Book Club Going Virtual? Consider These 3 Things

Are you considering taking your book club online? Before you take the plunge, pause to ask yourself (and/or your participants) these three questions.

Drawn image of a computer with three people shown on screen similar to what's seen when on video calls
A live experience allows participants to maintain human connection similar to a traditional book club; members can read non-verbal cues and move from topic to topic naturally.

Stopgap measure or long-term commitment?

The first question you need to consider when choosing a platform is whether your online book club will be a quick fix or a new, ongoing program.

If you are creating a virtual book club as a stopgap measure, figure out what would work best for your regular members and which platform is most familiar to them. If you can, send a survey to assess their comfort level with your preferred options.

If you are planning on a long-term commitment, consider what you are most comfortable with in terms of time and technology. Your comfort level and ability to assist members in troubleshooting can make a difference in their experience.

Synchronous or asynchronous?

The second question you need to tackle is whether it’s important to have your members interact in real time. Both synchronous (e.g., live virtual discussions) and asynchronous (e.g., message boards with posts added at different times) book clubs have their benefits.

A live experience allows participants to maintain human connection similar to a traditional book club; members can read non-verbal cues and move from topic to topic naturally. A synchronous book club works better if you are going virtual for a stopgap measure as it keeps the book club’s routine. Disadvantages of synchronous approaches are that some patrons don’t have the technology (webcams, microphones, laptops/tablets/smartphones), are unfamiliar with the software, do not want to be on camera, and the traditional reason — the book club meeting time doesn’t work with their schedule.

Asynchronous book clubs, on the other hand, fit with everyone’s schedule and offer an enticingly lower time commitment for many members. The facilitator can schedule discussion posts to a message board, and there is less opportunity for technical mishaps that sometimes occur in video chatrooms. As for disadvantages, the facilitator needs to monitor discussion over time and often needs to work harder to foster socialization between book club members — something that tends to happen naturally in a live gathering.

Which platform?

One of the most important is which online platform to use. This decision will impact all the details of your club going forward, from the level and quality of members’ social interactions to the number of hours in staff time the club will require.

When determining which platform is best for you, consider the following: Do you want patrons to see each other and yourself? How much control do you want over patron privacy? And most importantly, what would your book club members be comfortable using?

Note that the following options are all free of charge (though in some cases, paid versions are available).

  • gives you 40 minutes per video-call with their free version. Currently, 100 participants are allowed at one time. In addition to voice capability, Zoom offers a chat feature for people who may want to type their contributions. Participants do not need to have a Zoom account and can join via phone, desktop or tablet. Zoom meetings can be recorded, which is helpful for sharing sessions with participants later. (Participants can decide to not allow their video or audio to be captured.) The facilitator has the ability to mute participants, which is important for individuals unfamiliar with the software as well as to cut down on any echo effects. Please note that Zoom can share the data that it collects with third parties.
  • Google Hangouts, another video-calling app, is part of the G Suite, and the facilitator needs to have a Gmail account. Participants do not need a Google account — they simply access the Hangout using the meeting link — but those not using a Gmail account cannot access the chat feature. Hangouts are limited to 10 participants unless the facilitator is a part of Google Apps for Education, Business or Government. The facilitator can mute participants. Please note that Google Hangouts are encrypted in transit versus end-to-end encryption, which means the information shared via the app lives on Google’s servers.
  • Facebook Live is a user-friendly option for participants, and anyone can watch, making it a good choice for libraries with Facebook pages. However, the sole focus is on the presenter; participants are not visible and can only add reactions and comments, which limits interaction. Please note that participants should expect all of the privacy (or lack thereof) that they usually receive from Facebook when using the platform.
  • Instagram Live is comparable to Facebook Live in that it is a user-friendly option and requires no additional set-up if a library has an account. Again, the focus is on the presenter, and there is limited participant interaction. However, Instagram Live participants do need to have an account to access any content and discussion. Please note that Instagram is owned by Facebook and participants have comparable rights to privacy.
  • Facebook Groups are free to create as a part of your (or your library’s) Facebook account. If you create a “closed” group, participants must have a Facebook account and request membership in the group to join. My virtual long-term weekly book club, Gorilla Alumni Book Club, is hosted via a closed Facebook group set up as a "social learning group". This set-up allows me to have "units," which are great for organizing individual book discussions.
  • Goodreads Groups function like basic discussion boards and have very limited features, which can be a good thing; it lessens the intimidation factor for less tech-savvy participants. Participants must have a Goodreads account to engage in discussion, but accounts are free for both facilitators and participants. Moderators can create folders for each book and then post individual questions within the folder. Jenn Wigle, adult services coordinator of the Montgomery County Memorial Library System in Texas, and her colleague, reference librarian Molly Bullard, run a Goodreads book club called Fresh*Reads. One quirk they don’t love about GoodReads: the most recent user comment automatically rises to the top of the folder, not the most recently asked moderator question. Please note that Goodreads Privacy Policy states that they will not rent or sell personally identifiable information to others.
  • Your library’s webpage, depending on how dynamic it is, can also be a good place to host your book club. Book club members participate by commenting on your discussion. You have full control over members’ privacy and how the data is being used. As an example, check out Greene County Public Library in Ohio. Erin Kloosterman, adult services librarian and moderator of their website-based online book club, recommends adding supplemental videos and links into the discussion to deepen members’ understanding. That way, members have the option to go more in-depth on their time.

Other considerations

Here are a few final things to think about before you launch your online book club.

Be prepared to answer how you are protecting your members’ rights to privacy and/or explain the privacy of the platform. Library users have an expectation of privacy. When using other applications for book clubs, be clear about how their data might be used by the application and/or the library. For example, will you be posting any photos from the virtual book club on social media?

Set up group expectations, such as spoilers for a weekly discussion, how to signal who is speaking on video-calls, and civility in chat discussions. I recommend having a group rules section for individuals to refer to. You may want to include what steps will be taken if the rules are not followed.

Send out reminders about the book club meeting and/or review previous discussions.

Overall, remember that there is a learning curve for all members. Be kind to yourself as well as your members, figure out what will fit your needs, and good luck!

Ruth Monnier is an assistant professor and learning outreach librarian at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kan. She provides reference and instruction services and engages with the greater campus and community including social media (@axelibrary).