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Utah Humanities Council offers variety of worthwhile programs

This week, as people throughout the state participate in the 10th edition of the Utah Humanities Book Festival, they will be enjoying the most visible event in a lineup of far less prominent Utah Humanities Council offerings that occur weekly across the state.

Many may notice the new name of the event. The decision to change it from the Great Salt Lake Book Festival to the Utah Humanities Book Festival was made to reflect its growing statewide reach. In addition to the Salt Lake City Main Library, there are book festival events and activities in Bluff, Delta, Logan, Provo, St. George and Taylorsville. The name change also was made to improve awareness for the Utah Humanities Council and the less visible but equally valuable projects it sponsors throughout the year.

Every state has a not-for-profit humanities council that provides a variety of cultural and educational programs, funded with monies from the National Endowment for the Humanities, their state legislatures, local communities and foundation and private gifts. In Utah, the Humanities Council has a paid staff of five and a volunteer board of directors drawn from the public at large and educational institutions. Five of the board members are selected by the governor.

While we may be one of the least populated states, Utah has one of the most innovative and active humanities councils in the country. Over the past 12 months, UHC gave financial support to hundreds of local programs ranging from oral histories and film festivals to reading groups and community exhibits. Individuals and groups applying for these grants represent every section of the state, including places like Bluff in southern San Juan County, a predominantly American Indian area of more than 400,000 square miles without a single public library, museum or bookstore.

UHC programs are free and open to everyone.

The new Public Square Program offers Utah experts who facilitate interactive discussions about contemporary issues, intended to help people examine a variety of points of view.

The Venture Course in the Humanities provides adults facing economic barriers with a yearlong introductory humanities course taught by talented university and college faculty. The program has day care for those with small children. It is now in its third year in Salt Lake City. A testament to its success is a major grant from an out-of-state donor that will establish two additional Venture Courses in the Humanities in locations outside Salt Lake City.

Motheread/Fatheread is a nationally recognized family literacy program that promotes reading and parenting skills. UHC funds are used to train teachers, librarians and others to encourage parents to read to their kids and discuss ideas from the readings. In an age of working parents, video games and competition for attention, this UHC offering helps address critically important family values. Since 1996, UHC has trained more than 500 staff members and volunteers. Motheread/Fatheread classes are held in 28 of the state's 29 counties. Funding for the program is being sought to keep it alive.

UHC's staff and board of directors are constantly juggling limited funds to keep these and other programs available.

Some refer to UHC as a de facto state agency that delivers services and programs statewide without a state bureaucracy. UHC did all that this past year with state support of a little more than $5,000 per month, or about 2 cents per state resident.

Others look at UHC as a nonprofit that helps Utahns learn about their personal and collective histories, that encourages discussion about significant matters and that promotes early childhood education. They believe the state should provide more substantial financial support.

We believe it is time for the Utah Humanities Council to be better known. That way, more people will appreciate the value of UHC's free programs. They might even provide the Utah Humanities Council with greater support.

That's one of the reasons why, after nine years under a different name, people throughout the state this week will be enjoying the Utah Humanities Book Festival.

Jon Weisberg is chairman of the board of the Utah Humanities Council.