Henrico Library Patrons Connect With Books
by Pamela Bachman, Andrea Brown, and Ingrid Whaley
With the current popularity of audio books and Internet sites, how is the good old-fashioned book faring among library users? As far back as 1997, the Madison (Wisconsin) Public Library began noticing that, except for bestsellers, people were checking out fewer books. Their solution? They organized several book discussion groups. Book discussions are not a new phenomenon, although they certainly have received a boost from Oprah Winfrey. Book groups encourage patrons to go back to the older titles on the shelves, to revisit the classics, and perhaps most importantly to strengthen their sense of community, the feeling of connection with other people that soothes the spirit. The Atlanta Constitution recently included this comment from a dedicated book club member, "At the core of the exchange is a single book, just sheets of paper bound by a cover, but with words that touch the very core of who we are...."
The County of Henrico Public Library of Richmond, Virginia, has been offering monthly book discussion groups to its patrons for over ten years. Three groups got their start at the Sandston, Varina, and Gayton Branches. Glen Allen Branch added a book discussion group soon after its opening in 1995, and a group devoted to exploring all aspects of the mystery genre has flourished for three years at the Tuckahoe Area Library. The groups are all well-attended, and they not only encourage reading, but, as libraries rely more and more on sophisticated technology, they give members a sense of community with a human touch. One member of the Tuckahoe group comments "I look forward to coming each month. Some of the books I've already read, but it's always fun to re-read and discuss them. Others are new to me. It's a great way to find out about new authors." Amy Lang, who, with her husband, Bob, has been attending the Gayton book group for nine of its ten years, says, "A book really comes alive for me when I hear what other people have to say about it. Bob and I don't feel a book is complete unless we share it with others. That is the main reason we have been coming all these years."
Andrea Brown, Ingrid Whaley, and Pam Bachman serve as facilitators for the book discussions and consider these duties to be among the highlights of their jobs. Although reading the selection each month requires off-duty time, moderating a book group nourishes their interest in people and their love for talking about books. The facilitator's job can be fun, but it requires well-honed communication skills, knowledge of group dynamics, and solid reader's advisory expertise. In addition, because other staff members are affected by meeting times or are involved in preparations, the facilitator must coordinate scheduling and ensure the timely completion of tasks.
Other staff members, volunteers, or group members may be called on to complete various tasks in the preparations. The job list for managing a discussion group includes creating posters and flyers, word-processing reading lists, photocopying packets of information, maintaining the roster of members, contacting speakers, providing refreshments, and setting up chairs and tables. To publicize the discussion groups, Henrico is fortunate to have a librarian in charge of publicity, a monthly newsletter, an information channel on cable television, and an easily accessible Web site. Finally, to cover all the bases, moderators call on each other or on group members to fill in during illness or vacation.
Over the years, The Friends of the Henrico County Library have provided strong support for book discussion groups. Friends at the Varina Branch, Gayton Branch, and at the Tuckahoe Area Library have provided refreshments and extra copies of books. Glen Allen Friends provide honorariums for guest speakers. At Sandston, virtually all of the members of the book discussion group are also Friends of the Sandston Library.
Although moderators may vary in their approach, one fundamental rule always applies: it is impossible to please the entire group at any one time. This sounds intimidating, but ironically, this fact of discussion life becomes an advantage in almost every case. There's nothing like a good "I hate this book!" declaration to break the ice. With the exception of a tour de force like Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier or a P. D. James mystery novel, discussions end quickly when everyone "loves the book."
Another rule also seems ironic: large numbers are not a measure of success. Once in a while Gayton hosts groups of 25 of more. The members normally sit in a circle, and the intimacy that can be achieved with a circle of 15 to 20 people gets lost with such a large group. If a book is challenging or not very appealing to some members, the group can dwindle to as few as eight, but a good discussion is still possible. A rule of thumb seems to be that five to 20 people make an interesting, manageable discussion.
Not only are group members exchanging thoughts about what they have read, but they are also learning about an unfamiliar place, a particular time in history, a unique way of life, or the life and thoughts of a particular author, and there will be varying reactions to all of this. Some members will not attend every time, nor should they feel pressured to do so. Some leave the group for a while and return when time and interest warrant. A few people attend only once, just because they particularly like the book for the evening. One patron had met Harper Lee, and he attended Gayton's discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird in order to share that experience and his love for the novel. He has never returned to the group, but his visit enriched the entire evening.
Although there is no "wrong" thing to say about a book, and everyone who wants to speak is encouraged to do so, occasionally it is necessary to intervene if one individual makes lengthy or numerous remarks to the extent that other people do not have an opportunity to participate. A moderator must be alert to such situations, and to body language and facial expressions, perhaps asking specific members about their opinions if they do not seem to have an opportunity to inject their thoughts. Conversely, no one is required to participate, and members who have only read part of the book, or who have not read it at all, are welcome.
