A Novel Idea

Librarians reimagine book clubs with the help of technology

May 13, 2014


Libraries have long embraced the reading public and provided public forums for book discussion, long before talk-show host Oprah Winfrey renewed interest in book clubs in 1996.

In our more modern, connected, and ever-busy age, however, traditional library book clubs have been undergoing a quiet revolution. Lack of time, scheduling conflicts, mobility issues, desire for anonymity, and other factors have moved the conversation online—namely onto social media.

Tech-savvy librarians aware of these trends are using emerging technologies to both enhance physical book clubs and to replace them with online ones.

An online component

Melanie Gibson, a librarian at Bishop Dunne Catholic School in Dallas, Texas, has been using technology to complement her physical book club meetings.

She created a simple web page with information about meetings and provided a virtual space where members can continue a discussion or contribute if they missed a meeting. This has been particularly helpful for a group of former 8th graders who wanted to continue their book club, she says.

These students found that as they moved into high school, they didn’t have time to come to monthly meetings because of increased activities and homework. “But they really wanted to stay connected and talk about books,” she says. So Gibson started an online book club with a discussion board to supplement the meetings. “The students liked the idea,” she says, “and some of them started participating exclusively online.”

Even students who attend the meetings tell Gibson that they read the posts and often discuss the questions online. “Technology can enhance the in-person meetings by reminding students that the book club is here and people are reading,” she says. She has used it to provide context and teasers for an upcoming book, as well as offer “a forum that isn’t bound by a particular time and place.”

Maureen Lerch, library director at the University of Akron Wayne College in Orrville, Ohio, uses technology as a bridge between meetings for the Fireside Readers Book Discussion Group, which comprises community and faculty members.

She says it’s a way for members to stay engaged between meetings. “You know how sometimes you’re in the middle of a book and you can’t wait to talk to someone about it? This is a way for people to be involved before the discussion,” she says.

Lerch uses Google Docs to share information with the club, which focuses on nonfiction reads. She posts discussion questions and links to articles and videos about the author or book on the living document, which anyone can access. She also uses Pinterest to share books the group has read and post titles that are under consideration.

Video technology

School librarians have been among the first to use video technology to connect groups of people with those in faraway places.

For several years, media specialists Laura Healy and Isabel Chipungu—who met as 2011 Follett Challenge winners—have collaborated on a virtual book club for their elementary students in Wayne, New Jersey, and Ocoee, Florida, respectively.

Using Skype, the two classrooms discuss books selected from the Sunshine State Young Readers Award reading list. They also use Edmodo, a social learning platform, to continue discussions.

Healy says participation has been excellent. “Students are motivated enough to go home and engage in conversations about their stories,” she says. “I love how they are able to form their own opinions of the materials and debate their reasoning in class and through our online virtual Skype sessions.”

Book club leaders at Mentor (Ohio) Public Library routinely show YouTube videos to provide background on a specific book or author. The librarians have also used Skype to interview authors.

“Members of the groups really enjoy talking one-on-one with authors about their book, thus enhancing the book club experience,” says Barbara Hauer, the library’s collection development and technical services manager. “The visual and sensory aspects of author interviews or videos provide a dimension that is more vivid and engaging than just listening to a lecture or contemplating answers to questions and taking part in a group conversation.”

New York Public Library (NYPL) has also recognized the value in videoconferencing technology by hosting Google+ Hangouts for online book discussions. The service is similar to Skype but allows up to 10 participants to videoconference together for free. Hangouts can be streamed live, and the recording can be archived and posted online for later viewing.

Elizabeth Bird, youth materials specialist for NYPL, has been involved in two book-related conversations using Hangouts, including interviewing authors of books on bullying in conjunction with National Bullying Month. Other NYPL-sponsored Hangouts have featured a discussion on Banned Books Week, reviews of the book Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, and an interview with The Perks of Being a Wallflower author-director Stephen Chbosky.

“As online conversations go, it’s pretty seamless,” Bird says. “Sure, you have to get the hang of it, and you learn tips and tricks along the way, but in the end I think it’s completely worth it. There are great features, like seeing questions from viewers pop up on screen, and this being Google, there’s bound to be more in the future. The fact that it’s recorded for posterity is just icing on the cake.”

Sacramento (Calif.) Public Library has also hosted live video discussions using Hangouts. It focused on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and tied it to the season premiere and finale of the HBO television show Game of Thrones.

“We took viewer questions through social media ahead of time and during the broadcast,” says Amy Calhoun, coordinator of the library’s virtual branch.

Online-only clubs

Other libraries offer a virtual book club experience in which all activity is conducted online.

Pam DeFino, manager of the Berea branch at Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library, started an online book club in January 2011. She had noticed that days could go by between comments on the discussion board, so she decided to try a different approach.

For an hour every Thursday evening, DeFino moderates “Night Owls,” a live discussion on the library’s Facebook page. Rather than discuss a single title, she often merely writes “Who wants to talk about books—any book?”

Participation is random, DeFino says, but there is a core group of 15–20 participants, and there are normally between 75–100 comments per session. Patrons have told her that they later read the comments to learn about new titles.

“Night Owls” has been so popular that in January 2014, the library added a lunchtime book club on Facebook, called “Booked for Lunch.”

NYPL’s online book club, Reader’s Den, has used a weekly blog format since 2009. Each month focuses on a different book led by different NYPL librarians. Participation varies, says librarian Ryan Donovan, but some books get discussed years after they are initially introduced because people find the posts again.

