Career Strategies for Librarians
Creating Connections in Your Community: Starting and Leading a Book Discussion Group
by Nancy Larrabee
Do you love to talk? Do you love to read? If so, have you considered starting and leading a book
discussion group at your library? Creating a book discussion group is a natural way for you to connect
with your patrons. Starting a group involves a lot of planning and organizing; leading one takes even
more time and effort, but offers you the opportunity to strengthen vital work skills and gives you an in-
depth knowledge of your collection. Your personal and professional commitment to creating a
successful group will become your driving force and motivation.
As you contemplate the idea of forming a book discussion group for adults at your library, write down
your initial thoughts on a piece of paper. Check out some of the many print resources about book
discussion groups, such as The Reading Group Handbook by Rachel Jacobsohn (Hyperion, 1998) and
Book Discussions for Adults by Ted Balcolm (ALA, 1992). The entire process will run more smoothly
and benefit you more if you have a definite vision and specific goals you wish to accomplish.
Make a proposal to your supervisor and get his or her approval. Once you have your supervisor’s
endorsement, you should create a schedule for yourself. How often will you meet? Keep your reference
desk schedule in mind as you plan your program details. Once you decide on a day and time, keep it
consistent. Book the meeting room as soon as possible.
Will you ask participants to sign up? Will you serve refreshments? Setup details that at first may seem
insignificant can prove to be pivotal in your success as a leader of a new group. Getting an idea of the
size of the group beforehand is important. One of my first book discussion groups in the community was
at a local YMCA. We were to discuss Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom (Doubleday, 1997). The
coordinator had two groups of seniors, one small and one big group. I made the assumption that mine
would be the small group. I did not ask and she did not tell me ahead of time which group would be
scheduled. Forty-five seniors attended the meeting – much too big a crowd for a satisfying discussion.
It was the only time that I had no choice but to use a microphone. When starting a new group, watch the
demand for the group, and limit the registration or consider offering two sessions.
Allow Plenty of Time
Managing your time appropriately will become important when you’re in the midst of a series. A library
book discussion group might meet 8-12 times a year. As I developed my skills as a book discussion
leader, I realized that I needed to read each title at least twice in order for me to feel completely
knowledgeable about it. If time allows, read other books by the author. In anticipation of leading one of
my very first book discussion groups, on Ladder of Years (Random House, 1996) by Anne Tyler, I
ambitiously set out to read all the titles by that great American author. As a new librarian, this self-
assigned task gave me a valuable literary education.
Selecting the book, doing the research, and forming discussion questions all take time during the work
day and on your own time. Getting the word out about the group is one key to your success as a book
discussion group leader. You will need to give colleagues the details about your new discussion group
so they can answer patrons’ questions. You as the leader need to select your book titles at least six
months ahead of schedule. See that you have a quick summary of the book and details of your next
meeting on your library’s web site and send that information to the local newspapers. Your time
management skills play a role in keeping participants interested and informed.
Know Your Author
For a library book discussion group, it is important that you choose the book and give yourself time to
prepare. Book selection is a key component to the success you will have as a leader. Books that have a
strong theme, dynamic characters, interesting relationships, or a detailed location always provide for a
worthwhile discussion. Take a look at Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal for ideas.
You will need to work with your circulation department staff once you have decided on a title. Plan to
have multiple copies of the book available for checkout. The concept of supply and demand will play a
part in the success of your group; having the books available for patrons will encourage them to attend
and to keep attending.
I remember the first book I chose to discuss, No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon &
Schuster, 1994). It is a wonderful, Pulitzer Prize-winning historical book – 650 pages long. Ten people
attended that discussion. Only one person managed to finish reading the book. When choosing,
remember to keep in mind the length of the novel or non-fiction work.
Exploring a different culture through reading is an exciting way to energize your group. When I led a book
discussion group about Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracey Chevalier (Dutton, 2000), the participants
were excited because the current exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan included
Johannes Vermeer’s work. This novel discusses life in the Vermeer household from a young servant’s
point of view. I was able to integrate books about his art into the discussion. Participants were very
eager to learn more about the artist. Another good example of an inspiring work sparking a great
discussion was a book discussion on Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (Knopf, 1997). The book
prompted a stimulating discussion because it led to men and women debating the different concepts of
beauty between genders and countries.
Remember, reading can be quite personal. All of your group’s participants bring their own unique
history, memories, and background to the discussion. Very rarely in my seven years of leading various
book discussion groups has everyone liked the book. It provides more collective insight when there are
varying opinions. In fact, just once when I was running my group was there a consensus. I had chosen
Samurari’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama (St. Martins Griffin, 1996). Participants were from many different
cultures and had many different experiences. It was an enlightening discussion and we were all
surprised that no one had one negative thing to say about the book.
