San José Public Library’s Storytelling Contest Puts Local Voices Front and Center

This blog post is part of an ongoing series made possible by a partnership between Short Édition, the Knight Foundation, and the Public Library Association.

Left to right: first-place winners from three different age categories, 10–12, 0–7, and 18+.

This winter, San José Public Library discovered the Short Story Dispenser could render patron-made comic strips. Now, they’re utilizing the Dispensers to shake up storytelling contests and virtual programming—and highlight local voices of all ages.

For the past 12 years, summers at the San José Public Library in San José, California, have coincided with a much-loved and celebrated competition: the library’s annual Graphic Novel Making Contest. There, patrons of all ages submit original works of comics or manga, and a panel comprising library staff and community professionals judge each entry, selecting winners, runners-up, and honorable mentions from five age categories (0–7; 8–9, 10–12, 13–17, and 18+).

Last summer, this process looked a little different: committee programs were held virtually, and the final awards ceremony, too—featuring appearances from acclaimed creators such as Shannon Wright and Gene Ha—aired on Zoom. In December, the library, inspired by the acquisition of two Short Story Dispensers—and the possibility of adding winning submissions to the Short Édition database to be viewed or printed by patrons—revolutionized their contest programming once more.

“They bought the Short Story Dispensers right before COVID hit,” Shauna Porteus, Senior Librarian at San José Public Library, explains. “Rosemary Van Lare, who was in my position before—and is now at Alameda City Library—was working with staff on our graphic novel making committee, and they were like, ‘We really need to make use of this.’ So they started with a simple short story contest.”

A patron prints a free story from one of the library’s two Dispensers.

The project evolved from there, as library staff explored whether their “long-standing graphic making contest” could also be incorporated into the Short Story Dispenser equation. After working with their Short Édition representatives in France to do extensive “programming and rendering,” library staff discovered the Dispensers could render comics if they were created with dimensions that fit the Dispenser’s embedded printer parameters: vertical frames measuring 2.75” inches wide, a maximum length of 19.75”, and black-and-white linework. The comic-making component of the dual winter storytelling contest was born.

From December 13 through January 31, 2021, the San José Public Library encouraged patrons to “submit a story in short form or create a comic.”

“The two different contests ran simultaneously and had pretty much the same guidelines and same age groups,” says Porteus. “This was the first iteration and it was really exciting to see the Dispenser render some of the submissions,” which can all be accessed online via the library’s Short Édition or BiblioBoard portals.

Ultimately, the two contests combined received 131 total submissions (90 for the short story contest and 41 for the comic making contest). The youngest author to enter was just three years old (“Her story was transcribed by her mom”); the oldest was 77. And that’s not all: Porteus and her colleagues developed extensive virtual programming surrounding the contests, hosting four comic-making workshops as well as a monthly writing club geared toward teens.

“It really did open up a new world of possibility for people who love storytelling, but who’ve been sort of left out by the traditional short story or poetry contests,” Porteus says.

Thanks to the accessible nature of the online submissions—a simple click of the 1-, 3-, or 5-minute button on the library’s web page, and voila! a story appears—and the customizability of the Short Édition portal (it can be tailored to feature patron stories only, for example), Porteus sees infinite potential for bolstering local voices.

Close-ups of three winning entries.

“We’re going to continue to do two core contests a year, and then throughout the rest of the year, we’re going to hyper-focus on different communities within San José and make sure those voices are part of the collection,” Porteus predicts.

While San José Public Library remains closed to the public for the time being, Porteus foresees a hybrid in-person-virtual model in their future. In terms of outreach, she’d like to see the Dispensers at the DMV or a local coffee shop, but she’s also committed to partnering with local schools, to offer more localized contests, and local hospitals, too. She’s even considering a “COVID Chronicles” series, where writers of all ages can submit “short-form fiction, nonfiction, poetry, comics, anything.”

“This is such a moment in time. I think we’ve all been so fearful of everything going on, so if you can sort of alleviate that fear, or just offer a moment of joy, it would be really, really wonderful,” she says.

At the pace Porteus and the library are continuing to transform programming to both engage the community and amplify their stories, it’s safe to say many moments like this are on the horizon.

What kind of changes have you or your library implemented in the past year? Let us know @ALA_Booklist. And for more about how libraries across the country are using the Short Story Dispenser to engage their communities, check back next week!

About the Author:

Briana Shemroske is Booklist's Marketing Associate. She graduated with a BA from Lake Forest College where she studied English Writing and Art History. In her free time she can be found eating cheeseburgers, frolicking with her schnoodle, Moritz, and feebly attempting to play board games. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Briana.

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