“In a way, the discussion is never over,” he says.

One way to keep the conversation going, according to librarian Chelsea Dodd, is to encourage a book group to talk about their own experiences and relate themselves to the characters.

In March 2013 she started “Eat. Drink. Read.” for Greenville (R.I.) Public Library using Goodreads, a social network for book lovers. The online book club pairs reading with wine and recipes for bookworms and foodies.

“People appear more interested in answering light questions as opposed to heavy thematic and literary structural questions,” says Dodd, who is now reference and adult programming librarian at Montclair (N.J.) Public Library. “The more focus on them and their experiences as related to the book, the better.”

The future book club

Although librarians are using various formats—including blogs, social media, and videoconferencing—for online book clubs, the focus remains on a desire to share a love of reading and books. What’s key is using technology in creative ways to build virtual spaces for the library community to discover and talk about books.

Even Oprah moved toward digital media with the 2012 launch of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.

“Technology opens up the book club experience to a whole new group of people the library might never have reached with an in-person book club,” says Sacramento Public Library’s Calhoun. “Your group should be a venue for hearing what your community is reading and what books they love, not just a way for the library to market itself. Don’t feel you have to duplicate the traditional book club format.”

Five Tips to Starting Your Own Online Book Club

1. Do your research. Sacramento (Calif.) Public Library’s Amy Calhoun advises those who want to start an online book club to research what other library groups and popular non-library groups are already doing online and implement the features that generate the most interaction.

“Offering an online option allows us to cater to people who prefer the convenience of participating from home without a set schedule or who simply feel more comfortable interacting online than face to face,” she says.

2. Add an online component to an existing book club. Consider existing structures, groups, and opportunities in which you might add an online component, suggests Lauren Lampasone, a digital producer for New York Public Library.

“If you have a solid community on Facebook that is interested, use that rather than Google+ (or vice versa),” she says. “If you have patrons who complain about not being able to attend your usual discussions, ask what kind of online platform would work for them.”

3. Keep it fresh. “Posting takes only a few minutes but needs to happen often,” says Jennifer Fay, library manager at Salt Lake County (Utah) Library Services’ Kearns branch. “Get as many staff members on board as possible to keep it fresh.”

When students post a comment, I respond to them, and I invite further discussion,” says Melanie Gibson of Bishop Dunne Catholic School in Dallas. “In my posts, I try to include something to grab their interest or provoke a comment.”

4. Decide how to handle unsavory and unrelated comments. Fay suggests posting rules, such as: “Everyone is welcome to post anything, but we reserve the right to delete,” and “Any posts marketing to our members will be deleted.”

“While I rarely need to delete posts, it’s important for someone to read all the comments on a regular—preferably daily—basis, just in case,” Fay says. “We haven’t had anyone post vulgarity or attack people, but we occasionally get spammed by authors and others trying to sell something.”

5. Understand readers’ advisory—or pretend to. “A live format is both a joy and a challenge,” says Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library’s Pam DeFino. “When someone mentions a genre I’m not familiar with—paranormal romance, for instance—I’ll look up the topic so I can add to or continue the conversation, which is the moderator’s job. I spend a lot of time flipping back and forth between sites. The discussion can go in all directions. It’s a joy when the conversation is really hopping. It helps to read fast and have a good understanding of readers’ advisory—or be comfortable enough with faking it.”

Three Tools to Help with Your Online Book Clubs

Dozens of tools can facilitate an online book club. Your goals, your needs, your skills, and your budget will determine which ones are best for you. Here’s a closer look at three of the many tools available and the pros and cons of their use with an online book club.


Around since: February 2004

Number of users: 1.23 billion

Pros: Facebook’s ubiquity means that your participants (and your library) are likely already on the social media site and won’t need to create a new account. As the host, you can have open or closed groups, and you have the ability to schedule events. As a participant, you can insulate your online book club activities from your friends. Facebook provides the ability to communicate with your group using asynchronous posts, comments, live chats, and video chat.

Cons: The sheer variety of tools available on Facebook could make the learning curve high for some users. Also, people who aren’t already on Facebook—yes, there are still plenty of folks in that category—would need to sign up to join the book club.



Around since: June 2011

Number of users: 540 million

Pros: Google+ is free and allows you to hold online meetings with an unlimited number of participants with video and audio via Google+ Hangouts. Hangouts allows you to easily connect, broadcast, and even record your meetings, and it includes several tools that make it possible to share documents and images to aid your discussion.

Cons: You need to join Google+ to use Hangouts. While signing up is simple, it can be an obstacle for people who may not want yet another social media account to manage. What’s more, the learning curve is a bit higher than other videoconferencing tools because of all the options Google+ offers. Google is also under no obligation to provide advance notification when it modifies the appearance or features.



Around since: August 2003

Number of users: 299 million

Pros: Skype is a popular, free videoconferencing tool (a premium version is also available, for a monthly fee). Skype’s key appeal? It’s very easy to use. Since its only purpose is audio- and videoconferencing, the interface is simple and the learning curve is low.

Cons: The free version is ad-supported, so users will see them during calls. Skype doesn’t have the plug-ins that Google+ has, so sharing documents and images isn’t as easy, and you’ll need to download an external program to record your calls. Unlike Facebook and Google+, Skype is not part of a social network, so it’s not as easy to integrate external content or organize asynchronous group discussions.

DANIEL FREEMAN is online learning manager at ALA Editions/ALA TechSource.


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