February 17, 2018

The Evolving Book Group: New Formats Mean More Engagement

Illustration Copyright 2011 David Leonard

It’s been a monumental year for the book. The long-anticipated breakthrough of the ebook arrived in full force in January as happy holiday gift recipients filled their new Kindles, Nooks, and iPads with best sellers, a whopping number of romances, and more, and ebook editions outnumber print editions on best sellers lists such as USA Today’s.

Angst has followed for those, including libraries, tightly identified with a format now widely rumored to be on the brink of becoming a thing of the past. With the hubbub, new opportunity has also arrived: for libraries to flex their expertise in reading, take the lead in the transition, and show the library’s brand in books—no matter the format—to its fullest advantage. There may be no better forum for libraries to show their stuff than the ever-evolving, ever-engaging book group.

The transformative experience

Research from OCLC on what drives voters to the polls shows us that library power-voters are not necessarily those who boost circulation but those who believe in the transformative experience of using the library.

One of the most profound ways to experience any book is to share feelings about it with others in a program libraries do especially well: the book discussion group. Like the format of the book, discussion groups are evolving and reaching new markets. What hasn’t changed is their inherent charisma—readers love to talk about what they’ve read.

“The joy and mystery of reading is that each of us reads a different book from everyone else…even when it’s the same book,” says Nancy Pearl, author of the Book Lust readers’ advisory (RA) titles and LJ’s 2011 Librarian of the Year. “We bring all of our life experiences to the reading of a book, any book, and each person’s history is different from everyone else’s.”

Pearl feels that, in fact, each reader “creates” a book that’s unique and that good discussions arise because of the differences in how we interpret what we’ve read. It’s “not so much (or at all) in terms of whether or not we liked the book but rather how we understand the behavior of the characters and their choices,” she says.

It’s that huge potential for exploration and rich discussion that libraries have harnessed for years—what’s a public library without a book group? But now, many libraries are putting a twist on what has been effective—if somewhat predictable—programming to align with civic initiatives and engage audiences that are underserved by libraries or slipping away.

Book groups as tools for engagement

Libraries are also using book discussion to attract new users. In Maine, Bangor Public Library (BPL) reference librarian Jan Lima watched online book discussion take hold in venues such as the Amazon comment section and set out to create a program that would draw these readers to the library.

Not Your Ordinary Book Group has a unique structure: it meets in the physical library monthly and also connects readers daily online through a blog. “We started with the intention of pulling in patrons who have moved onto Internet forums back to the library, while allowing our traditional readers to interact as well,” says Lima.

In designing the format, Lima considered the lifestyle of the patrons they were appealing to—younger than the average book group member, with busy lives and schedules that drove them to find books and book communities through sources beyond the library. Members are invited to meet in person or on the blog, whether they have read the book or not. “This takes the pressure off our patrons if it’s a busy month for them; they can just go to the blog, or show up to the next meeting knowing there isn’t an expectation for them other than to have fun,” says Lima.

Books are chosen by the group in an online vote—finalized in person—and tend toward popular fiction that Lima describes as “edgy and uncensored”; among the group’s recent reads is Kelly Armstrong’s Bitten. The physical meeting draws about 20 participants, but the virtual audience is far larger. Lima says she knew she had a successful format on her hands when she posted on the website as February’s choice Nalini Singh’s Slave to Sensation and discovered that every copy in the entire state system was borrowed within 24 hours. Even area bookstores sold out.

The virtual component allows enormous flexibility without losing the sense of community. Discussion occurs online throughout the month and is continued in person at the meetings. “Some are using Google Friend Connect to have their discussions about the books online, others just comment anonymously and whisper to me at the meetings what comments were theirs,” says Lima. “Older members have taken classes to learn how to blog, because they wanted to be included…. It has been wonderful!”

The library promotes the group through its website and in print through vivid pamphlets—all focusing on the “no pressure” aspect. Smelling success and sales, local bookstores help with promotion, passing out brochures at checkout counters and even creating displays in prime locations of the monthly reads.

