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The Utah Humanities Book Festival offers a hybrid in-person/virtual format for 2021.

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When the Utah Humanities Book Festival launches on Sept. 2, it will look like it did in its last pre-pandemic incarnation in 2019. And also it will look a lot like it did last year. And also it will look like something completely different.

For more than two decades, the Book Festival brought local and national authors to in-person events throughout Utah for lectures, seminars, readings and conversations. In 2020, however, it became necessary to move those events to a virtual space for health and safety reasons. Now, for the 2021 installment of the Book Festival, a hybrid model will allow both for live events and for virtual presentations, building on the new opportunities and lessons learned from 2020.

According to Willy Palomo—the Utah Humanities Council's Program Manager for the Center for the Book—decisions regarding what could be possible for a 2020 festival were begun early on, and resulted in a format that offered new and unique possibilities. "As soon as the pandemic started in March," he says, "like any other organization, we were still figuring out a space to do what we do. ... It was a different sort of conversation that was possible with Zoom, but as people have found, there's a lot that is possible. We were able to give access to disabled and rural communities. And once something is virtual, it becomes a statewide, nationwide, worldwide event. We were able to get authors we wouldn't have been able to get otherwise. It was challenging, but there was a lot of learning and evolving."

It also became necessary to think differently about what criteria would be used to determine whether an individual virtual event was successful. Palomo says that many events had very high attendance, "but there are also engagements where sometimes the numbers are less, but still extremely valuable. In April, we created a space for men who had been victims of sexual violence. Even though there were less than 10 people, they were asking really important questions."

As for the authors themselves, Palomo notes that the response to virtual vs. in-person events has been predictably variable. "Some participating writers were definitely missing in-person events," he says, "because there is a certain sense of community that's challenging to replicate. But some were able to use it to their advantage ... like being able to break people out into rooms [with a] flexibility that isn't always possible in person. And travel right now really wears people down; being able to Zoom in from your living room or your office is much easier."

In preparing for the 2021 event and considering both in-person and virtual options, Palomo describes working with both partner organizations—including schools, libraries and booksellers—and individual authors to determine the best options, taking into account considerations like availability of socially-distanced seating space, travel needs and general comfort level with in-person events given the Delta-fueled rise in COVID cases. And that process has had to be a fluid one, given the constantly-changing pandemic landscape. "Just this week," Palomo says, "one of our authors said they'd rather go virtual. It's kind of a wild ride right now."

Building the full program—which at press time includes more than 125 presentations spread over two months—involves what Palomo describes as "a lot of balls floating in the air." It's important, he acknowledges, to offer diversity not just in type of work like fiction vs. non-fiction vs. poetry, but in the representation of subjects and authors from a wide range of backgrounds. Working with the partner organizations becomes crucial in that respect, as the goal is providing content that amplifies their work, whether that group is the Filipino American Historical Society's Utah chapter, or University of Utah School of Medicine on health issues. "It's not about parachuting in and offering resources," Palomo says, "but building off the momentum [both the Humanities Council and the partner organization] have been building."

It's also the case that while nationally-known authors—like one of this year's presenters, best-selling memoirist Tara Westover (Educated)—get headlines, Utah authors are crucial to the event. "We have a big set of local writers that really engage with the community, so it's really easy to get those events represented," Palomo says. "We're colleagues, we're friends, and they let me know when they're creating stuff. It's a challenge to be able to accommodate everyone, but we have a thriving literary scene across the state, and that takes care of itself."

From subject matter variation to different types of presentation platforms, the key thing is providing a wide-ranging event that encourages as many people as possible to participate, and to visit the schedule on the website to pre-register or plan your schedule as needed. "The idea behind so many events is that not every event is for everyone," Palomo says. "Definitely, there's a book out there for you."

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