Pennington Public Library is the kind of institution they say shouldn’t even exist these days. At a time when some people are daring to question the role libraries have to play in this modern, increasingly digital world, small, local libraries like the one in Pennington are finding new ways to stay relevant.

Pennington relies on a professional staff of just three people—plus a boatload of dedicated volunteers, some of whom have been helping out at the library off Main Street for more than 20 years—to provide a wide variety of programming to the community. And in 2019 it’s about to embark on perhaps its greatest initiative ever: the Big Read.

Over the next few months, PPL will be distributing copies of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, True Grit, throughout its membership area and encouraging everyone from middle schoolers to super seniors to share in the experience of reading the book. Thanks in large part to a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, as well as matching donations from area businesses and organizations, PPL will also be hosting a large slate of True Grit-related and inspired programs, including screenings of both films that have been made based on the novel, one in 1969 starring John Wayne, and one in 2010 directed by the Coen Brothers.

PPL is one of just 79 organizations nationwide that won NEA Big Read grants this cycle. Kim Ha, the library’s director since 2012, says the library has done a number of noteworthy programs in the past, like Science in the Everyday and Bridging Cultures: Muslim Journeys. But she says this is the biggest thing PPL has done in her tenure.

“It fits in with our mission of fostering discussion and dialogue,” she says. “People are talking about validity of a library today. There’s something to be said for promoting face-to-face interaction.”

PPL received $5,000 from the NEA. “Five thousand dollars is what we asked for and got,” says Kathleen Nash, president of the PPL Board of Trustees. “We could have asked for more, but they require us to match whatever we get. We had to lineup partnerships within the community—the NEA wants visibility, it wants to see collaboration. We had to have 10 community partners to apply for the grant. Now we have that many and more.”

Nash started volunteering with the library 10 years ago. She says she had long heard murmurings from people that there was interest in a Big Read-type of program. Ha and the board started looking seriously into it last year.

“It’s a pretty extensive grant program,” Nash says. “There were something like 30 titles to choose from. The staff and board looked at the books and True Grit was something we thought would be appealing to the most people.”

Portis’ novel is a serio-comic novel that simultaneously exists in the Western tradition while also satirizing it. It’s a first-person narrative told by 14-year-old Mattie Ross. At the start of the story, Ross’ father has been murdered by a drifter. She engages Marshal Rooster Cogburn, a man she believes has true grit, to help her get vengeance on her father’s killer.

“We liked this book for our community,” Nash says. “It has an exciting story, sharp dialogue, and the main character is a 14-year-old girl.”

Among the planned programs are talks by noted Charles Portis scholar Jay Jennings, who will be coming from Arkansas, where Portis lives, to speak on March 3 at The Pennington School. A living history actor, Kim Hanley of American Historical Theatre, will also portray famed 19th century American Annie Oakley for an evening presentation at the library on March 1.

The library is also coordinating with the Hopewell Valley Regional School District and The Pennington School to engage middle and high school students on a number of levels. Students will be asked to read the novel and also to write essays about someone in their lives who has shown “true grit.”

“People think of libraries as information centers,” Ha says. “But they’ve been transformed into community hubs.

The library will begin distributing free copies of the book in January. More information, including up-to-the-minute scheduleing changes, are online at penningtonlibrary.org.

Big Read schedule of events

Schedule is subject to change.

March 1: Annie Oakley living history character (7 p.m.) at Pennington Public Library, 30 N. Main St., Pennington.

March 3: Charles Portis scholar Jay Jennings (3 p.m.) and roping demonstration (1:30 p.m.) at The Pennington School, 112 W. Delaware Ave., Pennington.

March 5: Spend the Day with Pennington Quilt Works ($50 includes lecture and lunch); antique quilts trunk show (11 am, $10), Intro to hand piecing (1:30 p.m., $30 including materials) at Pennington Quilt Works, 7 Tree Farm Road, Pennington.

March 7: Adult book discussion group (2 p.m.) at PPL.

March 9: Real Life in the 1870s and book discussion (time TBD) at Howell Living History Farm, 70 Woodens Lane, Lambertville.

March 10: Life in 1870s Hopewell: Hopewell Valley Historical Talk by Larry Kidder (3 p.m.) at PPL.

March 12: Too Busy for Books Club discussion (7 p.m.) at PPL.

March 15: True Grits Cooking Class (10 a.m.) at The Farm Cooking School, 67 Pleasant Valley Road, Titusville; True Grit 1969 Film Screening (7:30 p.m.) at TPS.

March 16: Workout for Heroes (10 am) at Pennington Crossfit, 55 Route 31, Pennington.

March 23: Cardboard Horses Craft (11 a.m.) at PPL; Barn Dance (3-6 p.m.) at Hillbilly Hall, 203 Hopewell Wertsville Road, Hopewell.

March 24: True Grit 2010 Film Screening (3 p.m.) at TPS.

March 28: Storyteller Joanne Epply-Schmidt (7 p.m.) at Pennington Borough Hall, 30 N. Main St., Pennington.