Discussions may become very informal, as members relate the book to their own lives. Personalities and experiences are revealed as the evening progresses, and that process can be as engaging as the book itself. Each group includes a variety of ages and occupations, and although traditionally book clubs seem to be made up largely of women, many of the Henrico regulars are men. One young mom used to bring her sleeping infant with her to the Gayton discussion. A Tuckahoe patron describes her group, "There is a wonderful mix of people, from housewives to business people to English professors and a retired physician."
Careful research and preparation enhance each discussion. For the Gayton group, Pam uses reviews and author material to open each meeting. To set the tone for a book, she researches localities and historical events. For example, Memoirs of a Geisha prompted research on geishas so that there would be pictures and information to pass around. Ingrid regularly provides materials at Glen Allen's circulation desk for members who may not have time for their own research. Andrea presents a brief overview of the mystery author's life, career, and awards. In addition, she prepares handouts which include some of this information, along with a bibliography of the author's works, lists of books in series, and URLs of websites. All the moderators have on hand questions or quotations to stimulate the discussion, but even without these, the sessions are usually lively because members have their own questions and points to make. The goal is to launch the discussion in an informative and entertaining way and then keep the discussion on track.
Variety helps keep book discussions fresh and interest high among members. To this end, all of the book clubs participate in and enjoy special activities such as guest moderators, video clips, demonstrations, and social gatherings. For a Gayton discussion of Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time, a patron brought in a videotape of Goodwin's own discussion of her work. Pam has used music to add to the atmosphere, e.g., a recording of "Wayfaring Stranger," a song which is mentioned in Cold Mountain. Andrea organized a demonstration to show how the Internet can be used to research mysteries, awards, upcoming books, and critical opinion. For a session on Agatha Christie she showed a video of the author's life. Guest moderators have included present and former Henrico Library librarians who have a particular love of mysteries.
Sandston's group has a luncheon every December and takes a field trip in May to such places as the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, and the Library of Virginia. In December 1999, members at Tuckahoe were invited to read a food-related mystery and prepare a recipe from that book to share at a holiday pot-luck dinner. Earlier this year, local author Ann McMillan appeared at Tuckahoe to talk about her first Civil War mystery, Dead March, and will return in March 2000 to discuss her second book, Angel Trumpet. Another local author, Dennis Danvers, led the discussion at Glen Allen when the group read his first two books, Wilderness and Time and Time Again. Louis Manarin, noted Virginia historian, helped the Glen Allen group talk about Richmond After the War, by Michael Chesson.
Selecting the titles to be read is one of the most interesting and enjoyable processes for both moderators and members. There are several methods, but the end results always reflect give and take among the members. One consideration in making the final choice is availability of copies in the library system and of uncataloged paperbacks. Pam selects about half of the Gayton titles but honors all requests from members. She asks only that they have read the book they recommend. At Gayton, the group tries to tackle at least one classic, one biography, and one work of non-fiction each year, as well as one or two bestsellers, shying away from titles that are just for entertainment. Glen Allen's selections reflect the same philosophy; the members would rather read works that "they probably would not read otherwise."
At Sandston, the library staff works with the group each summer to put together a list that includes both fiction and non-fiction, classics and contemporary works. Glen Allen's group selects titles in November for the next calendar year, each member picking twelve titles from a list compiled from all the members' suggestions. Tuckahoe's members select books for several months ahead, using recommendations from both the members of the group and from Andrea. Sometimes the group will select an author and ask Andrea to pick the "best" one. As one member puts it, a book group "is a great place to discover new and old authors."
Both Tuckahoe and Varina have experimented with a thematic approach to selection. At Tuckahoe, in July, August, and September of 1999, the theme was "Three Views of Crime in Contemporary Britain," with selections by P.D. James, Elizabeth George, and Martha Grimes. Sometimes two books are read around a theme to give two differing points of view. For mysteries in an academic setting, the group read Quieter Than Sleep by Joanne Dobson and An Imperfect Spy by Amanda Cross. During one year, Varina's group concentrated on themes such as Southern fiction, mysteries, and African-American biography. Members read any book on a certain topic, and no specific title was chosen. In January of 2000 Varina will revisit the theme idea, when the group will compare the Harry Potter books to the C.S. Lewis Narnia series and the Prydian series by Lloyd Alexander. (All book club selections are available through the County of Henrico Public Library web site: www.co.henrico.va.us/library.)
To sum up, Henrico librarians have learned that successful book discussion groups require a prepared and dedicated library staff facilitator and assistance from other staff and volunteers. "Rules" are kept to a minimum, and flexibility during discussions ensures member participation. Input from the members regarding the selection of the books is important. Allowing time for socializing encourages the members to get to know each other better, since book club members who enjoy each other's company enjoy the discussions more. Finally, Andrea, Ingrid, and Pam all try to get to know the members of the group as individuals and to keep in touch with them. Henrico libraries are committed to providing the self-enrichment and sense of community that so many patrons are finding in their book discussion groups.