What It’s Like to Volunteer (and Attend) a Book Festival

Reflections on My Experience at the Portland Book Festival
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What It’s Like to Volunteer (and Attend) a Book Festival

Getting Back Together in the Literary World

I’ve lived in Portland, Oregon for almost three decades now and have never thought of this city as a literary-minded community. Sure, we have Tin House, the Oregon Book Awards, and the public library system is robust, but we don’t generally churn out bestselling authors the way other cities on the West Coast do. (The newest one is perhaps Tracey Lange, based in Bend, Oregon). So when I heard that Literary Arts,  sponsor of the Oregon Book Awards, was hosting the Portland Book Festival (PBF) in person, I knew I had to sign up…as a volunteer.

I could’ve bought a ticket and gone as a regular attendee. But I really wanted to learn a little bit more about the behind-the-scenes work. I wanted to feel helpful. Most importantly, I wanted to simply exist in the same room with people who are doing exactly what I dream of doing: writing books. I signed up for a four-hour shift, picked up my volunteer T-shirt, and got to work. 

A Great Place to Meet Authors 

Like a conference, a book festival brings together a lineup of great authors in the same location (in this case, various buildings in downtown Portland) for readings, discussions, and workshops around all things book-related. The PBF is organized by the staff of Literary Arts, a 38-year local nonprofit whose mission is to engage readers and develop writers through a variety of initiatives including the aforementioned Oregon Book Awards & fellowships, writing classes, workshops for adults and high school kids, and special events like these.  

For my shift, I sat next to several Literary Arts staff members. I arrived at 8:15 a.m. and while the festival didn’t officially start until 9 a.m., people began to trickle in at around 8:40 a.m. For the next several hours, there were herds of people coming in and out of the lobby at every hour. Many of them stopped by the information table where I was sitting, although not many had questions, probably because they were all handed a festival booklet for reference. During training, I was told that they were allowing up to 8,000 people to attend and while I didn’t think we had that many, there were certainly thousands of people indeed! 

Why You Should Check Out a Book Festival

Perhaps it’s because we’ve been sequestered inside for the past two-plus years, one virtual event after another and we’re tired of it, or perhaps people generally missed the camaraderie of being out in public and interacting with one another in person—this festival turned out to be quite a lively event! Everyone was  happy to be there despite the rain (luckily, we didn’t incur a torrential downpour like we had the day before and  after which Portland is famous for!).

One of the perks to volunteering was free general admission to all of the events with the exception of two add-ons: Selma Blair and Taylor Jenkins Reid. I’ve been a fan of Reid ever since I read Malibu Rising so I bought a ticket to see her at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Thousands of people gathered to hear her speak with Cheryl Strayed—It was such an incredible talk! 

Overall, the festival had a truly great author lineup including Juhea Kim, Andrew Sean Greer, Silvia Moreno Garcia, George Saunders, Casey McQuiston, Melissa Febos, and more. I took advantage of my ticket and went to four different events and listened to the authors lively discussing their novels with one another.

Whether you’re in the U.S. or Canada, it’s definitely worth checking out a book festival in a city near you. Book festivals, in my opinion, are a truly invigorating experience. You can’t go to every single event but it’s a great way to meet authors at book signings (which usually occur following the event), listen to what they have to say, and be a part of a community of like-minded individuals who enjoy books and all things literary. Books, after all, allow us to enrich our minds and open up new perspectives, all without ever leaving your comfort zone.

Do you have a favourite type of event or been to a book-ish event lately? If so, let us know here

Hoang Samuelson
Hoang Samuelson is a writer, editor, and lover of British dramas, including Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey and The Great British Baking Show. When she’s not reading or baking or watching one of the shows above, she enjoys outdoor activities including running and hiking. She also works as an accountant by day. Currently, she lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and to children, ages five and eight.
Favorite book: Too many to count, but a recent one is The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Favorite brunch item: chicken and waffles! with a side of coffee


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