Rethinking the Model for Library Book Groups

BookPileWhen this blog began several years ago, coverage was split about evenly between descriptions of books appropriate to book groups and the best practices for running book groups successfully. We worked through most of the major topics of book group management, and discussion of best practices dwindled. For the last couple of years, Book Group Buzz has focused primarily on authors and titles.

A session at the recent PLA convinced me that it is time to look at book group procedure again. I want to start with something fundamental: what kind of format should you choose for your group.

The tradition of book groups is quite entrenched. Although there are exceptions, the model for the vast majority of book groups is somewhat similar to a college literary seminar: For each meeting, we select one common book, which we ask all of our members to read, and then we hold a shared discussion of that title. Because the book has to stand up to thirty minutes, an hour, or even more discussion, we tend to select a certain kind of book, weighty–although perhaps not too weighty, we don’t want this to be too much like a literary seminar. We’ve even standardized the rather awkward construction “book group book” to describe the kind of title likely to make an appearance.

Is this the best model? For many groups, it is. But I would estimate that if we were to measure, we would find that over 90% of groups uses this model, and for many of them, it isn’t the best choice. It’s simply used because it’s familiar, because it’s expected.

If your group likes to read “book group books,” if your members are good at finishing the book and attending consistently, if you enjoy the kind of focused, deep, and sometimes confrontational discussion that one book meetings inspire, then by all means choose the traditional model. If part of that description doesn’t fit your group, or if your group has become stale, it might be time to rethink the most basic elements of practice.

Here’s a list of groups for which the one book model might not be best:

1) If you have a hard time sustaining adequate membership.

2) If you have difficulty finding enough copies of the titles you discuss.

3) If you have several members who don’t always finish the book, and either don’t attend or even worse, attend and make the discussion awkward by asking others not to “spoil” the book or by trying to talk about a book they don’t really know.

4) If your group has problems with overheated disagreements or is awkward when a debate occurs.

5) If your group pulls in too many different directions about which titles are desirable to read.

6) If your group would like to read in a genre that is more plot driven and doesn’t stand up well to long, deep discussions.

7) If your group doesn’t enjoy heavy literary discussion and would prefer more emphasis on book discovery, side topics, or socializing.

8) If a few of your members are continually disgruntled about book selection, even though they remain loyal attendees and have interesting points of view.

9) If your group is getting too large to allow all of your members to participate in a deep discussion adequately.

10) If your group would benefit in general from more flexibility to accommodate each reader’s moods and schedule.

11) If the organization that supports the group, such as a library or bookstore, would like to see larger participant counts and circulation  or sales numbers connected with the group, or can’t support the expense of obtaining enough copies of the book for all the readers.

12) If the group has many members such as librarians, teachers, or booksellers for whom knowing a little bit about a lot of books might be more useful than knowing a lot about a few titles.

If more than two or three of these descriptions apply to your group, if your existing group needs to be refreshed, or if you’re starting a new group with goals different than that of the literary seminar, it’s time to rethink the model for your group. I’ll be back later this week to discuss a new model, what I call the thematic book group.

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).

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