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TL v57 n1 Book Clubs: The Library's Safety Net
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Tennessee Libraries

Volume 57 Number 1



Book Clubs: The Library's Safety Net

Heather Lawson
Adult Services Coordinator

Sara Ellen Reid
Parkway Village Manager

Alan Stewart
Electronic Services Coordinator

Memphis Public Library and Information Center


Conference Abstract: Learn about MPLIC’s “Tell Me About a Book!” program and its grand finale, the Book Club Conference.  Learn about the motivation behind attracting book groups to the library and a way to do it, and how to create fun conference sessions such as: author conference calls, “The Book Club Players,” and speed booking. 


Heather Lawson:

I am sure all libraries are noticing the benefits of book clubs. As we know, fiction is one of the primary reasons customers visit our libraries on a regular basis. Memphis Public Library & Information Center staff has focused on book clubs for several years now. As I discuss those projects, I hope you can use our libraries experience and tailor that information for any size library.

I am going to explain the basics of our book club ideas. Alan Stewart who is the Electronic Services Coordinator, and is also an actor, will describe the Book Club Players, which is another way to have fun and network with book clubs. Finally, Sara Ellen Reid, who is the manager of one of our busiest libraries, Parkway Village, will cover the ways to get the most out of an author conference call.

In 2005, we established Tell Me About a Book! to coincide with our regular Adult Summer Reading program. The idea was to encourage book clubs throughout our service area to participate, including:

  • library-associated clubs
  • independent clubs
  • newly formed clubs

The goals of the program were to encourage adults to read and discuss books to broaden their appreciation of reading. The program promoted book clubs as a vehicle for:

  • reading
  • sharing
  • lively debate

We also wanted to encourage spontaneous book clubs. How were we going to do that? It revolved around Joyce Saricks’ readers’ advisory question, “Tell me about a book you enjoyed and why?” While Joyce does not own this phrase, I did talk to her about our using the phrase as a courtesy. Any library can follow our lead and recreate Tell Me About a Book!

To encourage impromptu book discussions we produced buttons with the phrase, Tell Me About a Book! Many libraries are doing these types of programs, so it is not surprising that there is an Unshelved Librarian t-shirt that says “Guess What Book I am Reading.” If you cannot get someone to donate the cost of the buttons, stickers are cheaper or even name tags could be used.

You do need to remember you are wearing the button. I went up to a counter at Macy’s and the person working one of the counters, didn’t say “May I help you?” He said, “I love David Sedaris.” This can be a little disconcerting to have some one begin a conversation with “I love David Sedaris.” Fortunately, I also love David Sedaris and we were quickly exchanging other loved author’s names.

As part of the program, we created registration forms and developed prizes. The registration forms provided us with a way to connect with many of the book clubs in our community. A space was provided for listing their members and the book they read. Similar to how our Summer Reading programs work, participants fill out a registration form every time they read a book.

The first year the major prize for 19 book clubs, one per library, was to attend a special event, “Dessert and Discuss” featuring a bestselling author. We received a grant from the Assisi Foundation and Mid South Reads to pay for Elizabeth Berg’s visit. She read from her many titles and focused on the importance of the written word. It was a great evening.

Another fun book club prize, which might work for your library, is featuring a book club on a personalized READ poster. ALA Graphics sells a READ CD with eye-catching designs and graphics. By providing us with a digital photograph of their book club members and by choosing a background design from the READ software, we were able to create exciting posters for them. Some of these were framed and placed in the branch the book club represented.

This year we added the “Book Club in a Bag” as a prize. Many of you may already offer this. Our bags contain advance reading copies sent by publishers to the library, reviews of the book, a Reading Group Choices 2007 (donated by this company) and an 8-page instructional guide we developed called “How to Start and Sustain a Book Club.” The guide was available at all library locations and from our web site.

