Making a Book Discussion Your Own
September 27, 2019
Allison Bies, Schaumburg Township District Library
Three years ago, the Fiction Department at the Schaumburg Township District Library encountered a situation that is certainly not unique to us. How does a book discussion facilitator navigate a smooth transition for a group that has already been established? This could occur as a result of organizational, personnel, or scheduling changes. In our case, we became responsible for facilitating several well-attended groups comprised of long-term participants who held deep affinity for the previous facilitators. The following observations became clear after navigating three cycles with two monthly discussion groups and connecting with library staff members from other libraries in similar situations:
Relationships take time. You can announce your credentials and experience, but until participants attend a discussion (or two or three) with you, that won’t matter to them. They want to get to know you as well as the other participants. It takes time to learn the facilitator’s style and personalities of the other group members. Adult services librarian Shoshana Frank of the Naperville Public Library shared that group members were hesitant when she assumed facilitating duties after a previous librarian led the group for seven years. Caitlyn Hannon, fiction and media librarian at the Northbrook Public Library, stated, “Book club members will probably tell you how much they miss the other person. Do not take this personally as a slight against you; everyone is simply adjusting to the change, including you.” That is a good reminder, since it is hard to not take such comments to heart. View them as a compliment to the other person and not a critique of you.
Make it a priority to learn names. I use pre-printed two-sided name tents and ask if alternate spellings or nicknames are preferred. Always bring blank name tents and a Sharpie in case a newcomer unexpectedly arrives, coffee is spilled, or a tent is misplaced. As the months have progressed, I have learned regular participants’ names and call them by name upon arrival. This adds a personal element. Newcomers are always welcome, and I have found that it is easy to learn those names, since I am now familiar with the regulars’ names.
Consistently recruit. Even though we are fortunate to have a core of long-term participants, we are always looking for new people to join. I do this by personally inviting patrons while working at the public desk, especially avid readers. Several of these patrons have never previously discussed books in a group setting—just casually with desk staff. Most people new to book discussions feel more comfortable if they know someone, even the facilitator, instead of just seeing an ad and registering. Also encourage members to invite friends. One of my groups has several new participants who were invited by someone in the group.
Attend a discussion as a participant. The experience of coming to a discussion as a participant is quite different from coming to facilitate. The facilitator is viewed as the “expert” on the book. There is a different level of enjoyment, relaxation, and socialization in attending simply to listen and share. You also learn first-hand what it is like to walk into a discussion as a newcomer. If you have the opportunity to observe a group you will be facilitating, take advantage of that. I was able to do this. Hannon attended a discussion that she would be facilitating in order to observe and introduce herself to group. You could attend a book discussion at another library or in your neighborhood. I learn from different facilitating styles and discover new questions to ask to integrate with my own. The Adult Reading Round Table (ARRT) Book Club Study is a fantastic venue for this type of experience.
Always remember what it’s like to be new. Walking into a room where everyone seems to know each other can be intimidating, whether people are talking enthusiastically or the room is silent. At every discussion, I introduce myself and announce the expectation to be respectful of different opinions, responses, and reactions to the book. Diverse viewpoints make the discussion more interesting and rich. This provides a timely reminder for regulars and helps newcomers get acclimated. Frank announces to her group that all opinions are valid and valuable to the discussion, even if they conflict with personal views. Carrie Straka, Adult Services Department Head at the Itasca Community Library, started a discussion she is newly facilitating by stating, “I want to make sure that we hear from everyone in the group, so I ask that you don’t monopolize the conversation, and let’s be sure to hear from everyone who wants to share.” Straka also encourages participants to keep any thoughts about people of a gender, culture, orientation, race, or ethnicity other than their own, to themselves. I aim to have refreshments and nametags prepared early to be available to greet attendees at the door and answer informal questions. Include announcements about other library programs of interest, logistics and how to register for the next discussion and obtain the book. Be aware of veteran participants who bring up past titles, facilitators, or participants. Seek to value their comments without making new participants feel out of the loop.
Never underestimate the power of personal connection. Follow up with participants when they visit the library after a discussion. Let them know how glad you are to have them in the group, comment further on the book, or solicit ideas. Hannon talks with attendees for a few minutes after the discussion to build personal connection. Send a reminder email separate from the automated version your registration system generates. Ask members for suggestions of future genres and titles. This all helps participants feel as if they are part of the group. Straka aims to write her own discussion questions to develop a stronger connection.
Every group is different. One monthly group uses a five-star rating scale while others use a four-star scale. Two groups bring treats; one does not. One group loves a particular title, while another group generally dislikes it. Discussions can take different angles as well, so I have learned to release the expectation that discussions of the same title will go similarly. I switched my regular seat recently, and one group embraced the change, while participants in the other group adjusted their seats accordingly. Frank chooses titles that group members might not pick up on their own for her mystery discussion from small presses, with characters of color and translated works. According to Talcott Free Library director Megan Gove, book discussions continued without a staff member following a retirement. Depending on your library’s size and budget, patron-led could be an option.
My department was recently assigned facilitation duties of an off-site community book discussion. Compiling these lessons could not have been more relevant and timely. Your discussion will become “your own” as you engage in the consistent work of relationship building and maintaining a welcoming environment.