An initiative of the American Library Association

Support Groups for Book Discussion Leaders

A librarian walks into a bar, sits down, and puts her head in her hands. The bartender strolls over and asks, “Tough day at work? Your relationship headed south?” “Both!” answers the librarian. “Book club did not go well today; it did not go well at all . . .”

Time to admit it—even if you have never headed right from book club to a bar, there have been days when it’s been tempting. Everyone hated the book and did nothing but complain about having to read it for two hours straight. Maybe one person hijacked the discussion and turned it into a diatribe about her political beliefs. Or, even worse, a heated argument broke out, you lost control, and participants started screaming at each other . . . over a book!

At their best, book discussion groups are the epitome of why we became librarians in the first place. We get paid to read a book and talk about it with fellow book lovers. Sounds perfect, but then reality sets in. Book clubs are actually a complicated dance, where we have to balance the content of the book, the act of leading and planning a discussion, and the realities of an ever-changing group dynamic of patrons dragging their own personal baggage to the discussion. And we generally do all of this alone, without the benefit of another coworker in the room to help us manage it all.

As the librarian in the bar above indicated, when book club goes south, you have work and relationship troubles all intertwined. It’s enough to make even a seasoned book club leader’s head spin, and the only other people who can truly understand how you are feeling are fellow book discussion leaders. But where are they? If you don’t find help soon, you might be the one with the embarrassingly loud outburst at the next meeting.

Those of you who lead book discussion groups know I am not exaggerating about these issues and feelings. Every single one of those examples have happened to me at one time or another in my 15 years of leading book discussion groups, but I have found a better solution than heading to the nearest bar. I found a book discussion leader support group, a place where I can recharge my batteries, share my successes, commiserate over my failures, and look for inspiration with colleagues from all over the region. Let me tell you about it.

The Adult Reading Round Table (ARRT), a group dedicated to developing readers’-advisory skills and promoting reading for pleasure through public libraries in the Chicago area, provides its members access to quarterly literary book discussion and leadership training. We give library book discussion leaders the chance to sit back and enjoy being discussion participants while also offering a forum for sharing questions and practical solutions to the unique problems and concerns of book group leaders. This “nuts and bolts” training session is offered at the end of each discussion. Both the traditional book discussion and the leadership training session are moderated by a member of the ARRT Steering Committee. ARRT offers a rotating cast of leaders, titles, and locations so that members can find a discussion that fits their schedule.

Not only does the ARRT literary book discussion and leadership training allow book discussion leaders, weary of always being the facilitator, the chance to rekindle the spark in their relationship with their book club by giving them a chance to be just a plain-old participant for a change, but it also provides a moderated outlet for book discussion leader therapy. Yes, we call it leadership training, but that is so your boss will give you the time off desk to go. Really, it’s an old-fashioned therapy session.

Here are some sample topics we have covered recently:

  • How and why to include the author in your book discussion.
  • Best practices for choosing which books your group will discuss.
  • Using genre titles for book discussions.
  • How do you save a group that is dying, or when is it okay to kill it?
  • How do you handle crowd control?
  • How do you find questions that arenít stupid without always having to write them all yourself?

While we always begin with an official topic, we also encourage participants to bring up any questions or concerns that they have with their specific group. We try to offer each other advice or possible solutions. Often we have tackled this very problem ourselves. But no matter what, we are always there to listen—sometimes, thatís all you need.

Feel free to look at what we are doing at ARRT. We have created an entire website chronicling our exploits, including detailed notes on our discussions. You can look at the notes of our book discussions to test-drive a title. These notes give you an example of what was most discussable about a specific book. But you can also look at the notes of our leadership training, where we speak honestly about how things are going with our groups. The notes do not include library names or even the speaker’s name. People are encouraged to be honest about challenges and frustrations. Our meetings are often their only chance to bring up troublesome issues and tricky problems with participants, administrators, or even colleagues. The note taker respects anonymity while still keeping a record of how we tried to help each other, with the expectation that this frank and open discussion can assist others, near or far.

Use our support group as inspiration to talk to your colleagues from other libraries in your area and try to start your own. Only other book club leaders truly understand that the job is equal parts rewarding and challenging. By uniting and providing a safe place where you can both recapture the magic of why you fell in love with book club in the first place, and offer each other an understanding shoulder to cry on, everyone wins—you, your patrons, your colleagues, and your library. Well, maybe not everyone. The bartender will be losing out on your repeat business.

Becky Spratford is an Illinois librarian specializing in serving leisure readers ages 13 and up. Follow Beckyís exploits in RA training on her popular and critically acclaimed blog RA for All or on Twitter @RAforAll.


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