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In Focus

Janet Daley

By Maggie Riechers | HUMANITIES, May/June 2006 | Volume 27, Number 3

"Besides family, books are my greatest treasure," says Janet Daley, executive director of The North Dakota Humanities Council. Her love of literature and her devotion to her native state have fueled Daley's mission to bring the humanities to North Dakota's far-flung small towns, rural communities, and Indian reservations. As one who has lived in North Dakota all her life, she has a special understanding of the state. "There are only 650,000 people in North Dakota, and it's a very educated populace. The entire state is like a small town."

While the state may have a hometown feeling, most of its real small towns are miles apart. Bringing them together is a favorite project of Daley's: North Dakota Reads. The book discussion program, which uses NEH matching funds, is now in nine communities. "It's the first time we've done anything like this in North Dakota," says Daley. "We've been able to lower the costs for speakers to make them more affordable to the communities. With my own background in literature, North Dakota Reads is so exciting to me."

Under the program, the Humanities Council works with local and school libraries to supply books, a gathering place, and a guest speaker for discussion meetings on assigned books. The program focuses on authors such as Louise Erdrich, Larry Watson, and Larry Woiwode who have childhood ties to the state.

As a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, with a bachelor's and master's degrees in English, and experience in teaching, writing and editing, and publishing, Daley is well-equipped to take on the job of increasing humanities awareness throughout the state. She grew up in Nash, a town of about fifty people, and from childhood loved reading and books. Daley began her career teaching English in secondary schools. After she moved to Bismarck, she became the publications editor at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, editing the state scholarly journal, North Dakota History, as well as editing and publishing more that a dozen books. Later she became a freelance editor working on book projects for, among others, the North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies, the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and Syracuse University Press, where she was content editor and a contributor to the Encyclopedia of New York State.

"My education and professional experience have come together in serendipitous fashion to prepare for this job," says Daley. "But growing up in North Dakota, where education matters and people care about their neighbors, is probably the best grounding I could have to help provide humanities--ways of connecting people to ideas and an understanding of what makes us all humans--for my fellow North Dakotans."

Besides literature, the history of North Dakota and the culture of the Plains are important topics to Daley. One of the Humanities Council programs provides resources for the state's middle schoolers who are required to take North Dakota history in eighth grade. Because there is no state history textbook, the council developed materials for schools, including its newspaper, The North Star Dakotan, which reports the news during different eras of the state's history. "This newspaper speaks directly to a need for classrooms and all North Dakotans," says Daley. Issue Five, for example, covers 1915 to 1940 and includes articles such as "European War Worries North Dakotans Most Against Intervention," from December 15, 1915, and "Farmers Told 'Go Home and Slop the Hog,' State-Owned Elevator Bill is Dead," dated February 4, 1915.

The council has not neglected its Indian population, which comprises five percent of the state. In the spring of 2005, the Council sponsored a tour of reservations of the film Water Buster, which portrayed the damage to the Indian population when the building of the Garrison Dam flooded many small towns on reservations.

"We're working with Indians across the state," says Daley. "We want to bridge cultural divides where they exist through appreciation of history, culture, and arts."

"Our small towns need the humanities," says Daley. "We want to make sure our programs reach to Main Street, to the people and where they live."

Maggie Riechers is a freelance writer in Potomac, Maryland.