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Volume I, Issue 1, February 20, 2002

Starting a Book Club in a Mid-sized Public Library: A Practical Guide

Susan E. Boring, Reference Staff, Ferndale Public Library,

Chances are, the man or woman approaching the reference desk these days is not going to ask for the title of the latest John Grisham novel. The most frequently asked question in public libraries is: "Do you have computers that have access to the Internet?" Like other libraries in Oakland County, Michigan, the Ferndale Public Library is "connected." However, for those patrons looking for a different kind of connection, the human connection, the Ferndale library started an adult book discussion group in the spring of 2001. Here is how it was done:

The first order of business in setting up our book club was determining a day and time. Because Ferndale is an older community with a large number of retirees, it seemed that an afternoon program would be appealing. We also hoped that an afternoon group might attract stay-at-home parents with school-age children. Once a time and day was established-12:30 p.m., the third Thursday of the month-our next step was to advertise the book club.

One of the most efficient ways of publicizing our group was to place large flyers at the circulation desk. Smaller information sheets designed to be bookmarks were also made available there. Large handouts were then printed up and placed strategically around the library. The Ferndale Public Library Website, which is updated monthly, announced our new adult book club as well. However, the most effective way of recruiting prospective members was simply to recognize those patrons who frequent the library on a regular basis to check out books, and to ask them if they would be interested in joining our club.

Keeping in mind the current popularity of book clubs, we decided not to advertise in the local newspapers. Our immediate goal was to have a group of approximately ten people. Conversations with other public library book club leaders in the metropolitan area convinced us that larger groups could become difficult to manage: In one case a librarian had to resort to using a gavel to draw club members' attention back to the discussion at hand. We feared that over-publicizing our club might actually result in turning people away who wanted to join, and we did not want to risk offending anyone. That's how confident we were that the Ferndale Adult Book Club would be a success!

When the day of our first meeting arrived, we felt some trepidation. Would anyone show up? Refreshments had been advertised, along with the book to be discussed: The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve. Surely the enticement of free food would draw in some folks. There were a total of five people in attendance, including the group leader, at that first meeting. The participants went around the table and introduced themselves, and each person wore a nametag. At the next meeting, our group had increased to eight, and it has remained at that number ever since.

The philosophy behind the book club's operation was communicated to the group at that first meeting. We jointly decided that each member would have input into which books would be read, keeping in mind that some books do not readily lend themselves to discussion. One reason people join book clubs is to broaden their reading experience and expose themselves to books outside their usual interest. Therefore, we decided not to limit our choice of books to any particular genre. Members would be encouraged to bring book suggestions to each meeting and, as a group, we would make a selection for the following month. Interlibrary loans would be our primary means of obtaining books for the book club members.

Preparation is necessary for a successful book discussion. The coordinator has the responsibility to look for those sources that will enhance the discussion. There are many reading group guides and biographical information sources to be found on-line and in print. A simple handout can provide invaluable information to book club members. When we read The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway, everyone was given a map of Australia, which enabled members to have a clearer picture of the author's journey from the Outback to Sidney. For our upcoming discussion of Jay Winik's April 1865, a transcript of the author's interview with Brian Lamb of C-Span's Book Notes program will be utilized.

Book reviews can be an illuminating point of interest, as our group discovered when we read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. We were surprised to learn that the book still sparks controversy and has been banned in some school districts as recently as the 1990s (Sova, 1998, p. 71). One member of our group admitted that she had forbidden her stepson to read the book years ago. Having read the book, she now wonders what all the fuss was about.

Personal anecdotes, such as the aforementioned one, add a special dimension to any dialogue. Much of what we read, we can relate to our own lives. Sharing personal information with the book club group can often be revealing. When the topic of survivor's guilt came up during our character analysis of Holden Caufield, the group learned that two members had lost sons at an early age, one to cancer and another in a car accident. These sobering revelations profoundly impacted our discussion.

One of our liveliest discussions was generated by The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler. This non-fiction work tackles the subject of urban sprawl and American dependence on the automobile, familiar topics for anyone living in the Detroit area. Our book discussion turned political as everyone voiced his or her opinions on local issues such as city planning and mass transit. The book club had suddenly transformed into a town hall meeting!

Plainsong by Kent Haruf has been the favorite book read so far. Everyone loved it. Traditionally, book clubs have been made up largely of women (Bachman et al., 2000, p. 14), but we are fortunate enough to have one gentleman in our Ferndale group. There is one passage in Plainsong that is particularly moving and without any trace of self-consciousness, Bill, our lone male member, read it aloud to us:

The light in the street seemed sharp to her and hard-edged, definite, as if it were no longer merely a late fall afternoon in the hour before dusk, but instead as if it were the first moment of noon in the exact meridian of summer and she was standing precisely under the full illumination of the sun (Haruf, 1999, p. 78).

At that moment, transfixed, the Ferndale Public Library Book Club had truly bonded!

Not every book selection was welcomed by all members of the group. One member suggested we try science fiction. Our choice was Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. Only a couple of people finished the book; most could not get past the first chapter. We will probably avoid science fiction selections in the future.

The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter received mixed reviews. Because he is a Michigan author, the book seemed a natural choice for discussion. Those members who did not like the book objected to some of the more bawdy passages and found none of the characters appealing. Yet, others found the characters interesting and deemed some of the passages laugh-out-loud funny.

Our book selections have not always been uniformly well received, but they have still managed to give rise to intriguing discussion sessions. Some club members never seem satisfied with the chosen book, and their comments are consistently negative. Yet the group leader cannot allow this attitude to dampen the enthusiasm felt toward the book club and its objectives. At the very least, it is reasonable to expect that everyone will approach the choice of books with an open mind. It may be necessary for the group leader to periodically remind everyone of this goal. Occasionally, too, a member may mistake the book club meeting for a group therapy session. In this instance, it is the group leader's responsibility to keep the discussion focused on the book at hand.

"As libraries rely more and more on sophisticated technology, [book clubs] give members a sense of community with a human touch" (Bachman et al., 2000, p. 13). The exchange of ideas and shared reading experiences truly create a special bond within the group. After one particularly animated discussion of the Ferndale Public Library Book Club, one of our more vocal members said that she felt confident that she could openly express her opinions without fearing that the other group members might take her comments personally. The challenge for any book club leader is to provide a setting where every participant feels that level of comfort.

As the Ferndale Public Library Book Club approaches its first-year anniversary, we look forward to welcoming a few more members to join with us in the continuing pleasures to be found in reading and discussing books.

Book Club Selections, 2001-2002, Ferndale Public Library


Bachman, P., Andrea P., and Whaley, I. (January/February/March 2000). Henrico library patrons connect with books. Virginia Libraries, 46, 13-16.

Haruf, K. (1999). Plainsong. New York: Vintage.

Sova, D. (1998). Banned books: Literature suppression on social grounds. New York: Facts on File, Inc.