When we spoke with Beth Burns in March 2020, the Minnesota Book Awards ceremony, scheduled for April 28 at the Ordway Concert Hall, had been canceled. Bars and restaurants had closed. Theaters had gone dark. Schools were preparing for distance learning. COVID-19 was here to stay, at least for a while, and the president of the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library knew a large, in-person event wasn’t possible. The awards, a beloved annual tradition since 1988, would be given out another way.
A little over a month later, the ceremony streamed live at the Friends’ website on April 28. It went fine, all things considered. “We went into a virtual environment barely knowing what Zoom was,” Burns said yesterday by phone.
The 2021 Book Awards, set for tomorrow, April 29, will also be virtual. Two years in a row. Only this time, the Friends are ready.
As always, this conversation has been edited and condensed.
MinnPost: Another virtual Minnesota Book Awards. Who could have predicted that?
Beth Burns: I wouldn’t have. It’s amazing how much has changed in a year and how much we’ve learned. Last year, we were lamenting not being able to move the program to the Ordway, as we had hoped. We were still trying to lean into the values that had informed that decision in the first place: making the ceremony more accessible, lowering the cost, increasing the numbers of seats, all of those things.
It turns out free events on the internet are about as accessible as you can get. Another thing we were happy to learn – and this year is affirming again – is when you remove geography as a barrier, your program can be viewed from anywhere. Given that we’re a statewide program, anywhere should be Grand Marais and Windom and St. Paul.
We’re getting gangbusters participation. So far, we have over 800 registrants. And when you figure there’s probably more than one person per household attending, we’re going to have more people at this year’s book awards than any previous book awards, in all likelihood, and that’s great.
You have to register, but it’s free to attend. People are coming with generous hearts and making voluntary online contributions along with their free tickets, and we’ve already met our fundraising goal for the event. This is not a fundraiser, but there is a fundraising component to it. And we’ve already met and exceeded that goal.
People care deeply about this program. I think we are learning that a virtual option is going to be important moving forward to ensure that commitment to accessibility remains. And, of course, we want to get together in person.
MP: For many organizations, the pandemic has changed how they think about their audience, and the potential size of their audience.
BB: A really good example of that is we started a statewide book club at about this time last year, “One Book, One Minnesota.” Libraries and schools were looking for ways to keep people engaged socially and figured reading was great. The response to that program was overwhelming. We were like, “Oh, I hope 1,000 people read the book!” Because that would be a huge book club.
I just reported to the Legislature. We’ve had 52,000 people participate as readers and almost 10,000 attend [virtual] events. We’re in the fourth chapter of that program now. But the scale of it! It’s thrilling to reflect on what we’re learning, take the good things we’ve learned and integrate them into practice and how we think about how we serve audiences and readers.
We’ve partnered with people we haven’t partnered with before. It feels statewide. In our role we have with the Library of Congress [as the Center for the Book in Minnesota], it feels completely fitting. Other state centers for the book are looking at it and saying “Hmmm, that’s a good template; let’s do this.”
MP: So you plan to continue “One Book, One Minnesota” beyond the pandemic?
BB: Absolutely. It went from not existing at this time last year to our largest program.
MP: How will this year’s Book Awards Virtual Ceremony be different from last year’s?
BB: Last year, what we had time to do was take the program we had planned as a live event and jury-rig it into a virtual format. The evening came together, albeit through a camera and computer screen, in a very similar format to what people would have experienced live, with an emcee leading people through the evening and the awards announcements.
This year, given that we knew we were producing the event virtually, only the announcement of each winner is live. We have emcees from all over the state. We wanted to get readers involved, so we asked people to send us selfies, and they’re coming in from around the state. We had more time to adapt, we have more knowledge, and we’re offering the program in a more accessible format than it was last year. We’ll be on YouTube. People are comfortable with the platform.
We’re also trying to emphasize social connection. A super fun surprise with last year’s program was the role the chat played in the evening’s events. People were giving shout-outs to each other, authors were congratulating other authors, and people were just saying hi to the community and getting a million responses back. So this year we’re really leaning into that. Not only will there be the chat during the program, but we’re hosting an Epilogue After Party designed to do what a live after party would, which is let everybody bask in the moment, hang out with friends and reconnect. That will move to Zoom, and Jeff Kamin [of Books & Bars] will host. Everyone who registers will get links to the ceremony and the after party.
MP: It sounds like a lot of fun.
BB: I hope so. But it would be a complete misnomer to think that producing a virtual event is less work than a live event. Given the number of components, it’s like, my gosh, we’re producing the Oscars. A lot of pieces have come together for this. It’s not less work, it’s just different work, and hopefully the result is a satisfying and community-building experience for readers and writers.
MP: What have been some of your major learnings from the past year?
BB: We had a lot of assumptions before the pandemic that everything had to be live and in person. With the right planning and setup, virtual events can create community. You just have to be really purposeful.
Another thing we knew, but are very grateful to have affirmed, is the importance of stories. I think that was something we had lost sight of – how critical stories are to understanding our humanity. That may sound cheesy, but it is the core of our work. To see the way people respond and show up and resonate to beautiful stories that Minnesota authors create and tell, and we have the privilege of promoting, says “Yes, we need to be here right now.”
And then I think outside of the cultural programming focus of what we do, and about turning upside-down the idea of what is a library. The core of our work is to support the St. Paul Public Library, through our fundraising and our advocacy. And when you see the ways that public libraries adapted and responded and innovated and showed up! It was everything from checking out Wi-Fi hotspots to doing online homework support, being a voter registration and a ballot drop-off site, assisting with the census, providing job-seeking support for people who had been displaced by the pandemic, helping parents help their kids with homework … the library showed up everywhere.
When we think about all of the things we have to deal with as a society, from public safety to racism to education gaps and all the big issues, we realized this year that the library needs to be at the table for all of it.
I thought I loved my job before, but now it’s like, “We’re gonna save the world!”
MP: And you might. By the way, thanks for the census help.
BB: No kidding.
ICYMI, Minnesota’s 75% census response rate – the nation’s highest – is credited with helping us keep all eight seats in the House of Representatives.
The 2021 Minnesota Book Awards Virtual Ceremony will take place tomorrow (Thursday, April 29), with a Preface Reception at 6:30 p.m., the ceremony at 7 p.m., and an Epilogue After Party following the ceremony. Register here. We can’t be precise about the start time of the after party because the awards announcements – and author responses – are live. The 2021 Kay Sexton Award will also be presented during the ceremony. Winner Alexs Pate was announced earlier.