Library has range of resources for authors

By Debbie Coleman-Topi Special to The Examiner

Mid-Continent Public Library patrons are accustomed to page-turners that live on shelves at branches throughout the library system. But Library Director and CEO Steve Potter has learned that such stories also live in the minds and memories of library patrons and the larger community. 

In casual conversations, many have shared with Potter rich stories of living history, for instance, with characters and plots that rival current popular literature. But these accounts, whether about the patrons themselves or incidents they or their ancestors have witnessed, needed a way to be enjoyed by a larger audience, he said. That realization prompted him to create a preservation plan, which eventually became the Story Center.

David Burns, The Story Center's publication manager, shows the Espresso Machine, which produces books created by many members of the community.

Mid-Continent’s program is unique in two ways. While some elements of the writing/publishing and storytelling program are available at other library systems around the country, Potter said he is unaware of any other library system that walks patrons through the entire process of creating a published work – from research and note-taking to writing and lay-out to finally, the end product, publishing a work. In addition, he says Mid-Continent may be the only library with programming housed in a historic home, a former farmhouse lnear Liberty.

The Story Center program has resulted in a book creation and oral storytelling program that teaches and assists the community in recording their stories – whether in print, through oral tradition or performances. Several dozen books about area people and events – written by local, mostly first-time authors – are just some of the results, said Publication Manager David Burns. Some of those books are done in small print runs of only a few for family and friends. Others wind up in the library system and are available for check-out. Still others reach a worldwide audience when they are handled by outside publishing houses.

Through the program, the library’s longtime tradition of participating in the National Storytelling Network and the annual Storytelling Celebration has been wrapped into the center’s programming and enhanced by helping storytellers perfect their craft.

Burns described the writing portion of the program as “a great way to celebrate works of local (first time) authors.” 

The center was officially unveiled in 2013 out of the Woodneath branch, just northwest of Liberty. Although programming currently is housed out of a library branch at 1800 N.E. Flintlock Road, Potter, by chance, found a new home for the center, an 1855 farmhouse style home, part of a dairy farm on about 35 acres. Potter learned the home and its accompanying acreage were for sale about the time he started formulating plans for the Story Center.

While the traditional library facility, built on the property, currently houses the program, renovations to the historic home will soon be completed, Potter said. The center’s programming, such as author and storytelling classes and events will be held in the historic property.

The 35,000-square-foot home also will house a recording center for the oral component and office space to house the center’s staff. Landscaping will allow for quiet, nature-assisted contemplative study, and a more than 230-seat auditorium will house large events and presentations, according to the system’s website.

The last family to live in the farmhouse, the Crouches, have kept up with renovations at the home, Potter said.

“They’re very much involved in the project and very supportive,” he said.

The new home will centralize the processes of Burns and the center’s team that help patrons turn a passion-filled project into a printed publication through the library system’s own multi-faceted version of self-publishing. Burns said he assists with lay-out, formatting and many times, literally guiding the actual book printing process.

Although the center offers various methods for printing and distribution, he often uses a printer dubbed “The Espresso Book Machine,” so named because it prints and binds a book in about the same time as it takes to brew a cup of coffee, Burns said. The printer turns out a bound paperback with a glue binding in five to seven minutes and is accessible with a minimum of 40 pages but can print works up to 800. Burns said the largest project he has printed on the machine totaled about 500 pages.

Another method, also available to local authors, is an in-line printer at the library’s print shop, which is part of Mid-Continent’s marketing department, Burns said.

In yet another option, prospective authors share proposals with the library’s editorial board, whose members have selected eight books so far for publication. The group will produce several more during 2021, he said. These works are printed by a third-party vendor and end up on the library’s shelves and are available through wholesale distribution. In these cases, story center staff even help with community outreach as a way to publicize the works and even help organize book launches.

“We’re very selective about what we take,” he said, adding that genres have ranged from essay anthologies to poetry. While the services are varied and nuanced, they are not all-encompassing, Burns said, adding that the program is not for everyone.

“If people are looking for a New York Times best-selling book, they may want to go somewhere else,” he said.

Story Center Manager Shannon Thompson is responsible for programming and classes that walk new writers through the process of creating a finished book. with funding provided in part by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Program information is available on the MCPL Facebook page. An ongoing critique group, which is part of the center’s certification program, offers authors the opportunity to share a portion of their work for critique by others in the class.

About half of the center’s authors create works to preserve family history. Some patrons who use the system’s Midwest Genealogy Center, located on Lee’s Summit Road in Independence, discover intriguing historical family tales while others find journals or other written documents recorded by ancestors. Some patrons reproduce such works and share them with their families, Burns said.

But some center-assisted works are for a wider audience. One such example is “The First Beverly Hillbilly: The Untold Story of the Creator of Rural TV Comedy” by Ruth Henning. The memoir, written by the widow of Independence native Paul Henning, tells the story of the famed television producer who created not only “The Beverly Hillbillies” but also “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres.” 

The book was printed by a third-party vendor and library staff won their IngramSpark Ignite Award in 2017 for their work in engaging the community while conducting the book’s publicity. IngramSpark is a Kansas City area print-on-demand publisher and distributor, which allows for books to be printed when ordered on Amazon and requires no inventory, Burns said.

Burns, a published author with several books under his name, fell into the publication position when he ventured into a Mid-Continent branch several years ago, looking for a way to meet with other authors. While there, he learned of the new position in the library system, helping new authors produce their works. The lifelong writer and former pastor specializes in allegorical fiction, or books traditionally written for children that are re-created for adults. Examples include “Alice in Wonderland” and “Narnia.”

Burns said he has helped hundreds of authors and said the library’s program offers more community members an opportunity to take advantage of an explosion, during the past several years, in self-publishing and desk-top publishing.

“It’s been a real game-changer in the publishing world,” he said.