The purpose of this paper is to describe an adult public library program that used the social media site Goodreads as the platform for a year-long online book group. More than a decade ago, Oprah’s Book Club created the idea of mixing media and traditional book clubs by using television and her website. Librarians try various ways to engage their patrons, so we decided to begin using social media as a new book group platform, which was a spin-off of Oprah’s model (James, 2004). This article describes what steps were taken to begin this project, how it was implemented and maintained throughout the year, how it was revised for the following year, and how the program concluded. Librarians will be able to apply some of these ideas and use them to improve adult services in other library systems.
Over the past few years, social media has grown exponentially and is a part of every-day life for a large portion of society (Odden, 2013). For bibliophiles, one such site is Goodreads, which was established in 2007 and currently has over 25 million members, 29 million reviews, and 750 million books listed (Goodreads, 2014). While working in a public library as an adult services librarian, the Branch Manager and I decided to use Goodreads for an adult program to reach out to those who prefer social media over onsite programs, or in addition to those programs in the library. We saw the Goodreads program as an opportunity for the library to maintain its relevance in an increasingly technologically-centered world, and as a way to engage patrons by using the social media platform.
Goodreads is a social media website I like to refer to as “Facebook for bibliophiles.” It is a free site that requires membership for most of its services. Members create user profiles and virtual bookshelves, which they can personalize. Bookshelf examples include: books to-read, read, favorites, books read in a particular year, etc. People also use Goodreads’ virtual shelves as an online library, where s/he posts books owned in a personal collection. Recommendations are also given, which are based on books on each user’s personalized bookshelves (Goodreads, 2014). According to Goodreads co-founder Otis Chandler’s message:
[Goodreads] is a place where you can see what your friends are reading and vice versa. You can create "bookshelves" to organize what you've read (or want to read). You can comment on each other's reviews. You can find your next favorite book. And on this journey with your friends you can explore new territory, gather information, and expand your mind. Knowledge is power, and power is best shared among readers (Chandler, 2014).
Another feature of Goodreads is the “Explore” section. One can find books by genre, and another option is “Listopia.” Listopia allows users to look at lists that have been made on the site, with various titles highlighted under “Featured Lists,” “Lists with Recent Activity,” “Lists My Friends Have Voted On,” “Popular Lists,” “Brand New Ones,” and “Best of” lists. The Listopia option is also searchable by a basic search bar or by tags (Goodreads, 2014). This is a wonderful resource for librarians to use in readers’ advisory and can also be used to get ideas for book displays (Trott, 2012). Another option in the explore section is giveaways, where members can see the early release books that authors are giving away (in limited quantity) to those who request them (Goodreads, 2014).
Goodreads also offers author pages, which allows members to connect with their favorite authors by becoming a “friend” or a “fan.” The author pages provide video clips which show the authors discussing their books, quotes from his/her books, access to their virtual bookshelves, and a list of all books written by the authors. The pages also give additional ways that fans can connect with the authors, including their twitter names, blogs, and websites (Goodreads, 2014).
Not much information has been written regarding the use of Goodreads as a tool for libraries’ online book groups, but the existing scholarship does mention other ways in which social media is being utilized by libraries. Social media is being used primarily for marketing purposes. Various sites such as Facebook and Twitter are free resources that provide librarians a way to connect with the community and to post information about upcoming programs and events (Tagtmeier, 2010). In 2012, Facebook surpassed the one billion active user mark (Facebook, 2014), and Twitter currently has 241 million active users, with 500 million tweets sent per day (Twitter, 2014). These numbers show how prevalent social media is in today’s society, and how imperative it is for librarians to embrace Web 2.0.
In March of 2013, Goodreads was sold to Amazon (Amazon, 2013), which made members both excited and wary. Some Goodreads members who were excited about the transaction hoped to have a joint log-in so that reviews listed on one site would automatically be added to the other as well. On the other hand, some members were dubious about this because they did not know how it would affect the actual workings of Goodreads (Chandler, 2013). Derek Askey (2013) commented that, “the buyout is worrisome insofar as Goodreads was one of the few places in which books could be discussed without the outright agenda of selling them.” If one decides to buy a book listed on Goodreads, will s/he automatically be sent to Amazon instead of another bookseller like Barnes and Noble? Will policies be changed on the Goodreads site to match those on Amazon.com (Chandler, 2013)? Will book recommendations be based on algorithms that have a monetary factor involved (Askey, 2013)? People have voiced concerns about Amazon having too much power in the book world. Also, adding the information from Goodreads to their knowledge bank allows Amazon to have even more knowledge of users’ reading trends, which may or may not be a bad thing. Still, others wonder how this will change the publishing and book-buying world (Askey, 2013).
Processes and Implementation
The Huntsville-Madison County Library System is located in an area which, according to the 2010 census, had an estimated population of 343,000 people in 2012 (“State and County,” 2014), and approximately 76% of the population is at least 18 or older (“ACS Demographics,” 2014). Of the 131,263 households, 56% have an annual income of more than $50,000. The top classes of workers are private wage and salary workers at 75.3% and then government workers at 19.5% (“Selected economic,” 2014). 37.8% of the county’s population has at least a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education, so it is 15% higher than the state’s average of 22.3% (“Selected social,” 2014). As indicated in these figures and on the chart below, the county’s education level and annual income is higher than the state’s average for each area.
