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To help people discover books, CDA Library turns to Icelandic holiday tradition

J.D. Smithson, Coeur d'Alene Public Library (submitted)

When people in Kootenai County clean out attics and basements, or move, or handle estates, often they end up donating books to the Coeur d’Alene Public Library. Lots and lots of books. Ordinarily, the library is able to distribute some of those books through an on-site used bookstore and occasional sales. Those efforts had to stop during the pandemic last year, leaving the library with a growing pile of volumes and no good way to help get them out the door.

That’s when J.D. Smithson remembered something she’d read about an Icelandic holiday tradition: Jólabókafló (pronounced – roughly – “yo-luh-BOHK-uh-float”), which means a Christmastime flood of books.

“It sort of ruminated in my mind,” said Smithson, communications coordinator for the Coeur d’Alene Library. “I spoke with our children’s librarian and our teen librarian, and they both thought it was a good idea. And so we did it.”

The library ended up giving away several hundred books. The yuletide event was so popular and fun, Smithson said, that “it was a no-brainer” to bring it back this year.

The library has given away 1,100 books during its second-annual Jólabókafló, which kicked off December 1. The books are wrapped so readers have no idea what they’re getting.

“There’s been a lot of peeking, people trying to look into the wrapping,” Smithson said. “But it’s been a lot of fun seeing people grab [the books] and take them home.”

Jólabókafló has been so popular, in fact, that the library’s pile will likely run out soon. Books for youngest readers – the 0-to-3-year-old set – have already been exhausted, Smithson said.

The Icelandic tradition of giving books for Christmas began during the Second World War. Paper was one of the few goods not strictly rationed during the conflict, so books emerged as a prime gift. After the war, the tradition remained. Every November since 1944, Icelandic publishers send a catalogue to every household in the country so people can pick the books they want to give or get during Jólabókafló.

Asked if Jólabókafló will become a sustained tradition in Coeur d’Alene, Smithson was confident it would. The library gets so many donations throughout the year that the event can be carried on just from its annual glut.

Smithson said she has yet to hear of Jólabókafló events at libraries elsewhere in Idaho or the Inland Northwest, but there has been interest nationally from Facebook groups that link librarians. Nor has she heard from librarians in Iceland, curious about their tradition setting up in a new environment.

“How fun would that be?” Smithson said. But then, she said, there’s also the pressure of having the experts weigh in. “I hope we’re doing it right.”

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.