To further encourage the formation of new book clubs and assist existing book clubs, we conducted workshops. “How to Start and Sustain a Book Club” had 4 trainers including the staff librarian from a local newspaper, Johnnie Mosley of the Men’s Renaissance Book Club and Inger Upchurch of the Mother-Daughter Book Club. We presented information on the basics of getting a book club started, choosing a book, facilitating a meeting, sustaining interest, how to discuss a book and finally, additional resources such as books, websites, and publisher and author contacts.

Time was set aside during the workshop for a discussion of challenges faced by existing books clubs and those starting a book club. This proved very interesting. The participants asked questions and also provided suggestions.

Feedback actually fueled the idea for a book club conference. An attendee pointed out that there was a Southern Festival of Books, but not a special event for book clubs.

Please remember that any library can take parts of this plan and use it.

Don’t be dissuaded by money issues. We did receive grant money to pay for the lunch and two bestselling authors, but this was only two elements of the conference.

One of the lessons learned after conducting the conference is that a full-day of programming was too long. This year we are planning a half-day. Also, we received comments that the word “conference” had the wrong connotation and was not exciting enough. This year we are calling the event, The Book Club Extravaganza.

The day was broken down into registration, opening session, morning session with 4 program choices for attendees, lunch with an author, afternoon session with 5 program choices for attendees, and a closing session with another author. This upcoming year one of the authors will speak at the opening session, another will speak at the luncheon, and we will eliminate the afternoon session.

Some of the topics for the sessions were:

  • Conference call with Jayne Ann Krentz
  • Conference call with Travis Hunter
  • Help! I’m In a Book Club:  the Book Club Players demonstrated tips to keep books clubs on track in a fun, exciting and entertaining way.
  • Speed Booking, similar to speed dating but with the prospect of having new adventures without the chance for heartbreak.
  • Emily Giffin and Chick-Lit: one of the visiting authors led a discussion on this genre.

We had a series of programs but you could do any one of these separate from a conference event.

After the first year of Tell Me About a Book! we wanted to reach more customers and we knew one way to do that was to reach customers online.

Thanks to Doris Dixon’s creative abilities we started a Memphis Reads blog,, which includes library staff reviews and a chance for customers to make comments. From May to August we had 5,749 page visits and that was estimated as 1,427 visits. One reader made a comment from Australia which thrilled the staff reviewer.

Finally, for those seeking grants, I highly recommend using the Nov./Dec. 2006 issue of Psychology Today, p. 51. It includes information on studies, such as the Journal of Research in Personality which stated that “frequent readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than did readers of expository nonfiction. A follow-up study showed that fiction could actually hone these skills; People assigned to read a New Yorker short story did better on a subsequent social-reasoning task than did those who read an essay from the same magazine.” All of this is good news for libraries.

Alan Stewart and Sara Ellen Reid will now discuss the Book Club Players and making the most of an author conference call.

Alan Stewart:

The “Book Club Players” idea was based on a program that Memphis Public Library staff had presented at several TLA Annual Conferences, as well as at training sessions in our own organization, called “The Ethics Players.” This format involves dramatized sketches, largely improvised, based on a plausible scenario. While the Ethics Players focused on exploring ethical issues in the library profession, the Book Club Players’ purpose was to illustrate problem situations that sometimes crop up in the group dynamics of book clubs and to stimulate discussion about how to resolve these problems, with the attending book club members sharing the benefit of their own experiences with each other.

What’s required to be a Book Club Player? In our own program, we have found the primary requisite is a willingness to make a fool of oneself in a good cause. Acting talent or experience is a nice plus, but a fun-loving attitude and a readiness to “play” is much more important. Our troupe was composed of a mix of staff from the Central Library and the branches, from public and support staff, from management and “the ranks.” It included the aforementioned Johnnie Mosley and Inger Upchurch from our North Branch, Leonard Williams (Hollywood Branch), Carolyn Ray (Purchasing and Supply), and myself.

How many Players do you need for a program? For our Book Club Players presentation last year we used five players, but you could have more or less.

