October 2018 | Volume XXXVI. Issue 5 »

The Great American Read: Broadcasters and Libraries Generate a Public Celebration of Books

September 20, 2018
Elizabeth Spezia, WSIU Public Broadcasting

“While 21st century libraries offer innovative services such as 3-D printing, maker spaces, recording studios, coding programs and more, books have always been our bread and butter, and The Great American Read offers a unique opportunity to focus on what libraries have been built upon: the love and appreciation of reading.” —Kara Kohn, Plainfield Public Library District

For the first time, Americans are participating in a national discussion about reading and voting for the best-loved book. The Great American Read on PBS is all about what we love to read and why we love to read. The PBS eight-part television series, featuring host Meredith Viera, debuted in May 2018. Demonstrating unparalleled enthusiasm for this campaign, participants cast one million votes in the month following the broadcast premiere episode. In each episode this autumn, key authors, celebrities, and notable figures in the entertainment, sports, news, and literary worlds join Vieira in lending their voices and passion to The Great American Read. Program episodes offer background and insights on a broad range of 100 fictional titles, authors, time periods, countries, genres, and subject matter. The list includes books from the 1600s to the present. From beloved world literature to contemporary best sellers, many categories are represented: 20th-century American classics, thrillers, young adult novels, science fiction and fantasy, adventure, historical fiction, romantic stories, and books that represent the human experience told from a diverse range of perspectives. PBS compiled the book list through an independent public opinion poll in consultation with an advisory panel of literary industry experts. There are several ways for the public to vote: on The Great American Read website, on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #GreatReadPBS, through text messaging, and through a toll-free call. Voting continues until October 18. The campaign culminates on October 23, 2018, in a one-hour, prime time, finale episode that counts down to the top book.

Spontaneous participation in The Great American Read is appearing in a variety of settings and across media platforms. People from all walks of life are sharing their title recommendations and critiques through online book clubs and social media groups. Informal, friendly competitions arise as individuals check off the titles they’ve read from the list of the top 100 novels and compare their opinions about the books with others. Online and face-to-face conversations often touch on comparisons between a book and a film of the same title. People are extolling the benefits of The Great American Read in terms of bringing us together, instead of dividing us along political lines. People report that they’re reading a greater number of books in genres outside of their comfort zone, and enjoying them more, by engaging with others during this campaign. They claim that adults seen reading books make better role models for children. Many people feel they are getting smarter, perhaps even raising their IQ, by participating in The Great American Read.


The American Library Association (ALA), community libraries, public media stations, and partners nationwide joined together to celebrate The Great American Read in this multi-platform campaign organized by PBS. Two Illinois libraries submitted competitive proposals and received grant awards from ALA to conduct community programming: Peoria Public Library and Plainfield Public Library District. Staff members at these libraries share their campaign ideas in radio and television interviews and in conversation with local public media stations. With book titles such as Atlas Shrugged and Siddhartha, The Help, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Lonesome Dove, and Little Women, there is no shortage of subject matter to discuss.


According to Kara Kohn, head of reference and readers services at Plainfield Public Library District, The Great American Read offers an opportunity to focus on love of reading and appreciation for books. Public participation in The Great American Read is expressed through ongoing book clubs and English-language learning sessions, film screenings, parties with PBS KIDS characters, food and recipe exchanges, trivia contests, book displays, and expert writer seminars, among other activities organized and facilitated by the library. Plainfield Public Library District plans a viewing party of the live finale broadcast on PBS in October. Staff members say The Great American Read provides a boost of attention to their library, which is seen as the place to find and talk about the books everyone loves. The Great American Read grant award from ALA provides the library with a way to strengthen its programming and community partnerships.


Another grant award winner, Peoria Public Library, offers a variety of programs associated with The Great American Read in each of its five locations. A team consisting of deputy director Roberta Koscielski, manager of public relations Trisha Noack, manager of programs Alyce Jackson, and programming librarian Karla Wilkinson held an initial meeting with representatives from WTVP, the local PBS station, to map out the grant application. The combined team is excited about the opportunity to build broadcast promotion spots into the project. Using campaign materials provided by ALA and PBS, library staff members create rotating displays with books and large posters of The Great American Read selections. Posters are placed on easels and library visitors use heart stickers to cast their votes for favorite book titles. During the summer reading program, many heart stickers were given to such children’s book favorites as Charlotte’s Web. The summer reading program concluded with a party for more than 850 people at Peoria Riverfront Museum, where the Harry Potter book series received the top number of votes.

Book clubs and discussion groups are part of the mix for many libraries participating in The Great American Read. In Peoria, Dr. Melinda McBee Orzulak of Bradley University leads local discussion on the theme “Who Am I?” She comments on characters pursuing journeys of discovery in young adult novels to help readers make sense of their own lives. Another theme in The Great American Read addresses monsters and villains, and why we like to read about them. Colleen Karn of Methodist College explores the idea that, in literature, not all monsters are the bad guys. Using examples from the book list, Karn illustrates how monsters aren’t always the villains—often human beings are. Engagement with The Great American Read continues into the following year, when a group of lifelong learners will meet at the library to discuss books from the list.


WSIU Public Broadcasting, the PBS affiliate station headquartered in southernmost Illinois, offers a downloadable toolkit to encourage and support library involvement with The Great American Read campaign. The toolkit offers everything a library needs to engage the public with appealing images and messages about books and reading. It contains a campaign promotional fact sheet, book lists for adults and children, audiovisual recording instructions and tips, video testimonial samples, consent form, social media posts, and graphics package. The toolkit is available through library listservs and on social media, so that librarians can encourage and support book lovers in sharing their personal stories during the campaign this fall. WSIU’s library partners have an important role in developing the toolkits. Susan Tulis, associate dean of information services at Morris Library, the primary academic library on the Southern Illinois University campus, provides input to facilitate distribution of WSIU’s toolkit to libraries. Kristina Benson, director of DuQuoin Public Library, and Diana Brawley Sussman, director of Carbondale Public Library, also provide significant support as advisors and community partners with WSIU.

The response has been tremendous: Librarians jump right in, uploading video book reports from the field to WSIU, which are shared on the public television and radio broadcast channels, online, and on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Miriam Richardson, assistant librarian at Eldorado Memorial Library District, shares her love for the children’s title Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan, which Miriam enjoys on audiobook. WSIU records short book reports from children in Eldorado’s summer reading program. Other libraries connect with WSIU staff to help spread the word about The Great American Read.

Libraries today offer maker spaces, access to technology, and circulation of items well beyond books, but books, reading, and literature remain a cornerstone of library services and are an aspect of librarianship firmly ensconced in the public psyche. The Great American Read provides a broad-based, accessible way for libraries to celebrate their legacy of literacy and reading, to engage long-time library users, and attract new patrons of all ages.


  • The cornerstone of library involvement with The Great American Read is the Library Toolkit, which can be downloaded along with one designed for teachers at www.wsiu.org/greatreadpbs.

  • Vote! And encourage patrons to do so, at www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/vote/.

  • To access more free resources for teaching and learning, visit www.pbslearningmedia.org and enter the search term “The Great American Read” to review digital results for all grade levels and subject areas that align standards-based learning curricula with the top books.

  • PBS Digital Studios offers an amusing online video series, “It’s Lit,” to expand upon the philosophy, history, and psychology behind the top books. This video library is accessed through The Great American Read website. Videos cover topics including the evolution of young adult genre in literature and how sci-fi is a mirror of society.

  • Get social! Libraries throughout Illinois can connect with The Great American Read on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also watch the original digital series on YouTube and Facebook Watch. Use #GreatReadPBS.

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