddie Gray died after being transported in a Baltimore police van in 2015 and the city erupted in protest, Brophy said library staff felt a responsibility to engage the community.

“It seemed like a great time to try and delve into a conversation on race, on coming together, on getting a better understanding for each other and empathy with each other,” she said.

The library system began scheduling author visits, and the first B.C. Reads month was held in April 2016. Its theme: “Rise Up!”

One library branch held a discussion about a book by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Another hosted a talk by two authors, one black and one white, about their book regarding racial profiling by police.

One panel featured an intergenerational discussion among African-American men, from teenagers to middle-aged, about what it meant to be a black man “right then in that moment,” Brophy said.

In 2017, the theme shifted to “Eat Up!” — an exploration of how food shapes our experiences. In 2018, it was “Stories Connect Us,” in which libraries found stories that resonated across cultural or ethnic boundaries.

This year’s theme — “Speak Out!” — was inspired by the #MeToo movement and other expressions of activism prevalent in society today, Brophy said.

“We wanted to make sure we were representing a lot of different ways of speaking out,” said Jamie Watson, the library system’s collection development manager. Watson worked with publishers to find and secure speakers for the series.

Christina Dalcher, author of dystopian thriller “Vox,” agreed to speak at the Catonsville library branch. Her novel imagines a world in which women are forced to limit their speech to 100 words a day.

Ahead of her talk on April 25, Dalcher said her novel leaves readers thinking about speech in both the literal and metaphorical sense. The novel raises questions about language acquisition and its importance to our “sense of humanity,” she said. And it “makes us think about what it means to have a voice; the rights and responsibilities that come with having a voice.”

For Dalcher, having these conversations in a library, as opposed to a bookstore or other venue, is especially meaningful. Her book, which came out late last year, so far is only available in hardcover format, and she said that can make it hard for everyone to access. Libraries offer a free way to read it and help bridge that gap.

“[Libraries] kind of make me feel good,” Dalcher said. “My book is not just for people who can spend $25 on a hardback. My books are for everybody.”

Watson said for children, library staff chose a book that would discuss speaking up in a child-friendly way. “What If...” by Samantha Berger follows a young artist whose pencil and paper disappear, but she is determined to continue to express herself through art.

Ibi Zoboi, author of “American Street” and “Black Enough: Stories of Being Young and Black in America,” is scheduled to speak at the Cockeysville branch on April 11. The young adult author said her books encourage young people to find their voices.

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“As a writer, I am speaking out with every project that I write,” Zoboi said. “[In Cockeysville] I will be talking about what it means to be an author in the world, and how to inspire young people to just speak their truth through any art form they choose.”

Watson said she and the rest of the B.C. Reads committee worked to match authors to communities that would appreciate their work, for example, sending children’s authors to branches popular with families.

In addition to author visits, library branches will host a film screening of the documentary “Charm City” and a presentation by the Maryland Historical Society.

And all but three branches — Arbutus, Perry Hall and Soller’s Point — will feature Positive Post-Its boards through the month of April.

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Library staff will check on the boards to make sure the notes are appropriate, Brophy said, adding that she is optimistic that most visitors will take the project seriously.

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“As Pollyanna as it may sound, I think if we put positive things out in the universe it’s so much better for anyone involved,” Brophy said. “If it makes one person’s day better, it’s absolutely worth it.”

If you go…

The following is a sample of B.C. Reads events across Baltimore County. A full schedule can be found at https://www.bcpl.info/events-and-programs/bcreads.html

Meet Christina Dalcher, author of “Vox.” Catonsville Branch Library. Thu., April 25, 7 p.m.

Meet Ibi Zoboi, author of “American Street” and “Black Enough: Stories Of Being Young and Black in America.” Cockeysville Branch Library. Thu., April 11, 6:30 p.m.

Meet Samantha Berger and Mike Curato, author and illustrator of “What If...” Pikesville Branch Library. Mon., May 6, 6:30 p.m.

Documentary Screening: “Charm City.” Arbutus Branch Library. Wed., April 10, 6:30 p.m.

Protesting Against Segregation in Baltimore’s Theaters. A “virtual field trip” led by presenters from the Maryland Historical Society. Sat., April 27, 2 p.m. Arbutus Branch Library.

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