Laura Lent, Collection Development Manager for San Francisco Public Library, interviews Marcia Schneider, the Library’s Chief of Communications, Collections and Adult Services.

The San Francisco Public Library’s One City One Book Program

Laura Lent: Last year China Boy by Gus Lee was selected as San Francisco’s first One City One Book title. How did San Francisco decide to join the community-wide reading program movement?

Marcia Schneider: The One Book movement was initiated in 1998 by the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library. Their first book selection was The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks, and their Seattle Reads program has featured a book a year ever since—their most recent pick was a graphic novel, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.

The success of Seattle’s program drew the notice of other cities. Chicago jumped in a few years later with a first choice of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and soon dozens of American cities, towns, regions, and states were experimenting with similar programs. It has spread to other countries, as well, so now you have things like One Book One Brisbane in Australia—there is even a Canada-wide reading program sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

In 2002 we participated in California Stories: Reading The Grapes of Wrath, a statewide reading initiative sponsored by the California Council for the Humanities and the California Center for the Book. This program resonated particularly strongly in the Central Valley, and included some programming gems such as a 24-hour Grapes of Wrath readathon at a Fresno Krispy Kremes! At the San Francisco Public Library we stocked up on the book and had some reading and discussion groups around it.

Then in 2004 we were approached by two dynamic women: Diane Frankel, appointed in 1993 by Bill Clinton to be the first director of the newly formed Institute of Museum and Library Services, and Marilyn Waldman, a board member of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. They offered to help organize and fundraise for a first One City One Book program in San Francisco.

LL: How does San Francisco choose a book? Who decides, and what are the criteria?

MS: We first determined that our citywide reading program would be a charge of the Library. At the same time, we felt that representation and participation by other sectors of the book community was important. Our first book selection committee included one of our natural partners, Hut Landon, Executive Director of the Northern California Booksellers Association. Also, we were lucky to have San Francisco Chronicle book review editor, Oscar Villalon; San Francisco public middle-school teacher Valerie Barth; and Dan Schifrin from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. And of course, you and I represented the Library on the committee.       

The committee first drew up a list of desirable criteria. For the first year of the program, we decided to limit the options to books and authors that had some connection to San Francisco and the Bay Area. We wanted a book that set a high standard for literary quality that would appeal to the diverse populations of San Francisco, and if possible would be accessible to teens. We also hoped for a book with appeal for both men and women, and that was available in a wide variety of formats—book, audiobook, in other languages. Also, it needed to meet standards for accessibility for people with disabilities, and it needed to be available in a trade paperback format—a tall order! We set our sights on these criteria, and found that it wasn’t that easy to find books that met all of them.

We have been very fortunate for the first two years of our program to be able to select books that not only meet all or most of our criteria, but also that are written by authors who are amazingly gifted public speakers willing to make themselves available to do many programs. 

Despite the fact that neither author lives in the Bay Area, they both have been extremely generous with their time and committed to numerous trips from Boulder and Chicago, respectively, to support the program. 

LL: Describe the selection of this year’s choice The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

MS: The committee looked at many titles, went down several false paths, and finally had that “aha” moment as we compared our reading experience of Hummingbird against our criteria. The trade paperback edition was coming out in early June. However, it was not yet available in some of the formats we felt were important—in an audio format, and in a Spanish-language translation, which we felt was critical for this title. The publisher’s cooperation and willingness to advance the schedule for the Spanish translation and audio and e-book versions of the book clinched the selection decision for us.

We also had to think long and hard about our local author and local setting criteria. We loved the novel, which had garnered excellent reviews and prizes, including the Kiriyama. But as far as we knew when we made the selection, the only direct San Francisco connection to the story was that Luis Urrea’s great-aunt, upon whom the novel is based, lived briefly in San Francisco at a period in her life after the events related in the novel. Still, we felt that the novel provided a vivid picture of the cultural and political situation in Mexico that led so many Mexicans to make the decision to immigrate to the United States. It set the context for trends and events that have had a great impact on California and the Bay Area, and in that way it tells a story that will resonate personally for many San Franciscans.

As it happened, Urrea’s connections to the city are much greater than we thought. At Mayor Gavin Newsom’s One City One Book program kickoff breakfast, Urrea told us not only that some of his relatives had opened a Mexican restaurant in San Francisco, but also that his parents met here at a party during which his Mexican father shouted something to the effect of “Unhand her, you cad!” in Spanish to a mustache-twirling fellow countryman also pursuing her. This led to a successful courtship, followed by their marriage at City Hall in 1954. Urrea himself was “made in San Francisco” before his family moved to Tijuana!

