Copies of the book “This is Chance!”at Thomas Memorial Library in Cape Elizabeth. The book is the focus of a series of online events for Thomas Memorial, Scarborough Public Library and South Portland Public Library. Courtesy / Andy Ryer

Three local libraries are coming together for the first time to produce a month-long online program of discussion groups, meetings with community leaders and author chats, all focused on a nonfiction book with themes of a community coming together in crisis.

The program, available to patrons of the Thomas Memorial Library in Cape Elizabeth, the South Portland Public Library and the Scarborough Public Library, focuses on “This is Chance!” by Jon Mooallem, writer at-large for New York Times Magazine. The book tells the true story of an earthquake that hit Anchorage, Alaska in 1964. The quake, which registered 9.2 on the Richter scale, left the then-frontier town devastated, with little access to assistance from outside the community. The book tells how local residents, rallying around broadcasts from part-time local radio reporter Genie Chance, worked together to help themselves through the tragedy.

Librarians at all three libraries said the subject matter was an ideal choice for the joint project, given the ongoing need for communities to help each other today during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The topic of community resilience is really important,” said Lucy Jackson Norvell, coordinator of programming and communications at Scarborough Public Library.

Jon Mooallem, author of This is Chance!

An exact number of participants is unknown, but early estimates show more than 125 people have registered. The project began Wednesday with a virtual visit by Mooallem, who discussed his book with attendees from the three libraries. From there, the libraries will hold online activities, including at least one book discussion per week, readings from “This is Chance!” and discussions about how to build resilience and community locally. The event will culminate on Nov. 18, with another online visit by Mooallem.

The project began with Andy Ryer, programming librarian at Thomas Memorial Library. The idea of a so-called “community reads” event may be new to his library, he said, but the concept dates back to a similar project in 1998 in Seattle, Washington. That effort, he said, has inspired similar joint efforts all over the country over the years, and even prompted the American Library Association to post guidelines on its website for other libraries.

“It’s always something that really interested me,” Ryer said.

Ryer said he learned of “This is Chance!” when it was published March 24, and “from there it kind of grew.”

“It just seemed like the perfect book for the moment,” he said.

Lindsey Ryer, technical services assistant at the South Portland Public Library, said about 25 people are signed up locally, but she noted others, particularly through Thomas Memorial, who are signing up from across the country, as word from local patrons has spread.

“You don’t know who’s going to be in there,” she said.

Genie Chance, in an undated photograph. Chance was a part-time radio broadcaster in Anchorage, Alaska in 1964 who helped rally the local community after a devastating earthquake struck.

Ryer said discussions will go beyond the book to cover how local communities today can band together in times of crisis. Presentations and discussions are planned featuring Scarborough Fire Chief Michael Thurlow and Sari Greene, the founder of South Portland Community of Kindness, a local neighborhood mutual aid group.

Lindsey Ryer said she is looking forward to the book discussion groups.

“There’s just something very energizing about having conversations about books, ideas with people,” she said.

Norvell said the events in the book may have taken place more than 50 years ago, but the idea of local communities coming together could not be more relevant now.

“In the midst of a global pandemic, to have the opportunity to do a program about community resilience was really, really appealing to us,” she said.

Andy Ryer said he believes at least 90 people have signed up in Cape Elizabeth. He said he’s looking forward to the read-along events, which will be taking place online Monday and Friday evenings, from 7-8 p.m. Oct. 5 through Nov. 6. Initially conceived as an event for the visually impaired, he hopes the events will be similar to the classic concept of families and friends gathering around the radio or television.

“We wanted it to be a communal listening experience,” he said.

Local resident Louis Sullivan, of Cape Elizabeth, said she already has the book, and is looking forward to the events. She said she’s come to enjoy virtual events held through Zoom teleconferencing software through Thomas Memorial Library.

“They’ve gotten really good at community contact through Zoom,” she said.

Fellow Cape Elizabeth resident Peter Darling, 93, said he lives alone, and he likes using projects like these to spur an exchange of ideas.

“It gives us virtual contact with other people, and thoughts other than our own,” he said.

Sean Murphy 780-9094

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