Figure 1. Demographics of residents located within the Huntsville Madison County Public Library System.
In the fall of 2011, the Branch Manager and I set a goal to increase adult programming at our branch, the Madison Public Library, which is part of the12 branch Huntsville-Madison County Public Library System (HMCPL). In the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library system, children are the primary focus for special programs, but we felt that adults should also have more programming geared towards their needs. Previously, Adult Summer Reading was offered, but, after brainstorming, the final decision was to have an additional program--a year-long online book group for adults. The Adult Summer Reading program proved to us that our adult readers were interested in organized reading programs. The adult demographic uses the library year-round, not just seasonally, so adult reading programs did not have to be limited to just the summer months. Several planning sessions were conducted and the librarians worked directly with the branch’s Friends of the Library group with the intention of starting a Goodreads group in 2012.
To get started on this project, we had to decide which online resource to use. After discussing various options with the IT department, which included the library’s platform for Adult Summer Reading and Goodreads, we collectively decided that Goodreads was the best option since it was already an established website with access to thousands of books and reviews. The project was named the Mega Marathon (52 weeks in the year = two marathons of 26 weeks) and we outsourced a logo design. Goodreads provides the ability for members to create groups, so we utilized the group feature for this program. This allowed us to set certain parameters for the group, such as patrons had to request to join the group, and setting the age limit for members. To ensure that group members were over the age of 18, each person who requested to join the group was asked to send us his/her library card number, which we would then check in the library’s system to see that 1) s/he had a card and was a member of the library system, and 2) was at least 18 or older. Library staff could also join the challenge, but they were ineligible for prizes. We added moderators, who could lead discussions and help supervise the group, help answer any questions, and contribute to the conversations. These moderators were the two librarians and the president of the Friends of the Library group at our branch library.
We hoped to have at least 50 participants in the first year, and thought 75 would be exceptional. Each day more and more participants requested to join the group, and before long, over 200 members had joined. For an adult program in the library, these statistics were remarkable, making this group one of the largest adult programs for the Madison Library to date.
The main challenge given to the group members was to read an average of one book a week, or at least fifty-two books in a year. The guidelines included that books needed to be on a young adult reading level or higher, with at least 100 pages; in any format (ebook, audio book, regular book); and any genre. Each book had to be listed on the group page throughout the year in order for the group members to get credit for it. Some members wrote lengthy descriptions and explanations on how s/he felt about the books, while others wrote just a sentence or two. The genre of books they could read was not limited, but recommendations and monthly challenges were given. These challenges were not mandatory, but the group members seemed to enjoy them and it gave the participants the opportunity to read different types of books. For example, some monthly challenges included reading a graphic novel or a biography. Members who did not typically read those types of books were exposed to new genres and literary styles.
The Mega Marathon challenge for 2012 was based on the number of books participants read. Members were asked to post a comment about each book they read throughout the year so that at the end of each month I could add up the total number of books read (by reading over the posts). For incentives, prizes were awarded on a monthly, quarterly, and yearly basis. One prize members were awarded was the chance to select a current book (published within the current year) to be placed in the library in their honor. Other prizes included were Friends of the Library bookstore vouchers, local bookstore gift certificates, e-readers, and a grand prize of an iPad Mini. Each level of prizes had a specific number (of books read) attached to it, and the top reader received the grand prize. At the end of 2012, all of the participants who had read at least 52 books were given an “I Survived” t-shirt. This t-shirt rewarded those members who worked so hard to meet the challenge, but it also helped advertise the library when they wore it out in public.
Throughout the year, our main goal was to keep the reading group active. The moderators added “ice breaker” questions, polls, and other book/reading-related questions to start conversations about books or literary themes and also to gain background information on the participants, including how they heard about the group, what types of books they read, and if they prefer books to ebooks. These questions helped members connect with others, but then also helped the library see which type of advertising was the most effective. Each month the moderator would add a new folder for participants to log the titles of books s/he completed reading, and also post any comments about the books. I also posted the mini-challenge for the month and posted the names of the month’s winners in those monthly folders. This kept the group page organized.
This set-up seemed to work well for the patrons involved. It allowed them to access the group at his/her convenience. This group did not have set times that the members had to be at a discussion, like typical face-to-face book groups. They were able to choose their own books to read and have open discussions about them. An interesting type of readers’ advisory the librarians noticed throughout the year was that the Mega Marathon members found other members who liked the same types of books, so they would recommend additional titles to each other. Even if they had never met in person, the connection through books was there.
