Virtual Book Clubs: A Learning Experience

Palos Verdes Library District (PVLD) staff members felt ready to take the leap into the world of virtual book clubs in the time of a pandemic. 

Photo of an open book.
Palos Verdes Library District moved its book clubs onto Google Hangouts. What could possibly go wrong?

I mean, really. What could go wrong? We had four well-attended clubs running at PVLD with dedicated attendees. Each of those book clubs followed the same basic model: all participants reading the same book, the leader doing research and the group meeting once a month to discuss. Surely, switching online couldn’t be that big of a deal.

Let me tell you something you already know. It’s a big deal.

Questions to get started

We had done our research. We had read “Book Club Reboot: 71 Creative Twists” by Sarah Ostman and Stephanie Saba and “Book Club Going Virtual?: Consider These 3 Things” by Ruth Monnier.

In her March 31 article, Monnier suggests pausing to ask yourself three questions before taking your book club online:

  • Is your online book club a stopgap measure or are you looking for a long-term commitment?
  • Do you need a book club that is synchronous or asynchronous?
  • Which platform would best suit your needs?

We needed a sustainable book club model. Our administration reminded book club leaders that, although we would eventually open back up to the public, it would probably be a long time until we could offer in-person programming. 

We knew right away this book club needed to happen in real time. So many of our members are isolated right now. The book club would be more than just discussion a book; it would be a much-needed chance for people to connect and socialize. 

As for platforms, we picked Google Hangouts because it was readily available at our library and many staff members had already used it. 

What didn't work

One brave librarian volunteered to give it a try with her long-standing book club members. Despite much excitement on the part of the members, only two showed up. One of them had to call in because she couldn’t make Google Hangouts work.

This first virtual book club occurred two weeks after Safer at Home orders had been given in California and situation was still new for folks. One member only wanted to talk about that and the discussion seemed to be more appropriate to the times than the fairy tales which were to be discussed. The leader and other member allowed this member to express her fears and concerns and the fairy tales fell by the wayside. 

Another library book club host, buoyed by the first virtual meeting, decided to give it a try, holding two meetings one week apart. More members showed up, but the meetings were plagued by technological issues, leading to stilted conversation and general frustration. 

And finally, what did work

If we know one thing for sure, library staffers are not quitters. We decided to pivot.

For the next meeting, we combined our four book clubs into one, and we stopped trying to force everyone to read the same book. Instead, everyone had three minutes to recommend any book they had enjoyed reading in the past month.

Our platform needed to change. We decided to try Zoom. This allowed us to include more attendees and gave hosts the ability to mute microphones to help control background noise.

We needed more hands on deck. We added a second host who would be in charge of technology. This second host allowed attendees into the virtual room, helped with any tech issues that came up during the discussion and helped pace the meeting by paying attention to who had a hand raised and wanted to speak next.

We also added pre-registration. This gave the library more control over who could enter the meeting and cut down on the possibility of Zoombombers disrupting it. 

Finally, we wrote a standard privacy and technology statement to be shared at the beginning of every meeting and offered an eBook accessing tutorial.

The response? Thirty-five people registered and 20 of them attended. People were more settled in the new normal and did not seem compelled to discuss life in general. 

The share-what-you're-reading format worked. Coming out of the meeting, we had 25 book recommendations ranging from military history to dystopian science fiction. Those recommendations were passed on to all book club members, whether they attended or not, with links to digital versions of the books available at our library or other local public libraries. 

We sent out a simple, open-ended survey asking attendees to tell us what worked for them and what did not. Taking those suggestions into account, PVLD’s June virtual book club will include 10 minutes before the meeting for everyone to say hi to each other. For our theme, we are going to pivot once again and ask everyone to read any Agatha Christie book they can get their hands on. The discussion will center around the author and her style of writing, rather than the specifics of one particular book. Wish us luck! 

Lessons learned

Throwing technology into the mix with mostly older patrons, asking all participants to find copies of the same book, translating the usual, often rapid-fire interaction to a screen conversation. It all made for an interesting experience in "meeting patrons where they are," as "Book Club Reboot" suggests. 

We learned to be open to suggestions and criticisms and apply them to continually improve your meetings. Consider different types of book club meetings than you normally offer at your library. 

Communicate, communicate, communicate with staff and book club members. Send reminders and follow-ups and ask for input after each meeting to figure out how to improve the experience for everyone involved.

Be gentle and kind to yourself and everyone involved. Laugh when things go wrong (because they will). Appreciate when things go right (because they will). 

Now, go out there and conquer the virtual book club world. We are all rooting for you and guarantee your patrons will appreciate it. And if they don’t, try something different. Shake it up and give it another go.