Some may look at the social networking book club format presented earlier, and think that there is no need for the library to take such an active role in facilitating discussion through social networking. After all, there is already plenty of discussion of popular titles on social media. But the problem is not the quantity of discussion, it is the quality of the interaction. Aside from the occasional favorite quote, most posts are on the order of: “Stayed up all night to read Hunger Games” or “Haven’t cried over a book this much since The Notebook.” These statements are not well-suited to promote satisfying discussion or deeper evaluation. This is not an entirely new challenge for libraries. Libraries have long recognized that it is insufficient to place people in the same room and expect them to spontaneously discuss a title to the satisfaction of those involved.

Social media has already provided the meeting space, and it is vast. All that’s left is for librarians to do what they have done before: coordinate discussion to be as invigorating and satisfying as possible for the participants.

Many strategies for effective library book clubs can be translated to social networking. Barry Trott’s article “Book Group Therapy” is very helpful for identifying qualities of an effective in-person discussion group, (WSU students can access the full article by clicking this link).  I have adapted many of his thoughts into the following strategies for a social networking book club:

 Strategy 1: Ground Rules

Ground rules for an effective book club should be established early and enforced kindly and consistently. It is understandable that these rules will present a different set of expectations from normal social media conduct. In fact, this different structure is one of the elements which provides an experience for patrons which is distinct from the norm. But these distinctions will not be entirely intuitive for most users. As such, clear guidance about intended depth and type of content is helpful. It is important to remember that the patrons who are interested in the depth of discussion common to social media have no reason or need for a virtual book club, just as a library patron who is content to occasionally chat with a co-worker about a popular title might have no interest in a structured book club. As long as the structure is clearly communicated, those patrons who are attracted to the structure will participate, those who are not will pass by.

If patrons will host these book discussions on their own pages or on group pages, make sure that these ground rules can be easily copied or shared. These guidelines should fit within a single photo or page, and should be branded with the library and program info. There is, of course, no way to ensure that patrons follow the rules once the discussion is hosted on their page, but articulating expectations will do much to encourage a satisfying discussion.

Strategy 2: Focus on the book

It can be easy for a discussion to become tangential. How these situations will be dealt with should be decided before the start of the book club and presented clearly in the guidelines. One option is to encourage patrons to keep comments within the scope of the questions indicated, and for other comments to be communicated through messaging or page comments. However, this might stifle what could be seen as a productive conversation. This is where an individual library’s understanding of its patrons can be helpful.

The discussion should be in-depth, using open-ended, text-enhancing content. Although engaging questions might be the centerpiece of the book discussion, additional content like author info, surveys, web links, and parallel passages from other books might further enrich the experience for the patrons.

Strategy 3: Meet regularly in a focused environment.

Just as the library foyer is not a good place for a book discussion, neither is a library’s main page. The (hopefully) high volume of traffic that the main library page receives will render discussion threads prone to random, tangential, or surface-level comments.

Although it would be easy to post questions for an entire book at once, it helps build continuity by posting questions for a new section each week. It also helps to prevent accidental spoilers by group members. The regularity builds a sense of expectation and can build relationships between repeat contributors.

Strategy 4: Encourage participation from everyone in the group.

One of the goals of a social media book club is to create a more coherent group than those naturally occurring on social networks. In fact, it intends to create a social network which is interested in engaged communication within the larger social media platform. If someone has been regularly engaging in content for the majority of the sessions, but then suddenly stops commenting, it might be appropriate for library staff to invite them back to the group for a specific question. It is important to not be pressuring, but the fact that someone notices when they are not commenting could actually be a refreshing experience in social networking. Patrons could really appreciate a simple message like, “Roy, we’ve missed your comments on Chapter 6. Hopefully you just fell behind on your reading and will share your insights once you catch up. Thanks for your participation, and we hope to hear from you soon! –Richard A., Lorem Ipsum Library Associate”.

Strategy 5: Target a certain size and focus for the group

Since these book clubs are intended to encourage ongoing interaction between people, a library might consider limiting the size of its book groups so that the members can learn who each of the participants are. This could be done through the use of group functions of social networking. These groups could be offered based on reading speed, reading approach, or other titles read. The easiest way to divide patrons into groups would be by age, but I do not think that is best because it will undermine some of the potential for diversity in these groups. It can be very important to distinguish one group for people who have not read a title or series before and another for people who are reading it again. Groups could examine social issues in the context of literature or compare one title with others of the genre. And what’s more, as long as there is sufficient interest and organization, all of these groups could run concurrently without confusing any of their members.

Strategy 6: Give the Patrons the Power

It is important to realize that the book discussion is for the benefit and enjoyment of the patrons. The structure is only present for this purpose. Whenever possible, it is important to empower the patrons to guide the group themselves. Encourage them to email possible questions for upcoming sessions. Allow them to vote on the guidelines for their group. Have them select the titles to read. All of these can help with group formation as well. One group may be more tangent-friendly than another. One group may want cited references in their discussion. This is no different from other library services, and there are always judgment calls to be made while balancing different interests. But once patrons feel that the library is an organization that encourages their voice, they will be far more likely to interact with and appreciate the library’s services, however they may be accessed.

Want to learn more? Check out these related links:

Fisher, Barbara. “Reading is a Contact Sport”. Reference & User Services Quarterly. 44:4

Moreillon, Judi; Jennifer Hunt; Sarah Ewing. “Learning and Teaching in WANDA Wiki Wonderland”. Teacher Librarian. 37:2

Rua, Robert. “Mission: Connect”. Library Journal. 136:8

Trott, Barry. “Book Group Therapy: A Survey Reveals Some Truths about Why Some Book Groups Work and Others May Need Some Time on the Couch”. Reference & User Services Quarterly. Volume 49, Number 2, p.122-25.

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