At the breakfast Mayor Newsom pointed out that in San Francisco, we don’t tolerate diversity, we celebrate it, and that the choice of this book celebrates what is good and right about San Francisco. Urrea lauded San Francisco for being a model for the rest of the country on immigrants and immigration. We feel that we’ve made a choice that will resonate with our community in many different ways, and we’re proud of it.

LL: How does this program support literacy, and what kinds of programs are in the works for The Hummingbird’s Daughter?

MS: Before I describe the rest of the programming we have planned, let me tell you about one program. Following that kick-off breakfast, Mayor Newsom, Luis Urrea, and City Librarian Luis Herrera visited with a group of students at June Jordan High School, a new charter high school in San Francisco. Can you imagine the impact of a visit by this group—the youngest mayor of San Francisco in a hundred years, the consummate storyteller Urrea, and the head of San Francisco libraries—on a group of high school students? Urrea commented later that “People who despair about the United States and what has become of us should go to June Jordan and see real hope alive and kicking.”

We are expanding on the success of last year’s program with increased outreach, more programming, and more school visits. In fact, we are getting so many more requests from schools this year that the author’s schedule is packed. Luis Urrea made a special request to speak to the women in the county jail system, and has signed on for an entire day to visit with various women’s programs and classes. We have multiple bookstore sponsors this year, which helps expand our programming to different audiences. The author also will make presentations in Spanish as well as English when he visits our branch libraries. A couple of noteworthy events include Luis’s participation in Lit Crawl, sponsored by Litquake, and a special event at the Main Library on October 11, with Luis Urrea in conversation with Oscar Villalon.

LL: How do you rate the success of the program, and what impact does being selected have on a title? Are there measurable outcomes for the publisher and author?

MS: The most measurable impact is of course how many people read the book. We can only measure a part of this—through the number of checkouts at our various branch libraries and bookstore sales. How many people lend the book to their friends, how many sales occur outside our service area because of the program, how many people read downloadable e-book or audiobook versions are more difficult to define. One of my personal goals is to ride the bus or train and see everyone absorbed in reading the book!

Other ways we gauge success are how many students are reached in high school visits and how many people attend our public programs. Other less quantifiable measures are overall visibility through the media and our marketing efforts, and just the general “buzz.” My sense is that this year’s awareness of the program surpasses our first year.

LL: What do you envision as the future of this program, and what are the latest trends?

MS: Publishers have taken notice of the popularity of reading groups and One City One Book programs, and have increased their marketing efforts aimed at book clubs and libraries. The sales figures of popular book club and One City titles, such as To Kill A Mockingbird, A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, have convinced publishers of the value of this program. Last year, China Boy hit the Chronicle’s paperback bestseller list, and we estimate that over four thousand copies were sold in the Bay Area during the program. 

Another trend is that community-wide reading programs for children and teens are increasing in number, and some libraries are adding monthly reading programs to their programming. Last year we began On the Same Page, a program in which we promote one book a month on our web page and through public programs, buying the title in bulk so that it is visible and available.

LL: How does the One City program fit the mission of the contemporary public library?

MS: The role of libraries is evolving, but the importance of providing books to our library patrons is greater than ever. For the past decade or more the emergence of new technologies has transformed the way we provide information and reference services to our users. The advent of the Internet, search engines such as Google, and the ease of buying books from megastores and online sellers has led some even to question the value of libraries. Fortunately, our support and use continue to grow, so clearly we are evolving in ways that people need and want.

Programs such as One City One Book, our ongoing author programming, our book discussion groups, and our emphasis on expanded readers advisory, reinforce the role of the library as a community-gathering place. Libraries provide a sense of community and civic presence to a neighborhood. Recently, we opened a new branch library in Mission Bay, and the headline on the story in the Chronicle read “Here Comes the Neighborhood.” I think that said it all.

The immediate future of One City One Book depends on whether we are successful in our continuing fundraising efforts for the program. Undoubtedly this program will continue to change and evolve, and could even be supplanted by some other program which unites books and readers together. Whatever future direction we take, it will be our goal to continue to make the library a community place that is friendly to books and readers.