By Karen Price
Murrysville Community Library didn’t have a book club when Denise Sticha joined the staff as director in 2002, but she saw an opportunity to create one.
PA Humanities – known at the time as Pennsylvania Humanities Council – was offering support through a program called “Read About It!” in which successful applicants could choose a series of books and get enough copies to supply participants as well as an honorarium for a facilitator. The library was selected for the program, and through a mutual friend Sticha found a writing professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania named Arden Hamer to serve as facilitator. They chose the “Facts in Fiction” series, reading fictional books based on real-life events including “Cold Mountain,” by Charles Frazier, and “In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden” set at the time of the tragic Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood, by Kathleen Cambor.
“The grant ran from September 2002 to January 2003, and then we were done,” Sticha said. “It was like, ‘Wow, what a letdown, we’re done.’ Arden said, ‘I’d like to keep going,’ and we said, ‘Well, we can’t pay you,’ and she said, ‘That’s OK.’ So that was that.”
Twenty years later the book group is still going strong and has become a cherished time for community members to gather, discuss, share and grow together. Hamer is still volunteering as its facilitator, and members of the library staff, board and community recently surprised her with a celebration in her honor to mark the milestone.
Hamer’s husband, children and grandchildren plus community and former book club members all gathered quietly on one side of a partitioned room in the library. On the other side of the room, the group held its monthly Tuesday Afternoon Book Club meeting and a discussion of “The Maidens” by Alex Michaelides. At the end of the meeting, staff pulled the partition to the side for the big reveal.
“In all honesty, I think I’m the one who benefits the most from this,” said Hamer, who holds a doctorate in education from the University of Pittsburgh with a concentration in adult literacy and college reading. “I mean this from the heart, this gives my life purpose. I feel really good about doing this.”
PA Humanities Executive Director Laurie Zierer remembers the “Read About It!” initiative well. It was one of the first resource programs she worked on after joining the organization. During those years, PA Humanities developed innovative programming such as “Read About It!” to put all the tools and resources needed to offer book groups in the hands of small libraries in every corner of the state. They offered book programs on popular genres such as detective fiction and book-to-screen adaptations. Over the course of 10 years, PA Humanities connected with and supported over 200 libraries.
“The entire PA Humanities staff was so excited to learn that a book group we had a small role in helping to create 20 years ago has flourished and is still giving its members the opportunity to connect through reading,” Zierer said. “Any time you provide a program, you hope to plant a seed that will benefit the community and make an impact in people’s lives for years to come. We’re so grateful to Arden for bringing the group to life and for her passion and commitment throughout the years.”
James Morrison, chief administrator for Murrysville, presented Hamer with a meritorious citation “on behalf of the grateful residents of the municipality for 20 years of service to the library book group” and thanked her for her unwavering dedication and community service.
Sticha said that the Tuesday book group became her favorite night of the month.
“The friends we made and the conversations we had that were all about literature and all about what we were reading and how that impacted us, it was really a transformative experience and I can see that now, looking at all of you here,” said Sticha, now the executive director at Centre County Library and Historical Museum in Greensburg, Pa. “What a legacy.”
In addition to monthly meetings, the group has also hosted holiday potlucks, gone to see movies that were based on books they read and taken trips into Pittsburgh together for the Arts & Lectures series. During the heart of the pandemic, Hamer kept the group going by meeting outdoors when possible and virtually when not.
As more than a half-dozen book club members, both current and former, stood and shared their memories and thoughts on the group, a theme emerged. They all spoke of the welcoming and non-judgmental nature of the group, how much they learned from reading books they wouldn’t have chosen on their own, and how they valued the deep and honest discussions of sometimes difficult subjects.
“I feel we have a diverse group, a wonderful group, and I believe this particular book group has given us the chance for fellowship and friendship and to expand our horizons,” longtime book club member Angela Warfsman said. “Arden has put the community in Murrysville Community Library.”
Hamer, who has a blog called Read to Enrich, said that the credit goes to the people who come back month after month because there’s never any hesitation to talk. She never has to work too hard at keeping the conversation going.
“But the other thing is that through books, we have had some amazing discussions of things that we never would have talked about and I think that’s also really important,” she said. “There’ve been some controversial subjects we’ve read, but we’ve had fantastic conversations and they would not have happened without the book.”