Burlington County Library System
In this interview, Readers' Advisory Librarian Monica St. Clair discusses the three book clubs she facilitates at the Burlington County Library System in Westhampton, NJ. Aside from a "traditional" reading group, there is one dedicated to short stories, another that consists of an informal gathering in which people can discuss anything book-related over a light brunch, and an online group that posts in a blog format. Monica also explains the importance of reading "outside your comfort zone," and she shares some amusing anecdotes about unusually behaved book club attendees.
Q: Does your library host any book clubs? If so, are they based on a certain theme or genre (i.e., mystery)? How often do the groups meet?
A: We have three "live" book groups and an online book discussion. The most traditional of these is the Monthly book group that meets the second Wednesday of every month, and votes on upcoming selections about every six months. We read a variety of both fiction and nonfiction. The two less traditional groups are a "Books n'Brunch" general book discussion that meets bi-monthly, and is a casual get-together with no required reading. It's just a way to discuss books and authors, and make recommendations while partaking in a light, yummy brunch. We also do a monthly short-story reading group called "Short Cuts" --- an idea that was borrowed with permission from Kiera Taylor at the Lake Oswego Public Library. Again, there is no assigned reading since I read aloud approximately two short stories, which are followed by a discussion. Many members bring knitting, crocheting, or other sewing to work on while I read. Finally, we have a new online book discussion, done in a blog format. This is our first month doing it, so we haven't really seen it take off yet. We are hoping it will attract readers who would like to belong to a book group, but just cannot make it out to the library.
Q: How many members are in each group? How many men, how many women? What ages are most of the members? Are the groups open to accepting new members?
A: We always accept new members! All of our groups are open to anyone who would like to attend --- even if they come just one time --- so there is a lot of diversity in gender and age. Our monthly book discussion has about a dozen members and the ages span from 34-80+, slightly more women than men. I limit each Books n'Brunch meeting to 15 people, for obvious reasons (it would get expensive feeding more than that!) and again, the ages range from 30-80+, with slightly more women than men. Short Cuts is almost all women, with an occasional male visitor, and has anywhere from five to a dozen regular attendees.
Q: Who leads the book discussions? Are reading group discussion guides used?
A: As the Readers' Advisory Librarian, I am the moderator of the discussions, but find that generally our participants require very little encouragement. Although none of our groups use a formal reading guide, I do peruse them before a discussion to look for points that might otherwise be overlooked during the natural conversation. I also look at reading guides for information on the authors, and usually put together a small bio on the writer that I hand out at the discussion.
Q: How are books selected? Is a new one chosen at each meeting, or are they chosen for a number of meetings ahead of time?
A: For our traditional monthly book discussion, a nomination and voting is done every four to six months, and selections are voted in by members. We try to select about six month's worth at a time. For Short Cuts, I search out and read a wide variety of short stories and make selections based on what stories might have the best potential for discussion, what the group may enjoy, or sometimes which ones might make them laugh.
Q: What were some of the best discussions or favorite books the groups have read?
A: Our traditional monthly book group loved Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. We had a large turn out for the classic To Kill a Mockingbird.
Q: How are book club meetings kept interesting and fun?
A: In our Short Story group, I notice a lot of participation becomes personal, that is, members work their own experiences into the discussion and relate it to the story. Many of our regular attendees are interesting people with unique experiences, which adds something extra to the discussions. Also, serving coffee helps.
Q: What advice would you give to other libraries that would like to start hosting book clubs, or provide resources for ones in the community? What are the benefits to hosting book clubs at a library?
A: My advice would be to make sure the library has enough copies of the book selection. It's frustrating when people tell you they did not attend a recent discussion because they just could not get the book in time. The most obvious benefit of a library book discussion is that a library is the most economical way to get your hands on any book. After all, it's free! We are also likely to have more than a few copies. Also, there is always a space available to meet in, and it's a great way for avid readers to get to know library staff and find out about other reading resources that may benefit them.
Q: What general advice would you give to book club members? Any specific ideas for making reading selections?
A: I would say don't be afraid of reading out of your comfort zone. There is often a big difference between what I might personally choose to read, and what I think would make a good book discussion pick. A good reading selection might be something I might otherwise not read on my own, and might have greater discussion potential than something I know I am going to like without a doubt.
Q: How can book clubs better utilize resources at their local libraries?
A: Check the online catalog for copies of books, and then use your library cards to reserve them. Also, ask about book discussion kits, which often come with many copies of the selection and reading guides. Finally, get to know the Readers' Advisory Librarian! They can help with book club selection ideas and discussion points.
Q: Does your library offer anything special for book clubs?
A: We are starting to put together book discussion kits, but still need suggestions for titles and input from book clubs.
Q: Do you have any horror stories, amusing anecdotes, or other tales to tell that you have heard from book clubs?
A: I have heard of people who randomly attend one discussion and exhibit unusual behavior, such as declaring that they have not read the book, advocating watching television over reading, or showing up dressed in a historic military uniform costume, and then never returning. I have also heard of new members only showing up for a few discussions, just long enough to have their book selection nominations voted in during a voting meeting, but then never returning...and their selections end up being horrible!
Q: Is there anything else unique or noteworthy about book clubs (either ones that meet in your library or ones that you know of) that you would like to share?
A: I've noticed that many members enjoy writing themselves, and I know that one of our groups inspired a senior member to write and self-publish her autobiography.
Q: Are you a member of a book club? If so, what do you enjoy most about the experience from a reader's perspective? Does being in a book club enable you to better suggest both titles and discussion ideas to reading groups?
A: Well, yes. I am technically a member of all of the groups I moderate here at the library. I really enjoy it when someone makes an observation about something in a book that --- in hindsight --- seems so obvious, yet I did not pick up on in my reading. It's really a three-dimensional reading experience to be a part of a book group, as you can see the book from perspectives outside your own. It's like having coverage for your reading "blind spot."
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