By Melissa Forbes
"In Philadelphia, you had to be either six years old or in first grade to get your library card," Joe Kelly recalls. "I can remember nagging my parents to get me to the library as soon as I was legally able to go."
Kelly's lifelong affection for libraries has led him to value the role that stories play in the life of the humanities. "The excitement I see in stories is the way people can connect with wide human experiences across time and around the world," he says. "There's something about the humanities that allows people to make those kinds of leaps."
As executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, Kelly works to make sure that stories are not just told in libraries, but in a variety of places—not just in canonized works of literature, but in local histories as well. Kelly's stake in his state's history goes back to the last century, when both sides of his family immigrated to Pennsylvania from Ireland during the period between the Irish Famine and World War I. "Diversity in my family means some from County Cavan and some from County Roscommon and some from County Mayo," he says.
In 1999, Kelly told stories from his heritage when he wrote two articles for the Encyclopedia of the Irish in America about the experiences of the Irish in Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania. "I've tried to use my talents and abilities and opportunities to give something back to my state," he says. "I'm committed to Pennsylvania as a place."
Kelly taught English composition and literature at Penn State, Temple University, and Drexel University for twelve years, but in the early 1980s he left academia. "The prospect of writing monographs that would only be read by a very few people did not appeal to me," he says. "I had a desire to have a wider impact than that."
To that end, Kelly is redirecting the council's focus from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to rural areas, and from large to small- and medium-sized organizations. This year will be the first in which each of Pennsylvania's sixty-seven counties will host at least one council-sponsored, discussion-based public program, ranging from lecturers from the Commonwealth Speakers program to book discussion groups and folk art presentations. By reaching every county, he says, "We're saying that the humanities are for everybody—that everybody can participate because it's meaningful to everybody."
"We have counties where there are more elk than people," Kelly says. In the past, such areas have received little attention, but Kelly hopes to reach people who have not previously had much access to humanities programs.
Kelly also believes in interdisciplinary collaboration with organizations such as the state arts council. He describes a recently completed project in a small town called Benton in Columbia County. The program combined environmental discussions with readings by poets, creating a "place-based program where non-traditional participants in arts and humanities come together, like farmers who are concerned about the watershed."
The council also works with numerous community groups. "We have the second-largest senior population in the country," Kelly says, "so on the community organization side we work with a lot of senior centers." Demand for presentations from the Commonwealth Speakers program has doubled in recent years, mostly because of an increased interest on the part of seniors. The council also encourages intergenerational programming, such as computer classes for seniors taught by high school students.
The council's purpose, according to Kelly, is not simply to have people memorize facts. Rather, he feels that the emphasis should be on the meaning behind the facts. "That is the thing that makes us human: to be able to see a connection between our short individual lives and other people's lives, to be able to have empathy for people around us."