There are places in America where it might be a challenge to find 50 people eager to immerse themselves in Civil War history and eminent scholars willing to lead them. The Vineyard is not such a place.
The Vineyard Haven Public Library has already lined up an impressive faculty and is now opening up limited seats for an intensive new seminar series that will start in January and last into the spring.
Called “Let’s Talk About It: Making Sense of the American Civil War,” the series is not for those shy of academic discourse and critical reading. There will be course reading materials and homework. There will be discussions moderated by an academic luminary. And there will likely be a waiting list.
The organizer of the series, library programming director Betty Burton, hopes it will be on par with a college-level symposium. She says it is also a perfect pairing for an Island that is home to academics, authors and residents hungry for food for thought on cold winter nights.
The series is part of a program developed by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association and augments other Civil War programming at the library this winter. The Vineyard Haven Library is one of 65 libraries across the country awarded a competitive $3,000 grant to conduct the program, with the grant paying for program reading material and publicity, and a training conference.
“We really expect people to come having done their homework. That’s the important part,” Ms. Burton said. If they don’t, “it really won’t be any fun for them or for us. And they’ll be taking up someone else’s space.” Ms. Burton said she expects the 50 seminar spots to fill up; as of Monday, at least six people had already signed on.
Beginning Jan. 10, participants will read texts including March, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by local author Geraldine Brooks, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam by James McPherson, and an anthology created expressly for the program by project scholar Edward L. Ayers.
Those wishing to register for the free series, which meets once a month on Tuesdays through May 8, can visit the library’s Web site. A CLAMS card is required to register. Reading material is provided for participants, and the texts are also available for checkout by library patrons.
Each library was required to recruit a “program scholar,” Ms. Burton said, who would serve as a guide during the program, preparing introductory remarks and open-ended discussion questions for each session and leading discussions. Island resident Sheldon Hackney, the former president of the University of Pennsylvania and a scholar of American history, will serve this role at the Vineyard Haven library.
The abundance of local luminaries stunned the crowd at the introductory conference for participating libraries, Ms. Burton recalled. When introducing herself to the group at American Library Association headquarters, Ms. Burton said the crowd went quiet when she identified Mr. Hackney as the visiting scholar. And then she played her trump card, “Geraldine Brooks and Tony Horwitz live down the street,” she recalled saying.
“And so it was like, I have a different problem than a lot of the groups a lot of the groups are doing a lot of advertising to try to get people to come in,” Ms. Burton said. “I am thinking about the fact that there might be too many people who want to do this program.”
The two-hour sessions will include scholarly presentations by Mr. Hackney and guest speakers, small-group discussions about open-ended questions, and refreshments.
While some key battles may come up, “we won’t be studying military history or anything like that,” Ms. Burton said. “So I don’t want to disappoint anybody who thinks that’s what we’ll be doing.”
Instead, discussion will focus on issues that go beyond recorded history. “What do you think they were thinking back then? What do you think was going through people’s minds?” Ms. Burton said. An example of an issue to be addressed: how slaves lived after Emancipation, how they were fed and clothed. “Things like that sometimes we don’t think about directly,” she said.
The seminar is part of six months of Civil War programming at the library. Next week, the program informally kicks off with a free event about the significance of anti-slavery activist John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. Tony Horwitz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the new bestseller Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, will lead the discussion along with Mr. Hackney.
Because the event is a moderated discussion, and not a lecture, Burton recommends that attendees have some familiarity with the subject, perhaps by reading Mr. Horwitz’s book. Copies are available at the library, she said, and the evening’s program is open to everyone.
Other upcoming Civil War themed programming includes a discussion about the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement by Professor Patricia Sullivan, a lecture by U.S. Slave Song Project president James Thomas about codes found in slave songs, and a reading and discussion by Island resident John Hough Jr., about his book Seen the Glory: a Novel of the Battle of Gettysburg.
The Civil War series and the Let’s Talk About It seminar will also usher in a second decade of adult programming at the library.
The popular Evening Lecture series started more than a decade ago, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. On Oct. 23, 2001, Dr. James Norton, a scholar on Southeast Asia, gave a standing-room only talk at the library about Afghanistan’s people and culture. “It was fascinating,” Ms. Burton said. “At that point, people just didn’t think about Afghanistan that muchI think it was a really important lecture to have.”
The lecture series blossomed from there, with five events the first year and 10 the next, eventually building up to the point where people have a regular Tuesday date at the Vineyard Haven library, Ms. Burton said.
Last year alone the library hosted 98 lectures, films, slide shows, symposia, cooking demonstrations and other programs.
There’s a hunger for the programming, Ms. Burton said, “especially in the dead of winter. I don’t really think we’d get this kind of reception in the summer for something this intense,” she said about the seminar.
Different subjects draw different crowds, she said — a devoted crowd attend movie nights, with one moviegoer bringing a portable popcorn popper. Ms. Burton draws on Island residents who have areas of expertise that they’ll share with an audience.
Ms. Burton, who wears a button reading “I am a programming librarian!” credits local residents who share their time and knowledge. Speakers are “willing to put the work in to present something here,” she said. “We have a wonderful community. All these guys are doing this gratis.”
And as Ms. Burton has found, experts are everywhere on the Island. The driver of the jitney was a pilot who landed planes on aircraft carriers, she discovered, and once, standing in line for the bus at Woods Hole, Ms. Burton saw Andrew McDonnell wearing a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Antarctica sweatshirt. Upon inquiry, she discovered that he was a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who worked with WHOI and was headed to Antarctica for research.
When Mr. McDonnell came back from his Antarctic adventure, there he was at the library, sharing photos, science and stories from his trip.
“It was fascinating,” Burton said. “I mean, how cool is that?”