National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the NEA Big Read?

A program of the National Endowment for the Arts, the NEA Big Read broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. Managed by Arts Midwest, this initiative offers grants to support innovative community reading programs designed around a single book.

The NEA Big Read supports organizations across the country in developing community-wide reading programs which encourage reading and participation by diverse audiences. Organizations selected to participate in the NEA Big Read receive a grant, access to online training resources and opportunities, and educational and promotional materials designed to support widespread community involvement.

NEA Big Read grantees comprise a variety of nonprofit organizations, including but not limited to arts, culture, and science organizations; boys & girls clubs; colleges and universities; festivals; foundations; libraries; media outlets; municipalities; and YMCAs. Each community's NEA Big Read includes a kick-off event to launch the program; activities devoted specifically to its Big Read selection (e.g., panel discussions, lectures, public readings); events using the book as a point of departure (e.g., film screenings, theatrical readings, exhibits); and book discussions in diverse locations aimed at a wide range of audiences.

Over the last decade, the NEA has funded more than 1,255 Big Read programs, providing more than $17 million in grants to organizations in every district in the country. In turn, these organizations have leveraged more than $35 million in local funding to support their Big Read programs.

More than 4.2 million Americans have attended a Big Read event, approximately 72,000 volunteers have participated at the local level, and 34,000 community organizations have partnered to make Big Read activities possible.

2. Why did the National Endowment for the Arts create the NEA Big Read?

The NEA Big Read was created in response to the 2004 National Endowment for the Arts report Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, which showed that literary reading was declining among all age groups, with the steepest decline in the youngest age groups. The 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts revealed that more than half of American adults read a work of literature or a book (fiction or nonfiction) not required for work or school. However, adults' rates of literary reading (novels or short stories, poetry, and plays) dropped back to 2002 levels (from 50 percent in 2008 to 47 percent in 2012). In addition to addressing this decline, the NEA Big Read aims to build communities through innovative arts programming that engages a diverse audience and connects individuals and organizations through reading and sharing stories.

3. How can I apply for the NEA Big Read?

Visit the Application Process page to learn more about the grant opportunity.

4. How are the community organizations selected to participate in the NEA Big Read?

The application and guidelines for the NEA Big Read, developed by the National Endowment for the Arts and Arts Midwest, are distributed nationwide to arts, cultural, literary, and civic organizations, such as libraries, museums, and local arts agencies. Organizations chosen to receive an NEA Big Read grant are selected by a panel of experts who review the proposed project for artistic excellence and merit. Competitive applications demonstrate strong literary programming, experience in building effective local partnerships, reaching and engaging new and diverse audiences, working with educators, involving local and state public officials, and working with media.

5. What do community organizations receive if they are selected to participate in the NEA Big Read?

Selected organizations receive grants ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 to support their NEA Big Read projects. In addition, the NEA creates digital materials for each reading selection, such as reader’s guides and audio interviews with the authors.

Prior to starting their projects, NEA Big Read grant recipients participate in a series of online activities to prepare them to host and promote the NEA Big Read in their communities. Online presentations include working with community partners and developing a public relations strategy, as well as book discussions and question-and-answer sessions on working with publishers and involving schools. Participants are also encouraged to exchange ideas about their selected NEA Big Read titles with both new and returning grantees.

NEA Big Read grantees also have access to a comprehensive website, which includes a virtual organizer's guide for running a successful NEA Big Read program and downloadable public relations templates and design elements. Grant recipients also receive publicity materials such as banners and bookmarks.

6. I'm not a grantee. Can I obtain copies of the materials that accompany the books?

Yes, the full content of all these materials is available free-of-charge in the Books section.

7. How do you select the featured works for the NEA Big Read?

The NEA Big Read library was initially created through a Readers Circle—a distinguished group of writers, scholars, librarians, critics, artists, and publishing professionals—who helped select Big Read books for American communities to share. New books added to the NEA Big Read library are chosen by a reading committee. From titles suggested by a variety of sources (including the public, NEA Big Read grantees, past Big Read panelists, NEA staff, and notable book lists), the NEA and Arts Midwest narrow the list based on criteria such as diversity of genre, diversity and stature of authors, and a focus on living authors and contemporary work. Reading committee members representing a range of voices from the field (including librarians, students, teachers, writers, booksellers, and publishers) then read and score each book based on criteria such as the universal appeal of themes, capacity to incite lively and deep discussion, and a focus on expanding the range of voices and stories currently represented in the NEA Big Read library.

The complete catalogue of NEA Big Read titles is available on the Books page.

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