Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Guest Post by Rebecca Miller: NBCC at 35

By Jane Ciabattari

Former NBCC president Rebecca Miller describes a critical transition time: Closing the deal on the 501 (c) 3 status, entering the digital era, and freeing Autobiography. Here are remarks from her perspective, all part of the NBCC at 35 anniversary celebration held at WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Performance Space on September 12.

By the time Elizabeth Taylor passed the presidency to me in 2004, I’d been on the board for four years, handling in that time various organizational tasks, including one of my favorites, tallying the awards voting with Liz. The simplicity of counting and confirming and then winnowing the list, followed by returning to the room at Library Journal, where the board meetings were usually held and announcing the standings, greatly contrasted with the complexity of the numerous ongoing issues the board faced, probably since its founding. Twenty-four independent minds in one room supposedly focused on the same thing meant long, sometimes meandering but more often amusing and even intellectually stimulating, debates. It also meant a constant tug of war between the part of each of us that just wanted to talk about the books we were reading and the part of a few of us that also wanted to talk about the organizational issues.

I decided right away that I would be lucky to leave the office two years later having accomplished anything other than the basics: getting the awards done, the newsletter out, and at least some of the membership money collected. So, I focused and committed to myself (and a few board confidants) that beyond the basics I would pick up the work of a number of previous presidents and get the long-awaited, long discussed, and almost complete 501 (c) 3 documents finalized, approved by the board, and submitted to the IRS.

Nonprofit, tax exempt status had been on and off the table for years—rumor has it that a move was made some 30 years previous to no avail. Real action toward it had been taken by several presidents before me, with considerable effort by Barbara Hoffert and then Liz (Elizabeth Taylor). Liz had formed a solid relationship lawyer in Chicago, Renee Shoenberg, who has given the board many hours of her attention pro bono over the years. I went to Chicago for a conference not long after becoming president and carved out some time to meet with Renee, expecting to say hello and make a game plan for the process of completion. Regal in a grey linen dress that continued the line of her long striking grey hair, she ushered me up an interior glass staircase to a board room with a small pile of files at one end. There she offered me a drink. Hours later, after poring over the documents and making notes on the many minute and exacting things that still needed clarification, I reeled back to conference-land. Luckily, she was steadfast, and clearly had set a reminder in her calendar or with her assistant to nudge me, and I was at least steady. We pecked away at those last details by email, talking on the phone when I needed a translation of something legal she had written. 

The bylaws were ready for board approval at our fall meeting on September 17, 2005. Discussion yielded a few important changes, thanks to a close reading by Art Winslow (a past president who had seen the documents in earlier drafts in earlier days). Then the voting began, and the bylaws and a series of related resolutions were unanimously approved by the board. The room was electric, briefly. Then we moved on to discussing the awards and, eventually, the books being considered. Renee helped me file the documents by early winter of 2006. The following fall, a photocopied document arrived at the LJ office, the official address for the NBCC: the notification from the IRS that the organization now had tax exempt status. A crooked stamp dates the page, Oct. 2, 2006. By then I had realized that achieving the status was the easy part—making it meaningful for the organization would be much harder.

Meanwhile, the real fun, book discussions, whirred on. In March 2005 the board made a big step, to separate Biography from Autobiography. In The NBCC Journal from fall of 2005, Linda Wolfe describes the board’s compassionate move to break up the mismatched couple. The following spring, Them: A Memoir of Parents by Francine du Plessix Gray, beat out tough competition for the first NBCC award for Autobiography. 

The board also attacked the digital era during my time as president. Largely thanks to Rebecca Skloot’s vision and enviable energy and the hard work of a number of other board members, the organization started using email to communicate with members, upgraded the website, moved The NBCC Journal into an electronic format, and laid the groundwork to launch the Critical Mass blog. These innovations, wielded by energized board members, enabled the explosive growth in membership and reach the organization has seen in the last several years.