- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2003

Americans beyond the Beltway say Washingtonians love to hear themselves talk. Of course it's true, but what's less known is this: The capital's prattlers like to hear other people talk, too.
Enter the lecture educational, inspirational, conversational, motivational, confrontational. For more and more Washingtonians, the pleasure of hearing someone else jabber has become so important to productive relaxation that lectures bid fair to become the backbone of the thinking life.
Find out about the glories of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. Learn about the District's own black Civil War regiments. Hear what Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jared Diamond has to say about his latest additions to "Guns, Germs, and Steel."
No matter your taste, there's a lecture out there for you.
Where are they? As close as your local library or neighborhood bookstore. August institutions like the Library of Congress or the National Geographic Society offer them. Lectures accompany musical performances. Panels of experts talk around a theme. Seminars of two or three days exhaust a topic.
But don't expect stiff-necked instructors with pointer and podium. The podium is still there, but in many cases the lecturer's sheaf of notes have been replaced by a laptop. Many lectures now are interactive, capped by question-and-answer sessions.
So when Natalia Krollau, research fellow at the Hermitage, spoke recently about the art treasures there for the Smithsonian Resident Associates, she could rely on a laser pointer and a computer-driven array of images carefully projected on an oversized screen.
Of course, even 19th-century lecturers knew the advantages of a well-placed prop. When the celebrated Dr. F. Hollick lectured (for gentlemen only) on "The Origin of Life" at Concert Hall on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1844, he brought along no fewer than 15 life-sized models.

Washingtonians of the 19th and early 20th centuries routinely heard philosophers and charlatans in large halls like Convention Hall at 5th and L streets NW, Lincoln Hall at 9th and D streets NW, or the Halls of the Ancients at 1312 New York Ave. NW.
Today's lecture spaces vary in size and ambience. Some of the best-received lectures are often those given in smaller places with an informal feel, like the back rooms of the Politics and Prose bookstore in Northwest. Owners Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade have been presenting book talks ever since the store opened in 1984.
"We were one of the first bookstores to start doing author talks," says Mrs. Cohen. "It's a huge part of our business."
Now Politics and Prose offers author talks every night. Their wide-ranging speakers have included neighborhood favorite Judith Viorst, Bill Gates Sr. and John McWhorter. Most authors clamor to be asked. The question-and-answer sessions that follow their opening remarks can be challenging.
Of course, the author who chose to answer his cell phone in the middle of his book talk was not asked back.
Politics and Prose is hardly the only spot in town for book talks. Chapters on K Street NW is known for its literary offerings, and Olsson's offers a popular Thursday night series at its Metro Center location. Even larger chain stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble are getting into the act.
And no one expects you to buy the book unless you want to.

If you go to a lecture at your neighborhood library, you don't even have to check one out. But you'll take something away with you nonetheless.
"I just sat there with my mouth open and wondered why other people don't know these things," says Jackie Walton Sadler of a recent lecture on Washington's black Civil War regiments, the second in a series of lectures by historian C.R. Gibbs given at the Lamond-Riggs branch library in Northeast. "I've been all over the city for lectures, but this is one of the best."
Mr. Gibbs is well-known for his lectures on black regiments during the Civil War. His new book, "Black, Copper, and Bright," chronicles the First U.S. Regiment of Colored Troops, which was based in the District.
"There were thousands of black men who attempted to give their lives in services to the cause," he says. "It is my pleasure to recognize them."
His series at the Lamond-Riggs library in Northeast concludes tonight with "Smashing Jim Crow in the Nation's Capital."
With a speaking style that can recall the great orators of the past, Mr. Gibbs now has more than 40 lectures in his repertoire. Over the past 14 years, Mr. Gibbs has lectured at downtown's Martin Luther King Library (a frequent lecture venue), for the Smithsonian, and for school groups and professional organizations. For him, the impulse to lecture is a kind of calling, a response to the racism he felt growing up in 1950s Washington.
"I was called the 'n' word. Some white boys wouldn't play with me. I want young people today to know about those times a train of memory both good and bad," he says.
Mr. Gibbs brings a wealth of materials to his lectures, including old photographs, newspapers and Army records. His audiences frequently gather outside the library to talk long after the formal part of the evening has finished.
"It's never just me," he says. "People have a plethora of information already. It's very much a community event."

