Unmasking the Phantom of the Book Group

Book Group BuzzThere’s a mystery afflicting several of my book groups, and many book-discussion leaders I talk with have the same problem. Might you have it too? We’re haunted by book-group phantoms—mysterious guests who sign up for our book groups, check out the book, and evaporate into thin air. We never end up seeing them! Stranger still, no one in the group will admit to knowing them. Do they even exist? Who are these phantoms?!


Zoinks! Jeepers! Ruh-roh!

But seriously. This is a problem, because it prevents a dedicated book-group member from having a book during the month they need to read it. In my group, what makes the matter a true mystery is that this absentee book-group member always seems to check out the book the moment I’ve stepped away from my desk! I am NEVER able to identify her . . . or is it him? Or (shudder) it??

These phantoms are experts in evasion.

For my book groups, I have a set number of books that have been purchased exclusively for our use. I have heard of other discussion leaders placing an author bio, discussion questions, or talking points in the books ahead of time, laying the groundwork for an enhanced reading experience—those materials then go missing, too. Naturally, I never know exactly how many members will attend, and I never expect an exact head count. Numbers fluctuate in my monthly meetings as some people go on vacation, others are called to watch grandchildren, and still others may be snowbirds off in warmer climates. This in itself has never bothered me. As a discussion leader, I think it’s important to be flexible and accommodate all kinds of group members. However, I don’t have an infinite number of books for the group.

July Book Group Reads

Out of the corner of my eye, I see the slightest bit of a flapping, dark cape as it whips around the corner of the reference desk . . . another book gone!

If we end up being short a book for our discussions, there are only so many things I can do. I’ll try to bring in circulating copies from the district’s collection, but that can be iffy. The book may not arrive on time, or even in good reading condition. I have often given up my copy and driven to a neighboring library district to find the selection. I have also tried asking the book-group members to help identify the person, but to no avail—these phantoms are experts in evasion.

I am out of ideas. I have dithered about this problem for years and haven’t really come up with a solution. So, I’m conducting some detective work, and am appealing to you. What can I do? Do you also have book-group phantoms at your library? Do you have a policy that addresses this issue? With shrinking book budgets, I am in need of some desperate help. Please help me unmask these spooks!



About the Author:

Sue Dittmar is a Sunday Librarian and active member of the RAteam in the St. Charles City-County Library District (MO).

6 Comments on "Unmasking the Phantom of the Book Group"

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  1. Ellen W says:

    I think there are a couple of things you could try. Create a display of the next book(s) the group will read and keep all copies of the actual books behind the circulation desk, so that readers must ask for them.

    The other strategy might be passing out copies of the next book to be read at the last meeting of the previous book. Members who aren’t at that meeting can then ask for the book at the circulation desk where the unclaimed copies will be shelved.

    • Sue Dittmar says:

      Hi Ellen,
      I love your first idea with the book display. I think that is an awesome thing to try. At least you would have to put a face and a name together.
      Your second idea is something I used to do. Unfortunately the procedure was changed around and my control was lost. I may change it back to see what happens.
      Thank you so much for helping me out!


  2. Lucy says:

    Unfortunately, passing out copies of the next book at the end of the last discussion meeting can cause it’s own problems. If all the copies are handed out at that meeting then there are no copies available to ask for at the desk.

    This does nothing to encourage new member participation and can have a negative impact on other customers wishing to participate. Especially if the library is trying to promote the idea that their book discussions are ‘open’ to everyone.

    • Sue Dittmar says:

      When there is a set number of books available, I usually end up with one or two at the desk. The rest have to be pulled from the collection and that is a time delay.
      I am fortunate that some of my readers do use their Kindle or nook but not enough.
      I am still noodling around with different ideas about how to have the books available. Does anyone have suggestions??


  3. Melanie says:

    This is frustrating and unfair to those who actually attend the book discussions. If you keep a sign-up sheet(name, phone/email, and book number), you may want to watch for a couple of months to see if it’s a repeat offender.

    If it is, you could talk to that person, and tell them your plight. I would thank him/her for the interest in your book discussion, but I would also emphasize that you are running out of books for those who are ‘actively’ participating in the book discussion groups. In this case, a regular circulating copy would be the best choice the ‘phantom member’. He/she should get the hint 🙂

  4. Tara says:

    I have the library barcode of all those who attend my book discussion at the library. I will place independent holds for them for the title. Any extra will be put on the Adult Book Discussion shelf for checkout by others. So those who attend get first crack at the titles. If they choose not to attend that month, they often return the books early.

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