In Chester, PA, the J. Lewis Crozer Library partners with senior centers and a faith-based organization on book groups designed for African American senior women. The groups are held in senior centers and introduce the participants to book series. The aim is to get the women “hooked” through discussion of the first title in the series, boosting literacy and independent use of the library.

Libraries in Texas and Illinois are working with book groups to engage a cohort largely missing from public libraries: young adults—the 18-plus segment that seems to disappear from libraries until child-rearing brings them back. In Illinois, “Lit Lounge” is a joint program of the Skokie Public Library and Morton Grove Public Library. Held monthly in a local bar and restaurant, the group uses the exploration of “hot” contemporary fiction as a way for younger adults to meet and socialize.

In Texas, the Austin Public Library’s graphic novels book club is attracting a similar demographic. Reference librarian Bonnie Brzozowski runs an evening discussion get-together that meets at a coffee shop a few blocks from the library. Since the group’s formation two years ago, she has become a practical advocate for marrying this unique genre to the classic book group format. She blogs about starting the group by selecting standard graphic novels from GraphicNovelReporter.com’s Core List, which includes classics such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Craig Thompson’s Blankets, but she then quickly branched out.

“Our group has explored many different genres within this format including memoir, science fiction, literary fiction, and even journalistic nonfiction. So, not only do we get to pursue a lot of different genres, we also get to come together to discuss these often multilayered, intelligent, emotion-inducing, well-written, beautifully drawn works of art,” Brzozowski writes. The group is striking a chord with the community and changing minds about graphic novels. A participant remarked to Brzozowski that it was “the most literary group” she’d ever been in.

Reading the crowd

Groups like those run by Brzozowski and Lima share a common thread—they were created with careful attention to patron needs and interests, and, as a result, both draw steady crowds and accolades. ­Brzozowski’s inspiration came from watching a contemporary fiction group struggle to gain traction. Its lunch meeting time was awkward for young professionals not only because it was smack in the middle of the work day but because the library didn’t allow food in the building. She removed two immediate obstacles to success by launching an evening session outside of the library.

Sarah Scobey, reference librarian and book club coordinator at Poudre River Public Library District in Fort Collins, CO, has nurtured and shaped its book club program to fit the needs of this highly educated community, which includes Colorado State University. It is “Literature 101 minus the stress of papers and exams. Our members are so delighted to find a place to discuss literature, in a stimulating yet nonintimidating environment,” Scobey says. The program routinely draws 40 participants. Across the country in Maine, librarians at the Wells Public Library indulged their own passion when they launched a book group devoted to the works of Jane Austen. To their dismay, they discovered their community’s appetite for the classics was fully satisfied with one serving. Attendance dropped off precipitously after the first month. Coordinator Cindy Schilling reconfigured the group to fit the community’s yearnings better. It now focuses on contemporary fiction, with an occasional classic. She advises that libraries not give up after a rough start but instead keep adjusting to find what works.

Finding the right resources

Each of the groups described here takes commitment, and finding resources to manage them can be a struggle. When downsizing threatened the Johnson County Library (JCL), KS, program with the county corrections department (see sidebar this page), the library dug deep to keep it running. The library also enables traditional book groups to run without a facilitator through Book Group To-Go kits, which include books and discussion questions for patrons. They keep trained staff from branches closest to the corrections facilities available for these specialized book groups.

Publishers such as Random House support book clubs with discussion guides that make it easy to get groups up and running, with or without a library facilitator. However, more unique groups may require librarian expertise. Brzozowski notes the lack of reading group guides for graphic novels poses a challenge for her group. She creates her own with reconnaissance work at readinggroupguides.com, where the general pointers for writing discussion guides apply neatly to graphic novels as well as traditional formats. She adds that discussion of the art should always be included.

Running online book discussions such as the one founded by Lima can be less challenging than it appears. Lima started with a free Google email account and built from there. “From our email we created the blog, which automatically supports Google Friend Connect within the blog, and Google Talk, an IM service, is easily created in each blog follower’s gmail account,” she says. “You don’t need a server, domain name, or design program. Google provides it all.”