Use online and print resources to research information about the author. Publishers often provide
reading group guides for many titles. If applicable, check out the author’s web site. Patrons often want
to know about and read additional titles by an author. I suggest having a display in the meeting room of
other books written by the author you are discussing that day. Another good idea would be to create a
one-page handout discussing the author’s background. Often patrons arrive early, and an informative
handout is a good way to get them thinking about the book. Leading a book discussion group is a
challenging way to test your creativity skills.
Learning to Lead
As the group leader, what will be your delivery style? As you are forming the group, you might not be so
stringent about the number of people who attend. There might be just two people or 45 people in the
room. The simple arrangement of the chairs in the room can affect your leadership role. Will you need a
microphone? That is up to you and your comfort level.
Set some basic ground rules to the discussion so participants understand that you are in charge. To be
an effective leader, handle details and announcements first. Be sure to prepare 10 to 15 open-ended
questions. Reading group guide questions are helpful, but try not to read them word for word. Good
questions are essential to a good discussion. Be sure to get everyone involved in the discussion.
Leading a group’s discussion forces you to be more assertive. When separate discussions start, you
must get people to focus and speak to the entire group. You are also the timekeeper. A book
discussion group held at the library brings new people to every program. As the leader you need to keep
the discussion focused on the book. Many times participants will digress and make extraneous
comments. You might need to guide the discussion back to the book.
In two instances I learned how essential it is for a leader to maintain control of the conversation. At the
urging of a colleague, I had chosen Any Way the Wind Blows by E. Lynn Harris (Random House, 2002).
Participants were taken aback by this choice because street language is peppered throughout the
narrative and the main character struggles with his homosexuality. One woman tossed the book back at
my colleague and said, “Find me something else to read.” I made every effort that night to keep the
comments focused on the content of the book. The book sparked an inspiring discussion that was
probably the best one I ever led. Another example of the challenge of keeping control was during the
discussion of the book The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (Pantheon, 1999) at a local senior center. One
participant was disappointed when I did not allow time in our discussion for her to read a poem she had
written – a poem that I knew had nothing to do with the book being discussed.
Patrons come to meet new people and socialize with others. Initially, name tags and/or personal
introductions are a good way to encourage group interaction. You will see strangers become good
friends by the ends of your series. Sharing one’s thoughts in an environment of safety and respect is
essential to a good reading group. When reading group members get together to talk books, they start
to exchange more than their opinions. On a deeper level, they receive emotional satisfaction from being
a member of a group.
Create a Network of Resources
Being a book discussion group leader offers you a great chance to create a professional network of
contacts. If your library system offers a training meeting on the subject of book discussion groups, go to
it. If you have several public libraries in your area, survey the other libraries to see if colleagues would be
interested in forming a book discussion committee. If not, there are several online book discussion-
related sites such as http://www.readinggroupguides.com and http://www.readinggroupchoices.com that
offer a wealth of advice. There are many magazines such as Bookmarks and newsletters such as Ex
Libris that can help jump-start new ideas for discussion groups. Go to other library book discussion
groups and participate, or ask to simply observe how things are done.
Check out the available associations and organizations for inspiring thoughts and ideas such as Great
Books Foundation, http://www.greatbooks.org. The Great Books Foundation trains leaders to lead
discussions by the “shared inquiry method” and the novels discussed are classics by such authors as
Plato, Rousseau, and Shakespeare.
Reading is a very solitary activity, but given a chance to discuss books, people are certain to jump at the
opportunity. Time is a precious commodity these days, but you’ll find participants will make time and it
will quickly become their time to spend with their book group.
Taking on the challenge of starting and leading a discussion group will improve your organizational and
time management skills. By being a successful discussion leader, your core research skills will
automatically develop and strengthen even further. As you build up your group, your public speaking
skills will become effortless and your network of professional contacts in the community will flourish.
Pearlmann, Mickey. What to Read. Harper Collins, NY, 1999.
Saal, Rollene. The New York Public Library Guide to Reading Groups. Crown Pubs., NY, 1995.
Seattle Public Library. Book Clubs How-To’s. http://www.spl.org/default.asp?
About the Author:
Nancy Larrabee has worked as librarian at the Greenburgh Public Library since 1993. She has always
been an avid reader and has been a devoted follower of Oprah Winfrey’s book club since the beginning.
She created and ran her library’s book discussion group from 1995-2002. She started a second book
discussion group at a local senior center that continues to this day with another facilitator. She also
represented the library as a book discussion leader at a local YMCA for three years.
Article published Jan 2006
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.