September 11, libraries around Seattle—and across the country—were
packed. In some, visitors gathered to discuss citizens’ rights.
In others, they viewed documentaries about war. Or listened to book
readings by firefighters. Or participated in one of the nearly 500
other events inspired by The September Project.
It was more than David Silver could have hoped for when he dreamed
up The September Project six months earlier, envisioning a day when
citizens would participate collectively and discuss patriotism,
citizenship, and democracy.
placed outside the Seattle Public Library were filled with
words and images by the end of the day.
Photo by Bryan Mamaril.
11, 2001, Americans have not had a rigorous, creative, collective
dialogue about issues that matter,” explained Silver, assistant
professor in the UW Depatment
of Communication, prior to the event. “It was time to
have that conversation.”
As Silver began formulating his plan for The September Project,
he quickly realized that to reach a national audience he would need
to tap an existing infrastructure. Then the light bulb went on.
“I was walking past the downtown Seattle Public Library—then
under construction—when I realized that public libraries were
the answer,” recalls Silver. “They are free, open to
the public, and most importantly, distributed across the nation.”
Silver contacted the UW’s
Simpson Center for the Humanities and began brainstorming ideas.
He also contacted Sarah Washburn, who worked for the Bill and Melinda
Gates Foundation U.S. Library Program. “Sarah came to the
project with an understanding of the culture of libraries,”
says Silver. “She was ready to roll up her sleeves and get
started.” Soon Washburn was on board as co-director of the
project, providing crucial guidance on working with libraries.
“My initial idea was that Seattle would plan everything nationally,”
recalls Silver. “Sarah pointed out that libraries are already
tied to communities, and we should let them decide what to do in
their community. At that point, the project became doable.”
Washburn recalls those early conversations. “My first reaction
to David’s idea was that it was brilliant,” she says.
“But it could never work in the way he imagined it. To plan
for the libraries would completely thwart their role in the community.
It would go against what libraries do.”
Washburn and David Silver, co-directors of The September Project.
Photo by Bryan Mamaril.
Instead, Washburn and
Silver presented libraries with their broad vision for the project
and asked them to plan events for their community. A website developed
by John Klockner, director of technology for the project and senior
computer specialist in the UW
Department of Communication, provided a resource for sharing
ideas and building momentum.
Before long The September Project took on a life of its own. Librarians
alerted colleagues in other cities, and the word spread quickly.
“The first library that signed up was one in Rhode Island
that we had not had any contact with,” recalls Washburn. “That
was magical. The patchwork of how people found out about the project
is really amazing.”
Other networks that spread the word included the League of Women
Voters, the Simpson Center, and Silver and Washburn’s own
families. “Our mothers were really partners in all this,”
says Washburn. “My mom lives in Minneapolis and volunteers
at her local library. David’s mother is an activist in Santa
Cruz. They were proud of their kids but they were also very excited
about the project.”
Eventually every state in the U.S. plus nine other countries were
represented in The September Project. Klockner, who created a map
with dots for each participating location, recalls the day when
he added a dot for Oklahoma—the last state to sign up.
“That meant that David and Sarah had succeeded in recruiting
at least one institution in all 50 states,” says Klockner.
“While from the beginning the project had the potential for
truly national scope, it was surprising to me that so many institutions
of so many types in so many areas around the world would actually
end up formally participating.”
marshal Scott LaVielle of the North Highline Fire District
read to children at the White Center Library. Photo
by Karen Orders.
So what events were offered
as part of the project? The list, says Silver, is too long to recite.
But he does share a few examples.
In the New York area,
libraries had commemorations of the September 11 attacks as well
as discussions about where the U.S. is headed. Other cities collected
clothing for Iraqis and books for American soldiers as part of their
day of events. A Girl Scout chapter in San Antonio, Texas spent
the day visiting senior citizen centers and retirement homes to
discuss democracy and register people to vote.
“There were collaborations that I never could have imagined,”
says Silver. “Having communities develop their own activities
was infinitely more creative than it would have been for us to plan
programs for them.”
The community of Colorado
Springs, Colorado took the idea further than most, organizing six
days of events. The opening day included speeches by six religious
leaders followed by a discussion of the separation of church and
state. On the last day, rescue dogs like those at Ground Zero were
featured, to give children some understanding of the tragic events
that occurred on 9/11.
Spears spoke at the Ballard Library.
Photo by Bryan Mamaril.
In the Puget Sound region,
dozens of events attracted large audiences. Silver visited his neighborhood
library in Ballard, where speakers included Ian Spears, a photography
student who had been interrogated by the Department of Homeland
Security for taking photographs at the Ballard Locks. After Spears'
talk, the communications director of the American Civil Liberties
Union of Washington spoke.
“The librarian had told me that these events usually bring
in ten to twelve people,” says Silver. “Seventy-five
people showed up, ranging in age from 8 to 85. Most stayed for the
whole two hours. The response has led the Ballard Library to plan
a monthly discussion on community and democracy.”
of one of the four murals outside the Seattle Public Library
in downtown Seattle.
In downtown Seattle,
Klockner set up a “Say it Solo” video kiosk in the library
that allowed people to express their views. Outside, Department
of Communication graduate students Irina Gendelman, Giorgia Aiello,
and Tema Milstein organized four 15-foot “murals”—blank
sheets with the titles America, War and Peace, Patriotism, and 9/11—on
which visitors were encouraged to share their thoughts. “There
were no rules—just paint and a paintbrush—and people
started writing,” says Silver. “One woman had her kids
paint their feet and put the footprints on the mural. Later someone
added ‘= the future’ next to the footprints. That sort
of dialogue is evident all over the murals.” The Seattle Public
Library will exhibit the murals in its lobby through November.
Buoyed by the strong response to The September Project’s inaugural
effort, organizers are already busy planning for next year. This
time September 11 will be on a Sunday, when many libraries are closed.
But Silver isn’t concerned.
“We will continue to involve libraries, which can plan events
for Saturday or Sunday,” he says, “but we’re also
working with religious and spiritual groups, from churches to synagogues
And in 2006, when September 11 is on a Monday? “We think every
K-12 school should have an assembly,” says Silver. “It’s
just going to get bigger.
“Our hope is that one day people will come together on September
11 to talk about issues that matter—publicly—as naturally
as they now go to see fireworks on the Fourth of July.”
For more information,
visit The September
[Autumn 2004 - Table of Contents]