Our guideline for scenarios was to start with plausibility, aptness, and potential for useful discussion between the players and the audience. As noted, we largely improvised the content of each sketch. Successful improvisation of this kind generally requires

  • A clear identification of each player’s role in the sketch.
  • Some basic ideas to “play out.”
  • Awareness of each other as performers – letting fellow players “have the floor,” avoiding talking over each other, and playing off each other.
  • A sense of how the sketch should end (and when – the whole group needs to be aware of time limits – though one person may be responsible for the actual wrap-up).

Some time in rehearsal is a plus, but it is not absolutely essential, and you don’t want to overdo it. The amount of rehearsal needed may vary based on the experience of the individuals involved.

If your Book Club Players aren’t entirely comfortable with improvisation, you could write a complete script – but note that a script will take more time to prepare and rehearse – and your presentation could lose some spontaneity.

A workable format is to have one person act as a facilitator to introduce the players and each scenario, and then lead the audience discussion after each sketch concludes. Within an hour’s time it should be possible to present 4 or 5 scenarios, with each sketch lasting about 5 minutes, and an equal amount of time left for discussion.

Finally, just to help you get started, here are a few of the scenarios the Memphis Public Library Book Club Players presented last year:

A Failure to Communicate

Wasn’t someone supposed to bring food? Weren’t we supposed to come dressed as our favorite character? No, we didn’t say we were going to read that Invisible Man. Don’t you ever read your e-mail?

Lost Under the Tuscan Sun

Leonard is in charge and thinks it would be fun to have a Tuscany-themed meeting with special food and decorations. Carolyn is all for it, too. Parties can be fun -- but what about the book?

Wait For Me

Inger is late to the discussion of Little Red Riding Hood and wants to talk about things that the rest of the club has already covered. Alan is eager to talk about the end of the story. To make matters worse, Leonard has read a different version than everyone else. Can we get back on track?

Decisions, Decisions

The club always reads romance novels and Inger is tired of it – she wants to read a mystery. Others suggest different options, but Inger is determined. Will the members ever find common ground?

One Cotton-Pickin’ Minute

The club is discussing A Painted House by John Grisham. Leonard dominates the conversation with his commanding knowledge of the history of the cotton industry. Unfortunately, he hasn’t actually read the book. But if the discussion is interesting, does it matter?

Sara Ellen Reid:

Preparing for and conducting a successful author conference call can be both rewarding and stimulating fun.

Both new and established, well-known authors are often willing to participate in phone calls with book clubs around the country. Last year at Memphis Public Library’s 2006 Book Club Conference we used this idea for a workshop in which thirty participants had a lively 45-minute conversation with best-selling author, Jayne Ann Krentz (a.k.a. Amanda Quick) via a conference call to her home in California. With a little preparation and planning, you too can facilitate a successful author call for almost any group, large or small. The following are easy suggestions that may be helpful in ensuring a fun, interesting discussion with the author of your choice.

  • Prepare an attractive display of the author’s books. Make sure each is available for check-out so attendees can take home any displayed copy if they desire.
  • Ahead of time, familiarize yourself with the phone system so you can effortlessly engage the speaker phone with a number of people watching. Also double-check the correct phone number and make certain you have allowed for time zone differences.
  • Before placing the call, “introduce” the author to the group by giving a thumbnail biographical sketch; also discuss briefly the author’s genre and writing style.
  • Display a recent photograph of the author, if possible-- several times during our discussion, I held up Ms.Krentz picture as she talked.
  • Introduce yourself and your group to the author, so she has a good idea of the setting, the group and its size before the conversation begins.
  • Most importantly, prepare a number of possible questions or discussion topics to give out ahead of time to participants who want them. Some may be hesitant or slow to think of questions on their own, particularly if they are unfamiliar with the author’s works. Having prepared questions was definitely an ice-breaker for my group, and as the conversation progressed, most didn’t need them.
  • Then…..sit back, relax, and prepare to enjoy a fun, enlightening conversation!

We hope that you can implement some of these ideas or revise them to suit your own community. Most importantly, remember that book clubs may have within them many of your strongest supporters and ambassadors to reading.

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