Through COVID-19 Closures, Libraries Take Book Clubs Virtual

Though most libraries remain closed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, public librarians are still connecting with their patrons—thanks, in part, to virtual book clubs.

Though most libraries remain closed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, public librarians are still connecting with their patrons—thanks, in part, to virtual book clubs. While the face-to-face versions are familiar ground, virtual book clubs can be uncharted territory for some.

Librarian Laura Baker told LJ that the Guelph Public Library (GPL), Ontario, generally tries to choose books for which multiple copies are available on Cloud Library or for simultaneous access on Hoopla.

At Morristown and Morris Township Public Library, NJ, book clubs focus mostly on the classics—books that are in the public domain and thus readily available. “These are ebooks that people can get for free. Maybe they even have them on their shelf at home,” said Head of Technical Services and Cataloging James Collins. Past picks included Emma and Little Women; patrons who saw the recent film adaptations of these novels but hadn’t read them were encouraged to attend the book club meetings.

Some librarians are solving the problem of access by adopting a more casual approach. At the Decatur Public Library (DPL), IL, patrons are invited to share whatever they are reading. “We each have varying tastes, and yet there was still some overlap,” said Alissa T. Henkel, head of programs, resources, and services. Most patrons come away with new ideas for books to try, she added.

Anxiety related to COVID-19 and the shutdowns left many of Baker’s patrons unable to concentrate on reading, so she, too, shifted gears. “Opening up our notion of a book club to discuss podcasts, knitting patterns, bread-making adventures, and Netflix binges has been a really unifying experience. Book clubs have always been about more than just the book being discussed. It's really edifying to just check in with each other and share what we've been up to.”

 

PICKING A PLATFORM

When deciding how to host a virtual book club, librarians should consider a number of issues, including safety. Though many institutions use Zoom for virtual meetings, some libraries have reconsidered the platform because of “Zoombombing,” in which uninvited participants enter meetings to verbally attack participants. For that reason, CCPL decided on Discord.

Librarians should also think about whether their patrons would prefer text-based chatting or video discussions. Brandon Thompson, outreach services coordinator at Madison County Public Library (MCPL), KY, opts for a combination of the two. Initially his groups meet for live text chats on Facebook or Google Hangouts; later, they attend Zoom meetings. He’s noticed that text-based chats are popular because users can participate on their own time—though there are scheduled times for chats, generally patrons log on whenever they like and reply to open-ended prompts. Members of a group devoted to Jack London’s The Call of the Wild even posted memes related to the recent film adaptation.

GPL also uses Discord, which has both text and voice channels. One of its groups includes the Introvert’s Book Club, aimed at users less comfortable with webcams. ”I think as the pandemic wears on, there's a lot of ‘Zoom fatigue’ happening,” said Baker. “A strictly text-based book club offers a welcome respite from that and fills a need for community without the demands of a webcam.”

Baker noted that Discord lets administrators customize the virtual space using different categories—in the “lobby,” patrons find a welcome page; at the “reference desk,” they can seek help; and in the “stacks,” they can take part in book group discussions. A “staff room” is visible only to librarians.

Sally Mann print
Deep South, Untitled (Tree with Two Streaks), one of the artworks discussed in CCPL's Literary Gibbes book group paired with Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs.
1998, by Sally Mann (American, b. 1951); gelatin silver print; 2016.007

Similarly, at the Charleston County Public Library (CCPL), SC, Programming and Outreach Generalist Kate Hudson generally uses voice channels for book group discussions and posts discussion questions on the text channel, along with examples of artwork for the Literary Gibbes book group. Hosted jointly by the library and the Gibbes Museum of Art, this book club pairs a text with an exhibit or piece of art from the museum; before the shutdowns, Literary Gibbes usually took place at the museum and members could visit the exhibit in question after the discussion.

Hudson advises librarians to try out different platforms. “Maybe recruit some family members, some people who are not necessarily doing Zoom meetings or Team meetings, or used to using chat platforms to interact, and see how it goes. See the kinds of comments that come up about what’s difficult for them or what they don’t like about it.” If the library has existing book clubs it is looking to transition online, she suggests polling members to see what they prefer.

 

TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES

Adjusting to new technology can be challenging for patrons; Hudson recommends that librarians build time into virtual book club meetings to allow for technical difficulties. “I’ve literally been on my phone texting with some members and also typing in the chat channel but also trying to keep the discussion running,” she said.

She finds running the virtual version of Literary Gibbes much easier because she can rely on her cohost Becca Hiester, associate curator of education at the museum. “One of us would continue the conversation; the other would help the person trying to get in,” Hudson said. “That’s something else to consider, having more than one moderator.”

Virtual meetings don’t always lend themselves to spontaneous discussion, with participants sometimes talking over one another. While some platforms, such as Zoom, have a “raise hand” function, Discord doesn’t, so as moderator, Hudson keeps an eye on the group; if someone is having trouble breaking into the conversation, she’ll intervene to help them speak up.

Hudson’s library’s website features a list of directions for logging onto Discord, and she suggests setting up a user guide or even a video tutorial. Seeing a familiar librarian walking them through the setup might make patrons more willing to embrace a new interface, she noted: “There’s my favorite librarian showing me how to use that.”

 

FOSTERING COMMUNITY

Though virtual book clubs pose hurdles, they can be an opportunity to connect with members of the community the library doesn’t ordinarily serve. Baker has seen readers who live too far away to attend in-person book clubs taking part in her library’s virtual events; there’s even one member from Halifax.

MCPL offers a Together with Your Family book club, which includes members of an assisted living facility as well as their family members, many of whom live in other cities. MCPL’s Call of the Wild book club was cosponsored by the Berea Parks and Recreation Department, which gave the library another way to reach new attendees. “Basically, we’re casting as wide a net as we can with our book clubs and all our virtual services,” said Thompson.

Thompson advises other librarians to forge similar connections. “Don’t work in a vacuum. Start talking to members of the community. Start calling nursing homes, assisted living facilities, public schools.”

DPL recently partnered with Julia Livingston, the director of Court-Appointed Special Advocates, who, spurred by the death of George Floyd and the resulting protests, started a virtual book club, Discourse on Racial Difference. Though Livingston will be running the book club herself, the library is buying physical copies and ebooks of the titles on the list to support the endeavor.

Even as libraries begin to reopen, many librarians say that virtual book clubs are here to stay, given that many patrons will still be reluctant to enter public spaces. “There will come a day when I am able to walk into a nursing home again and do a book club,” said Thompson. “But even when that day comes, virtual programming is going to be increased compared with the pre–COVID-19 paradigm.”

He added, “Virtual library programming allows me to contribute to the community in positive ways. I can still enrich the lives of my community members. I’ve been able to laugh with community members and share warmth with library patrons. We’ve been able to remain together.”

Author Image
Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor for Library Journal, and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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