How To

How To Start An Online Book Club From The Library

So you’re a library staff member (or maybe a big library supporter looking for some library support) who’d like to start a book club. At the moment, people are looking for community without being able to physically commune. Book clubs are always a great way to give someone a reason to hop on a virtual call, instead of just…hanging out. So here are a few steps to starting an online library book club, or converting an existing one that’s been on hiatus to virtual while we wait for the ability to meet in person again.

(Note: make sure you know what steps you need to go through at your specific library to get access to virtual tools or to have a new program approved. Those are going to vary by library.)

Step One: Figure Out Your Theme/Audience

No book club *has* to have a theme, but the ones that do are going to draw a more dedicated group. Even if it’s “Malcolm X Branch Fiction Readers’ Book Club,” that’s an indication of what you’ll be reading. If you are looking to serve a specific group, that helps you to pick out your theme or audience as well. Maybe you want to highlight works by queer authors or Black ones. Maybe you want to attract teens in a specific demographic. Maybe you just want to talk romance or nonfiction or non-romantic YA fantasy. An online library book club highlighting a specific group might draw people who identify with that group, but can also draw those looking to discover books in those demographics.

Not sure what kind of theme you want? Here are some ideas to start with.

Step Two: Figure Out Your Format

When it comes to format, there are two different pieces: how the book club will be structured and how you’ll come together online.

Step Two, Part One: Structure

There are always structural decisions that have to be made when you start a new book club. Some key ones:

  • How often will the group meet?
  • Will there be a set book list, or will members vote on the next one?
  • Maybe there won’t be a set book at all?

If you as a library staff member want to do a monthly book club, or even a quarterly one, you might want to choose all the books. Maybe they’re all books you’ve loved, or maybe they’re books you really want to read. Or maybe you don’t know much about them at all, but they’ve gotten great reviews and fit your theme. But your new members might want to make some changes. Be open to that.

There’s also the chance that you might garner more interest in a less traditional book club style, sort of like the book chats Book Riot sponsored a couple of years ago. The LGBTQ+ themed book club I run at my library, Rainbow Reads, alternates monthly between a selected book and a round-robin style share-out. As the organizer, it’s nice to not always have to read a selected book, and I can talk about some of the books I’ve read in the past couple months. And there are always people who might not have had the chance to read the selected book—especially if access is an issue with your library, whether it’s the number of copies available or, if your library is closed to checking out physical books, if there are any. Or maybe it’s a way to lighten the load on your already overworked library staff’s back; if a team serving a certain community wanted to have a quarterly chat about books around a topic, they wouldn’t have to commit to the same book, or even to reading a new one. We’re all busy and I know a lot of people who have struggled to read damn near anything in the past couple months. I don’t see that changing as the situation we’re in continues.

And let’s be honest: it might be easier to get a new program approved if you can show it’s not going to take up a lot of staff time.

Step Two, Part Two: Presentation

Once you’ve decided how you’ll talk books, though, you have to figure out how you’ll talk books. Is it going to be on one of the various platforms that allow you to see each other’s faces? Will you do a group text chat in a closed room? Will you have an asynchronous conversation on social media? There are benefits and limitations to each one.

Video Chat (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Teams, Facebook Messenger Room, GoToMeeting, etc.):

  • Visual medium where you can show your own face and take cues from participants
  • Allows for managing entry, including a dedicated link and password
  • Can record the session for callback (especially useful if you’re compiling a list of all the books discussed in a round-robin discussion)
  • Feels most like an in-person meeting

Text Chat (Slack, Discord, Microsoft Teams, etc.):

  • Allows for managing entry—participants are required to create accounts or be invited
  • Doesn’t require people to share their face or voice
  • Allows people to jump in and out without the awkwardness of video (have you ever turned off your video on a Zoom call because you wanted to snack during a meeting? It’s so obvious what you’re doing)
  • Written record of the conversation and any books or links that were shared
  • A familiar format for someone who isn’t used to video or doesn’t have the bandwidth for it

Social Media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.):

  • Anyone can join the conversation
  • Can choose to make it timed or asynchronous
  • Doesn’t require people to share their face or voice
  • Easy to link out or add other media
  • Easily accessible using a computer or smartphone without too much data usage (for people who don’t have wifi at home)
  • If your library has an account, your name and face don’t have to be everywhere
  • You can manage all of the conversations with a starting post or a hashtag

Or maybe you have access to some other mechanism to put it on. The possibilities for an online library book club are endless. It’s all about what tools you’re allowed to use and what you’ve got access to. It’s also about how comfortable you are putting your face out there.

Step Three: Get The Word Out

The most important part of any online library program is to make sure people know about it so they can come. Add it to your library’s event calendar. Post about it on your personal social media (if you want) and get the library to post it on theirs. Recruit individual people who you might not see anymore in person, but who you know would be interested. If your library has a marketing team, ask them what the best ways are to reach people who might want to join a book club right now. Since things aren’t happening word of mouth very much, and I doubt anybody’s handing out flyers and bookmarks, the best way to recruit virtual members is probably virtual itself.

Step Four: Meet Your Peeps

Once you’ve established what your book club is going to be and you’ve got a date and time set, prepare to establish some ground rules, expectations, or group norms. Ours range from speaking to each other using respectful language to including pronouns in our introductions. They can be whatever you want.

And if you want, use something like bookclubz  to coordinate and communicate with readers before your meeting.

Step Five: Don’t Lose Momentum

One downfall of virtual events I’ve seen is that they can be a lot of work, and so organizers let them fall to the wayside in favor of other, “more important” work.  Ask for feedback from your members after the first time your online library book club meets, and make changes if you need to. If people don’t like the book selections, or the time doesn’t work for most people, offer alternatives. If you’re not pulling enough people to justify the work, re-envision what you’re doing and try something else.

And when we can finally meet in person again, be ready to make changes yet again. You might lose people, or you might gain some who weren’t interested or aware before. Be ready for anything.

But keep it going. Or know what your parameters are, so you have a clear indication that it is truly time to let it go.

Want more tips on starting a book club? Rebecca wrote a good breakdown of all the things you need to think about as you start one.