Books Sandwiched In: New Haven Librarians on Programming During the Pandemic


Books Sandwiched In (BSI) is a series of virtual talks with authors, taking place throughout April and hosted by the New Haven Free Public Library (NHFPL). Rory Martorana and Isaac Shub, staff members at the NHFPL and organizers of BSI, spoke to us about BSI, how NHFPL has adapted their programming to the pandemic, and their vision for the library’s reopening. 

Could you share a bit about the genesis of the BSI program and what you hope it will bring to audience members and authors alike?

Rory Martorana: Part of our library mission is to empower our community through shared access to resources, experiences, and opportunities for all. Our past speakers include historians, activists, and writers who support this mission. These authors have a chance to connect with new readers, but they also really believe in what we’re trying to accomplish, even to the point where they don’t take an honorarium for their time with us. 

Books Sandwiched In has a long history at NHFPL. It started in the early 2000s with our former Director, Martha Brogan, who had been running the program as a library volunteer in partnership with a local bookshop. I believe our current Director, John Jessen, was also involved in the past. The program faded out for some time but Seth Godfrey (Manager of Reference and Adult Services) brought it back in 2020 shortly before I joined the Reference team in the early fall.

In October, Seth asked me to take the lead on facilitating a small team to bring BSI back. Isaac Shub came on as a part-time Library Aide and has been a godsend and my partner in crime bringing BSI back and better than ever. We’d also be lost without Shannon Carter, a Library Aide who creates our marketing images and runs tech for our programs.

Covid-19 offered us a unique opportunity to reach patrons within their homes, which has definitely helped us connect with a broader audience. It also allows us to host authors from all over the world, since they don’t have to come to us to participate. We’ve had authors from all over the US as well as Israel, France, and the UK. 

Isaac Shub: We’ve tried to carry Seth Godfrey’s maxim “Think globally, act locally” to our work on the program, drawing diverse voices from across the country and beyond into a little webinar window. The program’s name aspires to each talk being a little windowed oasis for people between morning and afternoon work. We hope it provides a unique opportunity for listeners to engage with an author on that author’s own terms, bringing audience members closer to an authentic experience of what drives, compels, and shapes the worldview of a given creator.

The April program features such a breadth of work—how did you go about selecting and organizing this month’s talks?

RM: We meet periodically as a team to discuss what’s coming out, what we’re reading, and so on. If there’s a special month or holiday coming up, we might try to tailor a BSI to that. We’ve also started to receive offers from writers asking to come on and discuss their works. Many of the books and topics are things we are passionate about that the community asks for. I attribute a lot of our success to that.

IS: We’re really fortunate to be developing and bringing in such a variety of speakers, which I hope speaks to our efforts to collaborate with one another and to involve as much of the library as possible. We each have certain interests and passions, of course. Rory recruited Dana Mills— who she spoke to earlier in the year about Mills’ book on Rosa Luxemburg—to return for a discussion on her new book, Dance and Activism. DeSales Harrison, a poetry professor at Oberlin College—and coincidentally a Yale College graduate—will join us Thursday the 15th to talk about his 2018 novel The Waters and the Wild. April is poetry month and the novel’s plot pivots around a Yeats poem..

What other kinds of programs has the Reference & Adult Learning Department developed over the course of the pandemic? How does this series fit in with the rest of the library’s programming?

RM: We have a partnership with Yale Public Humanities called “Democracy in America” that Seth and Isaac are heavily involved with. Our local history librarian, Allison Botelho, also partners with Yale Science Communication for Science in the News.

I’ve been in the process of launching a recurring health program here. The format is similar to BSI. An expert will come on and present for about an hour and then take questions. It launched last month with a COVID informational program featuring Dr. Sabra Klein from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. This month we’ll host a two-night Alzheimer’s program [on April 8th and 20th]. We’ll also have Princess Aspien [an advocate for people with autism TikTok] on April 12th to talk about autism and neurodiversity.

The Young Minds & Family Learning department also provides a variety of virtual programs, including story times from each [of] our local branches.

What has your favorite talk of the series been so far?

RM: It’s a hard call. I’ve enjoyed all of them. I’d have to say it’s my most recent BSI with Dana Mills about her book, Dance & Activism. Dana is such a joy to talk to and she’s such a dynamic speaker, but the thing I admire most about her is that she lives the principles she writes about.

IS: We’ve been lucky enough to chat already this year with an incredible slate of authors. Joan Cavanagh, an historical researcher and longtime local activist, talked to us about her book Our Community at Winchester, describing the evolution and effects of the Winchester Arms Company on New Haven life, including its tumultuous labor history. Professor Gerald Horne of the University of Houston illuminated the 16th century Atlantic slave trade (pre-1619). Yale Professor Frank Snowden talked about COVID and his book on the history of epidemics. And Professor Adolph Reed of UPenn Zoomed in to discuss the thorny topics of identity politics and the condition of radical politics today. I think all of them, as well as our other BSI talks, will prove interesting to those who haven’t seen them. 

As the library starts to open up, what’s on the horizon for BSI and other library programming?

RM: I’ve been trying to expand BSI to a system-wide initiative with hosts from all over our library system. Mitchell Branch Manager Marian Huggins has been amazing about supporting this. So has Jeffrey Panettiere, a Library Technical Assistant at Wilson Branch. We’re also looking forward to partnering with the Yale-China Association to host a special BSI event at noon on April 20th with Te-Ping Chen to discuss her new book, Land of Big Numbers. It would be great to partner with more local organizations as well.

BSI will continue virtually through the summer, but we also hope to host it in person once we return to more of a sense of normalcy further down the line. 

IS: The summer is booked with great BSI speakers. Yale College alum, New Haven resident, and Yale Journalism lecturer Jake Halpern will join us in May to talk about his Pulitzer-winning graphic novel, Welcome to the New World. We’ll also speak with disability rights activist Nadina LaSpina, as well as Richard Moss on construction of white ethnicity and conservatism in the 1970s. Colleague Arthur Volanth is leading the way for a talk with Professor Brian Mitchell of the University of Arkansas on Mitchell’s graphic history of Oscar Dunn, the nation’s first Black lieutenant governor and acting governor. Alex Christofi will beam himself in from the UK in July to share on his new book, Dostoevsky in Love, and its vivid account of the realities of that author’s life—this year conveniently marks his 200th birthday. There is much more to come.

Past BSIs are available to view on the NHFPL’s Facebook page and YouTube channel. Sign up to attend a future BSI talk or another NHFPL event here.

Cover illustration by Kapp Singer and Robert Samec

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