New Year, New Members? Pt. 1

To make the best sourdough bread, a master baker begins each batch of dough with starter, a concoction of wild yeast, water, and flour that creates the bacteria that makes the bread so tasty. The best starters are very old, building up a strong base flavor as they burble away in the refrigerator. It’s not just about age though–the starter has to be taken out of the fridge for an hour or so about once a month, stirred a little, and refreshed with fresh flour and water, or it will separate and become too bitter.

Book groups are a lot like sourdough. They work best when there is an established base at the core of the recipe, but this base needs to be stirred by the conversation of regular meetings and replenished with new readers occasionally or it will dissipate and turn rancid.

Unfortunately, the way that many book groups assimilate new readers is the equivalent of putting a handful of flour on top of the starter jar in the fridge. The new ingredients are left out in the cold and never given a real chance to join the mix, leaving behind a messy residue without enhancing the group before they disappear.

Does your group do anything special for new members? I became aware of the potential problems after five or six visitors in a row failed to mesh with one of my groups. They would attend one or two meetings, looking miserably uncomfortable, participating awkwardly, then disappearing without a trace.  It’s a problem that we still haven’t completely mastered, but we’ve learned some tricks along the way and become better and retaining potential members. Here are some hints for working with newbies:

1) UNDERSTAND THAT YOU NEED THEM

Perhaps you already have a successful group of good size, where some months it’s difficult for everyone to find time to say as much as they might like. Should you stand pat and avoid new members? This may work for a while, and you certainly can grow too quickly, but in my experience, it won’t work forever. You’ll become overfamiliar with each others’ ideas and preferences. stuck on the same authors, and tired of hearing the same stories. Familiarity will breed contempt if new combinations of people and ideas don’t create variation. If your group constantly strains at its limits, consider splitting into two groups before the interactions start to grow stale.

2) HAVE A PLAN

Most book groups don’t have a plan for new members. Do they need an invitation from an existing group member? Do you encourage walk-ins? Should members notify the facilitator when they are bringing a guest? Are one-time guests encouraged? Should new members come and listen at their first meeting, or are they encouraged to have read the group’s chosen discussion title?

3) ADVERTISE IN THE RIGHT PLACES

Start by discussing the kind of people you’re looking for in the group and how many new members you would ideally like to see. Your members may know people who fit the bill perfectly. If they don’t, contact your local library. A book group coordinator, reader’s advisory specialist, or reference librarian may be able to send likely candidates your way. If you’ve got plenty of space, you might even want to create a poster advertising upcoming meetings and providing contact information. You might also advertise in bookstores, restaurants, and community bulletin boards in the area where you meet. If you do advertise, make sure that you describe the kinds of books that your group typically reads and the frequency of your meetings.

There’s much more to integrating new members than accepting the need for them and advertising. In my next post, I’ll offer tips for greeting new participants and easing them into happy participation.

Comments

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

6 Comments on "New Year, New Members? Pt. 1"

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  1. ckubala@columbiactlibrary.org' CarolK says:

    Excellent post. I’ll be interested in part two.

    Our fiction group has always had more trouble maintaining and attracting new members than our non-fiction group. Both groups have many regulars who have been meeting for a number of years. When someone new does join us I want to make that new person feel welcome without singling them out as “new”.

    Does your group use name tags? This does help a new member acclimate to the group. When someone new does join us, I usually have everyone do a quick introduction but wonder if this immediately alerts the new member that their attending necessitates the intro.

    What are some other ways to make the newbie quickly feel part of the group?

  2. shavers@crc.losrios.edu' Shelley says:

    As someone who owes her career to Horton Foote, I just wanted to mention to all the booklovers here that Boo Radley turns 80 today:

    Robert Duvall’s 80th bday!

  3. khoughton2@cogeco.ca' Kay says:

    Our book group reads non-fiction Christian and Interfaith books. We meet weekly reading the books together, which promotes wonderful discussion – little need for pre-planned questions. We do research and bring in other books and articles to help us better understand what we are reading.

    There are 19 in the group with all but three are members of our church (where we meet). We have no trouble finding new members, they find us! Sadly one of our members passed away in 2009 and one of her friends sought us out because she was missing Marion so much and they liked to read and talk about the books we were reading. She is now one of our members.

    When new members join we do a brief introduction and give a contact list of all our members and of the books we have read. It always amazes me that new members immediately volunteer to read and to are quick to join in the discussion – I think this is because we are a very welcoming group.

  4. welch.jeanie@gmail.com' Jeanie Welch says:

    This post does not address the issue of the ideal size of a book club. I have heard that no more than 12 is ideal.
    Also I thought the sourdough analogy was rather lame.

    • Neil Hollands says:

      Well, I guess my metaphors don’t please everybody, and if the bread was stale for you, forgive me. As to the ideal size for a book group, it depends greatly on your meeting space, your group’s format, and other factors. A group in a comfortable space using a thematic format can easily accommodate 20+ readers in a two hour meeting, while a single-book formatted group in a smaller place might only work for 7 or 8 readers. Regardless, my argument in these posts is that you should still plan for new members over time or your group will get stale.

  5. khoughton2@cogeco.ca' Kay says:

    I think that the ideal size of the group depends entirely on the group, the facilitator/leader and members and the place where you meet.
    Every time someone new asks to join the group says yes. Some weeks we are only 12, other weeks we are 19, because we meet in a large comfortable room in the church our space is not limited.
    When we began there were 6 of us and the discussion was great but the more members we have the livelier and deeper the discussions which makes my job as facilitator so much easier.
    We did think of breaking into two groups but that thought only lasted a couple of minutes!
    One more thing we have never discussed the kind of people we wanted in our group – it has never come into the conversation.

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