The New Bedford Free Public Library (Main Library).

The Library as Incubator Project is pleased to feature this interview with Jill Horton-Simms from the Friends of the New Bedford Free Public Library in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The Friends of the Library facilitate an exciting program called Art in Words at the library, using library material as starting points for discussion and creation. – Laura

Tell us about the New Bedford community and library.

New Bedford is nicknamed “The Whaling City” because it was, during the 19th century, one of the most important whaling ports in the world. New Bedford is home to the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, the fishing industry, the fine cotton textile industry, the working waterfront and the Underground Railroad. Its history is filled with people who are as fascinating as Melville’s fictional Captain Ahab who battled Moby Dick; and include Frederick Douglass who found his freedom and his voice in New Bedford, the black businessman and activist Paul Cuffee, the great American artists Albert Bierstadt, William Bradford and Albert Pinkham Ryder and all the immigrants who labored in the textile mills and on the waterfront to build lives for their families. New Bedford is the destination for history and culture.

The New Bedford Free Public Library was created by a city ordinance in 1852 and is going to celebrate its 160th anniversary this September. Its original core collection of 5,000 volumes from the old New Bedford Social Library (a private lending collection) has expanded to over 486,000 books, periodicals, and other materials. The library’s Special Collections Department holds a significant art collection, archives of regional and national importance and a noted genealogy collection. This material was acquired over the decades through donations and purchases. Included within the Special Collections are the papers of Paul Cuffee; paintings by Albert Bierstadt; one of the largest collections of whaling logbooks in the United States; historic records of local organizations; privately published family genealogies; Cape Verdean scrapbooks; and rare Quaker volumes.

Participants in the Art In Words program. Photo courtesy of Jill Horton-Simms.

Art In Words program overview

Our objective [with the Art In Words program] was to develop and integrate a unique program for teens to learn about John James Audubon’s The Birds of America owned by the Library, encompassing reading and discussion of the book Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt while drawing and articulating personal impressions. Each chapter of the novel opens with an image of one of Audubon’s bird paintings and the bird is effortlessly tied into the content of the chapter. The protagonist’s, Doug’s, insights regarding each plate are not only useful as he learns to draw the birds, they help him to better understand the dynamics of the world around him — particularly those of his immediate family.

WHO: 12 – 16 year olds who attend a local public, private or charter school.
WHAT: A 10-week program for a maximum group of 15 teens.
Participants will read the book Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt, view authentic art from John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, and have hands-on instruction in painting one of the birds from the book. Each student will be given the book, an artist portfolio, watercolor paints and supplies, a journal and pen. An art show of the framed final work will be held at the New Bedford Art Museum in September 2012. Students are invited to become familiar with the Teen Rooms at Howland- Green and at Lawler branch libraries when planning and assembling their art show during the summer.
WHEN: Orientation: April 4, 2012 at 3:30 p.m. at NB Free Public Library with Mayor Mitchell. Classes: 2-hour classes start Wednesday, April 11, 2012, from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

The program is free and selection is by lottery.

Program facilitators
Jill Horton-Simms – Project Director and President, Friends of the NB Free Public Library
Janice Hodson – Curator of Art, Special Collections Department, NB Free Public Library
Laurie Robertson-Lorant – Professor of English, Bridgewater State University
Alison Wells – Artist and art educator, Bristol Community College
Danielle Therrien, Teen Room Coordinator, NB Free Public Library

Where did the idea originate?

The idea came when author Gary D. Schmidt’s latest teen book Okay for Now was released in April 2011. Each chapter begins with an image of one of Audubon’s birds. Once we read it we knew it was a perfect match for a program for teens, as the library owns the complete set of Audubon’s Birds of America.

How is the program funded?

Mass Humanities and the New Bedford Cultural Council fund the program.

Why is it important to combine books and creative “making”?

We feel it is of utmost importance to experience the inter-relationship of all art forms – visual, literary and musical. It also creates alternative ways of learning for those with learning difficulties. Because art and the experience of making art is integral to Okay for Now being read, the book holds the interest of those participants who are passionate about art but who have reading difficulties. Other participants are avid readers who get little hands-on art experience in the classroom.

Why is it important for the NB Library to host this particular program?

The Friends of the New Bedford Free Public Library are committed to education and literacy and to promote such through the library and its holdings.

The library is fortunate to be one of the approximately 81 public venues in the United States to have the complete double-elephant folio The Birds of America by John James Audubon. Comprised of 435 original hand-colored engravings, the set was donated in 1866 by whaling merchant James Arnold. This major gift proved to be the catalyst in establishing the Special Collections Department within the library. Of the library’s art holdings, the Audubon prints are particularly user-friendly because visitors of all ages and ethnicities at all economic and educational levels can understand and identify with them. Okay for Now author Gary Schmidt’s premise of using specific birds from Audubon’s work to reflect the feelings and experiences of his teenage protagonist provided an ideal opportunity for the New Bedford Public Library to combine the activities of traditional reading groups with art appreciation.

As in other parts of the country, arts curricula in the New Bedford public school system has been decimated due to budget cuts and standardized testing requirements. After-school programs offered by other institutions have traditionally helped fill this crucial gap. In New Bedford, an economically depressed city with double-digit unemployment and high school dropout rates of almost 50%, a visit to the library’s art collection is the first introduction many of its patrons have to fine art. The library is constantly looking for ways to expand its use of the art collection as a teaching tool, whether it be to tell the story of the city’s history, help children develop visual acuity and critical thinking skills by interpreting what they see, or learn how art is made.

Author Gary Schmidt works with the Art in Words classes at the library.

Gary D. Schmidt with Art in Words students.












Thanks to Jill Horton-Simms for this feature. To learn more about the New Bedford Free Public Library, visit the library’s website.

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