Beyond Google, resources aimed at facilitating online communities within libraries are increasing rapidly. LibraryThing (and LibraryThing for Libraries)—the free, popular social network for readers—includes a variety of Web 2.0 tools that libraries can parlay into online book discussion groups. In its forum system (called, not surprisingly, “Groups”), libraries can start their own online book group, taking it public for the entire LibraryThing community to engage with or keep it private and invite specific members to join. Goodreads (goodreads.com) offers a similar service. For libraries that are able to invest in customization, ChiliFresh (chilifresh.com) creates social networking tools that integrate with the library’s own catalog, which the company notes “makes your catalog a ‘sticky place’ for your patrons to come to over and over.” Using a service such as this, a library can advertise and launch book groups right from its OPAC. (Read Heather McCormack on how ChiliFresh can enable libraries to learn about their patron’s preferences.)

The more things change…

Books are in the news again. A change in format has driven them to page one of the hard news. It’s a testament to their impact in our society. It’s also a signal of how powerful libraries are, and can be, no matter the format.

One summer night Lima was struck with how little things have changed as she and her colleagues we’re locking up after a long day at the library. “Our book group members had moved on to the front lawn and were still laughing and talking about their favorite reads—this diverse group, patrons of all ages and lifestyles, had found a common joy,” she says. “Whether we download to an ereader or read the traditional way in paper and print, we still want to share our love of books with others.”

Author Information
Beth Dempsey (beth@bethdempsey.com) is Principal of Dempsey Communications Group, a firm specializing in strategic communications for knowledge organizations


Viewing books through the lens of their own experiences allows readers to explore their lives and choices in a way that can make book discussion groups deeply therapeutic. Johnson County Library (JCL), KS, is leveraging that trait with an outreach program that puts librarians side by side with county corrections officials. For the past ten years, JCL has worked with courts and prisons, running an array of carefully crafted book discussion groups for incarcerated adults and troubled youth. The groups range in size and format. For example, a program for teens on probation involves a weekly session with the teen, a probation officer, a judge, and a librarian. Over the course of seven weeks, the four read and discuss seven books. The works are selected to help kids find positive paths. They often feature teens succeeding despite difficult life circumstances—a context common to juvenile offenders—providing both role models and hope. County Librarian Donna Lauffer says the program has proven to be so powerful that a decade later, many of the young participants continue to stay in touch with “their” librarian.

Two other programs—one for men and another for women—follow a traditional format of book discussion and are conducted within prison walls. Lauffer feels that the groups are not only important vehicles for exploring life choices, but they also build self-esteem. She tells the story of a participating judge running into an ex-convict and his son at a local store. Recognizing each other from their group, they chatted briefly before the son asked how the judge knew his father. “He responded, ‘Your dad and I had a literature class together,’ ” Lauffer remembers. “Immediately, the father was elevated in the son’s eyes and put on equal footing with the judge. That’s what these groups do. Everyone can have an opinion, and it’s equal with everyone else’s. Sometimes [the book group] is the only place where these people have that experience.”


Lauffer says the library has worked with the county corrections office to track recidivism among the book group participants, but hard data is slippery. It’s irrelevant to Lauffer, the local judges who are believers in the program, and the JCL librarians. “We know the lives of participants are improved, and we truly see value in the program,” she says. In fact, according to Lauffer, after their time is served, participants often continue to take part in book groups at JCL branches.

Building self-esteem and community connections also result from book clubs for homeless citizens run by a variety of libraries. Michigan’s Traverse Area District Library partners with a local shelter to run book groups that increase dialog among members of this unique population (see Stephen M. Lilienthal’s “The Problem Is Not the Homeless,” LJ 6/15/11, p. 30–34). The meetings provide intellectual stimulation and regular contact with citizens who often live under the radar. The programs also enable librarians to identify needs and connect participants with resources to address them.

These programs are not only fulfilling for the librarians involved in them, but they also position the library in an essential civic role alongside their colleagues in government.

Facts Matter: Information Literacy for the Real World
Libraries and news organizations are joining forces in a variety of ways to promote news literacy, create innovative community programming, and help patrons/students identify misinformation. This online course will teach you how to partner with local news organizations to promote news literacy through a range of programs—including a citizen journalism hub at your library.