Office for Community Partnerships

Kenyon and Local Literary Partnerships

Anna Fahey
May 16, 2024

With two higher learning institutions, the Woodward Opera House, the Gund and the Annex, the public library, Paragraphs Bookstore, multiple studios, an arts consortium, several theater groups and more, Knox County is well furnished with a vast array of artistic opportunities at which local residents, tourists and college students alike can come together. 

In the fall, I wrote about some of the ways in which visual art is woven into the fabric of the Knox County community. This spring, as the weather grew warm and then cold again, I spent time with some of the many leaders in Knox County who are dedicated to nurturing a rich literary landscape in our small, central Ohio community. While the work that each one of these inspiring folks does varies, they are all united by a fierce sense of dedication to nurturing a love of reading and writing.

My journey through Mount Vernon’s literary scene started with two stops at the Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County, located downtown at 201 N. Mulberry St. There, shrouded by books, movies, magazines, public computers, sunny meeting rooms, and more, I met Jamie Lyn Smith-Fletcher ’96, who works as a writer, editor, teacher and manager of events and writing programs at the library, and John Chidester, the library’s director. As an institution committed to serving all of Knox County, the public library offers a wide array of programming and works with the community to plan events that most interest the folks living in the Mount Vernon area. I was fascinated to learn about how these partnerships blossom, especially between the library and the Office for Community Partnerships (OCP). 

Some of these connections are recurring events or longstanding partnerships, like the collaboration between the OCP and the library to sponsor Banned Books Week, in which hundreds of copies of “Maus,” in Fall 2023, and “Fahrenheit 451,” in Fall 2022, were distributed to the community for free as part of a celebration of the freedom to read. Other programs include the Kenyon internship program, in which a Kenyon student works closely with Smith-Fletcher to lead writing workshops and facilitate other outreach programs, or the ongoing Theater of War project, which presents dramatic readings of classic plays in order to facilitate community discussions. 

“In the time that I have been here, we have had such a great level of support from the OCP,” Smith-Fletcher said. For one such event in early 2021, the OCP helped the library host a reading series based around Dan Rather’s 2017 book “What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism,” which deals with ways to most effectively bring differently minded Americans together. Because the COVID-19 pandemic precluded indoor events, the OCP helped set tents up in the parking lot and made mocktails for guests. “Whatever my projects are,” Smith-Fletcher said, “I want to make sure that our community feels welcome at them and knows that they are for everybody.” 

John Chidester, the director, echoed Smith-Fletcher’s sentiments. Chidester has worked at the library for 48 years and remembers everything from his first connection to Kenyon to the entire history of the library’s digitization. His office serves as a sort of time capsule of events past: Margaret Atwood’s talk at Kenyon after winning the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement, name tags from conferences past, and more. When I asked him what his favorite part of directing the library was, Chidester said that it was difficult to express. “I have loved the job,” he said. “I’ve loved this library, the library system, Mount Vernon, Knox County, the people … you have a sense that what you’re doing is of great value for the community. It’s a great way to spend your life.” 

Max Leaning, who manages Paragraphs Bookstore on Main Street, also loves living a life dedicated to books. Although Leaning grew up right in Gambier, he says that returning to the area as an adult and working at Paragraphs was what enabled him to truly feel connected to the community. At Paragraphs, he sees a large variety of customers every day, especially because of the comings and goings of two different university/college campuses right in town. On the other hand, the close relationships he’s made with Mount Vernon locals and his regulars are some of the most rewarding parts of the job. “I can’t really go anywhere without saying hello to someone,” Leaning told me. “I cherish that.” 

Outside of interacting with the community through sharing and selling books, Paragraphs also works closely with the Kenyon Review in order to host three weekly creative writing series for elementary, middle and high schoolers. The workshops are organized and run by Kenyon students who work as Review associates and take place right in the bookstore. Leaning sees the workshops as a good way for kids in Mount Vernon to take a break from school and sports and get to know one another in a new way. “We have kids who are homeschooled, kids from the Mount Vernon school district, kids from private schools … it creates a nice opportunity for kids and parents to get involved with Paragraphs and with other members of the community.” 

Wendi Fowler, the president of the Kiwanis Club of Mount Vernon, also works to serve the youth of the Knox County community. Kiwanis is an international service club whose Mount Vernon chapter works to provide for all different types of community members. This year, one of the main focuses of the club is on literacy. In the past, they’ve given to the Dolly Parton Imagination Library Effort, which provides registered children with a free, age-appropriate book once a month from birth until age five. This year, the club is addressing the “summer slide,” which is the tendency for children who don’t have access to books over the summer to lose some of the academic progress they built up during the school year. In order to nurture the development of all children of Knox County, Kiwanis works with Alyssa Gómez Lawrence ’10, OCP’s assistant director, to organize a book drive so that all children have the ability to read over the summer. “It was a programming that came organically out of brainstorming sessions with our Kiwanis members,” Fowler said. “We have people bringing books to every Kiwanis meeting.” 

Speaking with all of these passionate, interesting, and committed folks was a joy. Knox County and all the people who call it home are remarkable, and there is always something new to try. Perhaps an adult writing workshop at the library is a fun new challenge for you, or a Kiwanis meeting will provide you with new connections. Stop by Paragraphs and ask Maxwell for a reading recommendation. Whether you’re a student, local, newcomer, parent, professor or child, there is always a book for you, and always a new person to meet. As a senior getting ready to graduate in a few short weeks, I know that this community — no matter how big or small — is the thing I’ll miss most.