‘Reading helps people to be seen’: ReadMHK brings community together

The Manhattan Public Library is not only a home to books, but it also acts as a community space. (Grace Needham | Collegian Media Group)

The Manhattan Public Library is a central place for both youth and adults in Manhattan. The library staff is challenged with creating public programs that bring community members together.

Jan Johnson, teen librarian at the Manhattan Public Library, is a founding member of the library’s ReadMHK program, a project composed of loosely guided readings and activities constructed on monthly themes. Johnson said she is a believer that everyone should develop understanding and acceptance by listening to the diverse stories of people in their community.

“When we read, we gain understanding, and understanding leads to empathy,” Johnson said. “Empathy helps us understand more about the lives of people who aren’t just like us and that their lives are just as valuable as ours.”

Each month, the ReadMHK program challenges its participants to read something related to the monthly theme, which can range anywhere from beliefs to military life. All genres and media are fair game, as the program is inclusive of all reading levels and language barriers.

On top of organizing discussion groups, the directors of the program initiate monthly activities around the community. In the past, these have included solving escape rooms and taking various tours around town.

Jennie Jordan, the adult programs and outreach librarian, helped to coordinate this year’s challenge at the beginning of the summer.

“I started by researching celebrations and observances of each month,” Jordan said. “After that, we work with the community engagement team and I.T., setting up the challenge on Beanstack.”

Beanstack is an application that allows users to track their reading, Jordan said. If participants either complete the monthly reading challenges or participate in the monthly activity, they are entered to win a drawing for gift cards to a local business every three months.

“I love seeing people take books off of the ReadMHK displays or ask us for a recommendation for the month,” Jordan said. “Sometimes it’s books they wouldn’t have read otherwise and they end up loving them.”

Jennifer Bergen, the program and children’s services manager, coordinates the challenge along with Jordan.

“I love helping people find something that makes them excited,” Bergen said. “Especially when you find growth in identifying yourself in books with stories different from your own.”

Bergen said she is a firm believer that reading about a new perspective, regardless of its form, is going to grow the reader as a person.

“Reading helps people to be seen,” Bergen said. “We find ourselves in others, and when we both see and are seen we develop a better understanding of ourselves.”

To learn more about ReadMHK, visit mhklibrary.org.