laptop and print book

Humanities & Technology at the Crossroads: Launching an Online Book Group

My library hosts several book groups; last year, I facilitated 10 groups, with members reading everything from graphic novels to Iranian literature, at an average attendance of 7 members per group meeting. I arrange reading groups with an eye to what might appeal to a wide range of patrons, whether groups are led by experts in their fields, librarians, or patron volunteers.

Last year, I conducted a book group survey, and the respondents indicated that the main barriers to attending book groups at our library included the inability to attend at the dates or times of the scheduled meetings, as well as significant geographical distance from the library. I’m always thinking about how tech tools might assist in improving public services, so I decided to try something I hadn’t seen in libraries: an online book group.

The first decision to make was the reading focus. I chose non-fiction because several survey respondents had requested a non-fiction group, and there was an intersection of those people with those who were geographically distant or couldn’t make it to the library due to scheduling.

The second decision was where to host the book group site. I scoured the web to find examples of library online book groups; the few I found operated via goodreads. Since our library is a public subscription library, we needed to limit participation to our membership. We also needed to ensure standards of communication among members that met our library’s anti-harassment policy, which meant that I would need to be able to block members who violated the policy. The Electronic Services Librarian, who is also our Webmaster, created a page on the library’s website for me, and I learned the basics of Drupal to kit it out.

I penned an etiquette and conduct policy to link at the landing page where members would log in to the site or find instructions on how to obtain a login and starter password if they didn’t yet have one. Interested members contacted me and I manually added them to the site’s user list; this was feasible for my library because we have 4500 members, which in San Francisco is a relatively small service community; about 125 members (3%) use library services on a given day, with an average of 70 members attending at least one book group during the month. Depending on the size of your library, you might prefer to run login through your ILS and let any library member sign in using their card number.

My idea about design was that basic is better; a simple UI would foster a focus on the material, so members wouldn’t have to learn how to use too many bells & whistles in order to contribute. Once members logged in, they’d see three tabs: This Month’s Book, Discussion, and Past Book Selections.

  • This Month’s Book mirrored the introductory material leaders begin with in an in-person book group: a brief author bio, a bit of background on the book, reviewer quotes, and any other relevant material.
  • Discussion encompassed two major categories: Group Info and Book Talk.
    • Group Info was where we’d discuss book group “business”, e.g., choosing next books, discussing any in-person meetups, or posting optional reader bios.
    • In the Book Talk area of the discussion board, I’d post four or five starter questions each month to get the conversational ball rolling.
  • Past Book Selections collected all of the previous This Month’s Book entries as a linked list. In the spirit of an in-person book group, and in service to library privacy standards, i.e., non-retention of patron records, I wanted to keep the discussion portion ephemeral. I didn’t preserve past discussions, clearing everything when a new book was posted. The reading list was the only material that persisted on the site after a discussion month had ended.

I tested the design with librarians who were familiar with discussion forum interaction, as well as those who were not; I used their feedback to tweak the particulars of the site, trying to strike a balance between “too complicated for beginning users” and “not functional enough for experienced users”; the launch was publicized in the library’s book group brochure, the monthly newsletter, on our website, and by creating a special poster for each of the first six books on the reading list. I also hosted two “introduction to the online book group” hands-on tutorial classes.

As you may have intuited from my past tense verbs, this book group has now folded. In the launch month of the online book group, 13 members requested login credentials, but many of them failed to discuss the book in the forum. By the ninth month, when we decided to fold, discussion had dwindled from 5 active members to 1; my book group policy for librarian-led groups is a minimum of 4 average attendees in months 6 – 9 to continue after the incubation period. This group discontinued after the September 2016 meeting.

Since then, I’ve been gathering feedback from members who participated in discussion at least once, and have found that book selection and site design matter a lot. Some members found one of the early books too dense, and gave up on the group altogether. Other members said that after the first month, they forgot they’d signed up and the login page was a deterrent because they couldn’t remember their login credentials. I’ve also touched base with a couple of members who signed up but never got around to participating in discussion. A majority of them said that they were confused about how to post, or felt anxious because what they had to say wasn’t “important” enough.

Although this group didn’t resonate with my library’s membership in its first iteration, I think it’s important to reach library members where they are — and where they are may be online. When planning library services, it’s worth remembering this contingent of library patrons: those who are homebound, distant, or have work schedules or life responsibilities that make a midnight book group their ideal time, and the internet their ideal meeting place.

Have you tried anything like this at your library? How did it go? Any tips you’d like to share with librarians who may be interested in starting an online book group for their service communities? Share in the comments!