Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
July 8, 2020

MSE offers students a “blind date with a book”

By BINYAMIN NOVETSKY | February 20, 2020

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COURTESY OF BINYAMIN NOVETSKY Blind date with a book is the brainchild of library specialist Lily Kowalczyk.

While some students spent Valentine’s Day this past week with their significant other, others spent it alone or with friends. This year, the Milton S. Eisenhower Library (MSE) provided a fourth option: spending V-Day with a book. Not just any book, though: a book you were set up with blindly by someone else who you’ve probably never met.

All throughout last week, at the entrance of M-Level, there has been a “Blind Date with a Book!” display set up just by the checkout counter. Just a small mobile bookstand with three shelves on either side, the exhibition consists of several books that were wrapped in plain brown paper. 

All that was provided on the books’ exterior were: the genre, a few one-to-two word buzzwords describing the book (they ranged from “Alaska” to “Womanhood”) and, finally, a quote from the book. These quotes intended to convince passing visitors that the book was worth reading, even if you didn’t know what it was about. A few of these quotes did admittedly give away what the book was about, but most of them were genuinely intriguing and mysterious.

The event was initiated and run by Lily Kowalczyk, a Hopkins library specialist, who started working for Hopkins in December. She explained that she didn’t come up with the idea on her own, but became interested in it when she first experienced the concept for herself. 

“The first place I saw “Blind Date with a Book” was in a little bookshop in California. They were selling mystery books wrapped up in paper with tags that gave you an idea of what the book was about. Since then, I’ve seen the project taken up in a few public libraries,” she said. 

As for the project’s aligned timing with Valentine’s Day, it all simply fell into place naturally. 

“There actually wasn’t a lot of planning or plotting that was needed to put the program on,” she said. “I had the idea really late in January when I realized there was an open space for Access Services to do something for Valentine’s Day. I’m always looking for a reason to celebrate something, so I asked around and people seemed interested. I pulled the display together pretty quickly after that. I think Valentine’s Day was right for this display because a ‘blind date’ theme is a little difficult to shoehorn into any other part of the year, but it completely works in February.” 

The next step was, of course, to actually select the books to be a part of the display. It was a difficult task to pick books that would be interesting but that were also popular enough to convince readers to stick with them. 

“The selection process might surprise you! I decided to pull books from the McNaughton Collection..., because the collection was [both] close to the front desk and full of recognizable titles that had already done well, in a sense. I was less worried about searching the stacks for hours or pulling an obscure fiction book that no one would like. At least with this collection, people would recognize Becoming or The Shape of Water, even if they chose not to read it,” Kowalczyk said.

After the books for the exchange had been chosen, Kowalczyk set about actually preparing the display. This was particularly difficult, as she had to determine how to sell a book to a reader while giving away almost no actual information on the book itself or what it’s about. 

“Once I’d chosen the collection, though, I actually picked books by their cover,” she said. “I know, I know, it’s a little silly to judge books by their cover when it’s exactly what I’m asking library patrons not to do, but some of the covers are actually very pretty, and I tried to read as many descriptions as possible. Once I’d collected twenty or so books, I’d cart them into the back office here at Access Services… and then I would flip through them until I found a compelling quote. Sometimes it was really hard to stop reading them and just start wrapping. I will admit, there was probably a little more madness than method behind the scenes, but I think we did okay for a one-woman show.”

Though the display is small, it’s central, kept right by the exit of the library. For that reason and many others, Kowalczyk was very pleased with her project. 

“The event has been way more successful than I could have hoped. What started as a fun idea has turned into something that genuinely has people coming in to the library to see. I couldn’t be more proud. In the future, though, I might recruit more people to help with wrapping the books,” she said.

Clearly, there was a lot of effort put into this book exchange display, and it’s great to see it pay off in what was clearly a great accomplishment for both the library itself and the Hopkins student body. Hopefully it encouraged more students to take some leisure reading time to themselves and just generally brought some more joy to campus. 

As of press time, the display is still up. I highly encourage everyone to attend and take a mystery book.

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