By Andrea Ruggirello
Book festivals and literary conferences have long been a place for writers and book lovers to come together as a community to share ideas, swap recommendations, and support the writers and presses we love as well as discover new ones. Of course, just like in other industries, large book gatherings are being canceled left and right—even book clubs are turning to Zoom. But in the age of COVID-19 and social distancing, organizers are fighting to keep building community virtually.
Tracie Hall, executive director of the American Library Association (ALA), sees the shift to online gatherings as an opportunity. ALA has converted its annual conference, which typically draws thousands of librarians, educators, and other bookish types, to a virtual event on June 24-26.
Hall attended conferences early in her career to progress her thinking and practice by connecting with those who modeled practices that inspired her. Now she’s thinking about how this year’s conference may open doors for others to do the same.
“Who can’t come or can’t get away to go to a conference? Who goes in alternating years? Who’s dealing with childcare or other care of loved ones or parents?” Hall told We Need Diverse Books. “It’s an opportunity to reach a new audience, to reach people for whom a virtual event will allow them to satisfy their curiosity.”
But there’s also a lot to consider to ensure an online festival is indeed accessible to everyone. ALA worked with its sponsors to bring the cost down for members from $175 to $60—and for furloughed or salary-reduced library professionals, the conference is free. Events will have closed captioning and a range of options to participate to meet attendees’ intellectual, sensory, and social needs.
Saraciea Fennell, founder of The Bronx Book Festival, now in its third year, is similarly working through ensuring her now-online festival is not only open to a wider audience outside of New York City but still just as accessible to her core audience of Bronx families. She and her small team of volunteers have spent the last few months researching platform options, eventually landing on a mix of pre-recorded panels via StreamYard, live conversations via Crowdcast, and live publishing panels via Zoom, with storytime events via Instagram- and Facebook-live. The mix of platforms will allow for transcripts, audio and visual recordings, and perhaps even podcast versions of some of the events.
Organizers are also working on the part of human interaction that has proven incredibly difficult to replicate online—spontaneity.
“The biggest challenge, has been figuring out ways to have audience engagement,” Fennell said to WNDB. “In-person events offer folks so much. You can mix and mingle and stumble into panels and discover new books and authors.”
Hall is similarly working to replicate the in-person experience by creating a virtual exhibit hall so attendees can interact with vendors and try on new services, discover new titles, and get out of their comfort zone. Exhibitors will offer downloadable giveaways, e-galleys, video chats, and more.
One additional challenge both organizers are committed to addressing is protecting their speakers and audience members from what has come to be known as “Zoom bombing.” Zoom bombing occurs when online events and even classes are interrupted by hackers who overtake the video call with obscene, racist, and/or graphic language and images. Authors of color have been notably targeted by this harassment. Features like Zoom waiting rooms, tightly controlled chatrooms, and moderators who watch for any sign of harassment have been helpful in dealing with this issue. Both Hall and Fennell are committed to monitoring and immediately banning anyone suspected of this behavior, as well as using tactics like pre-recorded panels or pre-solicited audience questions to mitigate these issues.
The Bronx Book Festival’s keynote speakers are authors of color Jason Reynolds and Gabby Rivera, with a bevy of additional authors from marginalized groups as featured speakers and panelists. Fennell notes that the festival line-up is about 90 percent diverse and that their mission to reflect the world and the Bronx community will never change.
“It’s important to me that the Bronx community, which is heavily populated by Black, Latinx, and immigrants, know that creators who look like them are publishing books and art,” Fennell said. “As a child, I never met an author and I wish I had. Exposing the community to diverse voices not only creates mirrors and windows, it allows a kid or adult to dream of a career path that probably wasn’t made visible to them.”
Hall expresses a similar sentiment regarding ALA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.
“That’s the heart of the organization,” Hall said, regarding this commitment. “We want to be sure that readers and people who use our libraries as well as those who serve them can see themselves in every aspect of library work and service.”
She notes that their line-up for the festival, which includes Misty Copeland, Roxane Gay, Gabby Rivera, and Sonia Manzano, is comprised of some of the “greatest thinkers and influencers.” Online events can help with distance or scheduling that might have been a barrier to thought leaders being able to participate.
While online gatherings can open doors for marginalized authors who perhaps could not travel or had tightly-packed schedules, what effect might they have on authors who are not often invited to attend these events?
Fennell sees the opportunity for those authors to make themselves known while everyone is paying attention online. Yet, she also recognizes that the field is more crowded than ever and worries for those who do not have a big platform or audience already. That’s where the BXBF comes in.
“Festivals like ours, Wordplay, Everywhere Book Fest and others are carving out the online space for marginalized voices to remind the world that we are still here!” she said.
With the future of large-scale in-person gatherings still unknown, organizers are preparing to continue these efforts for the foreseeable future.
Hall doesn’t see a future of event planning without a virtual element. She imagines more online offerings for their members in the future, and a hybrid approach to events moving forward.
But ultimately, no matter the venue, these events have been about continuing to be there for the literary community.
“We didn’t want to let the pandemic drive our services,” Hall said of their decision to move ahead with the conference online. “Adaptiveness is part of our work and our vocation.”
Fennell sought to uplift her community during the health crisis.
“The Bronx is the epicenter of this terrible outbreak,” she said, “and I think our community could use some programming like this to help us cope.”
Andrea Ruggirello’s stories, essays, and poetry appear or are forthcoming in Gay Magazine, Zora, Hobart, The Baltimore Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Electric Literature, Catapult, Third Coast, and elsewhere. She has an MFA in fiction from West Virginia University, and her novel manuscript was a semi-finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. Andrea was born in Korea, adopted as a baby, and raised on Staten Island, NY. She lives in Washington, D.C.