After the outstanding success of the first year, we decided to continue this program for 2013, but with a few changes. To keep the Goodreads project exciting and to avoid stagnation, the branch manager and I decided to revamp and offer more contests to those who wanted greater challenges. For 2013, participants were given a new option with the Point System Challenge. With the point system, each book read was worth at least one point, but if books were 400 or more pages, they were worth additional points. Also, if participants met certain monthly or quarterly challenges, those books were worth additional points. As an incentive to those who did not read as much but still wanted to participate, points were awarded for library-related participation, including points for those who attended face-to-face book clubs, programs, classes, and the Mega Marathon quarterly get-togethers. The quarterly get-togethers were held in various restaurants around the county, and they gave everyone a chance to meet their online group members and discuss books. Some of the monthly and quarterly challenges were more involved. For example, the “initials challenge” encouraged participants to read books with titles or authors’ names that started with the patron’s initials. Another challenge was to read books from his/her own Goodreads Recommendation list.
If participants did not want to do the points challenge, they were offered the chance to continue counting the number of books read, just like the 2012 challenge. Those in both challenge groups were still eligible for prizes throughout the year. This permitted the participants to choose his/her pace and degree of activity in the group. We also decided to add two year-long “Just for Fun” challenges that were open to everyone in the group, regardless of the other challenges they pursued. (These titles were not worth additional points.) An example of these challenges included reading books set in every state. Another was reading through the alphabet using books with titles or authors beginning with each letter of the alphabet. For example, participants could read The Noticer by Andy Andrews for their “A” book; Bones are Forever by Kathy Reichs for their “B” book; and so forth. Another change implemented for 2013 was that participants had to manage and count their total number of books and/or points, which required that we use the trust system. This burden of counting books was taken off of the moderators, which saved hours of time each month.
We also tried to incorporate participants’ ideas. Towards the end of 2012 and 2013, the group moderators asked for members’ favorite books (for a future challenge to read a book from the group’s “Favorites List”) and also for any suggestions for the next year’s challenge. Valuable feedback was received regarding the patrons’ likes and dislikes. Importantly, they offered helpful suggestions for Goodreads challenges.
This program was a wonderful opportunity to serve the local community. With feedback from group members and from the staff involved, some changes needed to be made before the second year (the labor-intensive counting of books each month being moved from moderator to group members), but the purpose of the program, to provide a year-long book group for adults and keep them actively reading, was fulfilled. We considered the program itself to be a huge success, due to the number of members, participation, comments, and feedback received.
After the first year of the challenge, participants gave so much feedback and many positive responses that the librarians felt 2013 would also be a successful year. We learned more along the way, and made notes on how people might like it to change for the next year. When the second year of the Challenge was completed, the moderators and librarians looked back over the members’ responses and recommendations and saw how to change the challenge to make it better for everyone. Based on feedback and participation, the group members seemed to enjoy the additional challenges, including the ones that did not earn them additional points. Some members chose to try the new point system, while others wanted to keep it simple and only keep up with the number of books read.
At the end of 2013, participation was so exceptional that the librarians chose to continue for another year. Based on patron feedback, the point system challenge was dropped and the original system of only counting the number of books read was reinstated. Several members responded that they felt the point system caused their competitive natures to come out, so they would choose books based more on the number of points they would earn instead of what they would normally have read. Others felt that the point system was too much work. One advantage with this type of online book group is its flexibility, which offers the opportunity to make changes while the project is underway. Librarians or moderators can improve their patrons’ experiences by using their feedback and measuring the activity for certain challenges.
I recommend this type of program to both public and academic libraries as a way to reach more patrons/students in the community. Depending on the library’s finances, it may not be possible to have large prizes, but that should not stop a library from pursuing this type of book group. The overall cost of running a basic book group will cost a minimal amount of money, but will require a good portion of a librarian’s time to do the initial set-up and advertising. Once the group has been created, it should not require as much time, depending on the set-up of the group (will the members keep count of their own books, or will that fall to the librarian/moderator?).
Overall, the year-long reading challenge fostered a sense of community among the group members: although they were spread throughout the entire county, they shared common interests and were able to connect to one another. Participants had interesting discussions about books, commented on what they liked or did not like, and carried on deep discussions. The group had participants who were teachers and school media specialists, and they decided to implement this in their schools to promote reading to elementary and secondary students. Others enjoyed it so much that they recommended that the library start a service like this for the teenagers so that their children could take part.
This book group gave exposure to a variety of books, and gave bibliophiles an outlet, a place to discuss their “good reads,” and fostered a sense of community. For the librarians, it was an inventive way to encourage more involvement and engagement with the patrons with a fairly inexpensive library program. This gave the librarians a chance to see what types of books were being read and how much demand there was for particular genres and titles, which helped with collection development. The Mega Marathon, by using social media, also showed the community members that the library is still a relevant resource for everyone and it will change along with the trends, that it is more than just a brick and mortar building. Even though the entire group did not meet in person (this group was county-wide), there was immense camaraderie and a sense of friendship. Goodreads provided a portal for book lovers to join together and discuss their passions--books.
I would like to thank Dr. Chris Shaffer, Sarah Sledge, and Dr. Kristine Stilwell for the editing, support, and advice they provided.
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Rachel Hooper is Business Reference Librarian at Troy University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.