Of necessity, lectures at bookstores and libraries are modest in size, confined to back rooms and small spaces. At the Smithsonian Institution, however, lectures run the spatial gamut. Among the most popular are those given under the auspices of its Resident Associate program, now in its 38th year.
"The Smithsonian universe is the universe," says Mara Mayor, director of the Smithsonian Associates. "In terms of subject we can go in any direction you can imagine."
Today, the Smithsonian Resident Associates presents more than 1,000 programs on a wide range of subjects across many disciplines.
Over the years, the Resident Associates program has presented pianist John Eaton talking about American music, British actors Kenneth Branagh and Derek Jacobi talking about transferring "Hamlet" to the screen, and cellist Yo Yo Ma talking about the creative process. They've even brought in members of the Royal Air Force to talk about the World War II Battle of Britain.
"We want to tap into people as well as objects," says Mrs. Mayor. "So we're not bound by the exhibitions we have up at the time."
The audiences are as varied as the programs themselves.
"We have a hugely diverse demographic," Mrs. Mayor says. "Depending on the time of day, or what the program is, you can see an entirely different crowd."

Variation in programs is also a staple at the Library of Congress, where public programs have been in place almost since the very beginning of the library in 1800. Now, with the opening of the new John W. Kluge Center in the Thomas Jefferson Building, the Library is able to offer fellowships to scholars from around the world to use library resources and interact with you guessed it political Washington. For the lecture-going audience, the result is a far-flung series of talks on everything from political theorist Hannah Arendt to the post-Stalinist era.
Programs can develop around a particular idea, like the one that marked the 50th anniversary of Stalin's death, or they can result from a scholar's months of research, says Les Vogel, special assistant to the director of Public Programs at the Library of Congress.
"We are a deep research center," says Mr. Vogel. "We like to present programs that provide information, knowledge, and reflection well beyond current events."
For the second annual Henry Kissinger lecture, former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing spoke about the European Union and the preparation of the European constitution.
Missed that lecture? Don't worry. Like many venues, the Library of Congress offers its lectures via the Web as a cybercast. And if you want to hear the d'Estaing lecture, for example, you can just call it up on the Web site's archives.
More live lectures can be found at the National Archives, which in March and April presents a series of lectures relating to Irish-American history, the Vietnam War and the War of 1812. A special symposium will celebrate the centennial of aviation in the United States.

One of the oldest places in town for large-scale, formal lectures is the National Geographic Society, which presented its first lecture by Grand Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell just a month after the society's founding in January 1888. Today, more than 35,000 people a year attend the Society's lectures.
Over the years, Society lecturers have included pioneering pilot Amelia Earhart, Arctic explorer Adolphus Greely, and American author Hamlin Garland. National Geographic can even boast repeat performances from the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
"Lectures are our oldest program," says Gregory Magruder, director of Lectures and Public Programs. "We look at lectures as our public face."
Today, the Society's mission of ensuring "the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge" is manifested in a variety of public events. These include lectures that accompany exhibits or newly published National Geographic books, like the Feb. 13 talk that marked the publication of "Jubilee: The Emergence of African-American Culture." Special lectures commemorate the 50th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary's conquest of Mount Everest.
A seminar on German beers with beer expert Michael Jackson scheduled for March 19 is already sold out.
What does beer have to do with geography?
"Beer is very geographically oriented," explains Mr. Magruder. "Every culture has its own type of beer. Once you look beyond the substance itself, there can be any number of geographical connections."
And the best lecturers in any venue?
"The ones who are prepared," says Politics and Prose's Carla Cohen. "You can't just read from your book."
More than that, every lecturer has to be willing to take on the challenge of a sophisticated and well-informed Washington audience.
"The best ones are the ones who can make things personal," Mr. Magruder says. "The size of the hall isn't really what matters I've heard Jane Goodall speak in Constitution Hall, and she made it seem as if she were having a personal conversation with me," he says of the celebrated primatologist.
"No matter what the topic, the best ones can make what they do a metaphor for so many other things in life."

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