How Book Clubs Find Books During the Pandemic

book shelfContinuing our series of articles based on our November 2020 "Book Clubs in Lockdown" research, we now turn our focus to one of the biggest challenges book clubs faced – and are still facing: how to source books!

Prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic, over 84% of US book clubs we surveyed included at least one member who relied on borrowing print books from their library. With many public libraries operating under challenging conditions, it's unsurprising that many book groups have had problems getting copies of the books they want to read.

Despite these difficulties, it's important to note that survey respondents express considerable appreciation for their local libraries--and the near-heroic efforts of librarians keeping things up and running:

Wait lines are longer, and turnaround times are longer too. No complaints, though – we have a wonderful library system and we are grateful for the wonderful job they are doing.

Our libraries are open for book borrowing, not for browsing the shelves or being inside. Bless the libraries.

We can request a hold on a book. When it is at the chosen branch, you choose an appointment time M/W/F, and pick it up. All non-contact. I think the library has done a great job figuring this out.

Although most libraries are now open for borrowing (with many offering curbside pickup), getting print books remains a challenge for many because of issues such as book quarantining and increased demand, which have led to slow turnaround for print books, particularly through inter-library loan systems.

The issues were most severe in the early months of the pandemic, but many book clubs are still experiencing longer than usual wait times and as a result have found creative solutions to the problem.

Flexible Discussion Formats

There have always been book clubs that choose to vary the standard formula of discussing one book per meeting, either on an ongoing basis or just occasionally for a change of pace, but during the pandemic many more groups have been finding creative ways to discuss books, or discuss topics other than books. According to our research, the most popular approach is to discuss what each book club member is currently reading; the second most popular strategy is to have members pick a book from their collection that fits a chosen theme.

Here are some suggestions from our respondents:

Rather than the host selecting that month's book we each discuss whatever book we have chosen to read.

We had two months when we chose different books--American classics and Brit lit--and gave reviews of what we each had read.

We chose a genre and then discussed the book each of us read.

We decided to have a "member's choice" meeting. Each member chose to review a book that was his/her favorite as a child or adult. It was a big hit; we did this twice.

We find it difficult to focus on books, so we've been discussing New Yorker articles or provocative things on TV, with a lot of focus on racial issues.

As an aside, in response to questions from book clubs struggling for ideas about what to discuss when they were unable to borrow print books, BookBrowse suggested 15 alternatives to the traditional book club formula.

Reading More eBooks

About one-third of respondents in book clubs that were meeting at the time of the survey said that members who used to borrow print books from the library have been borrowing electronic copies: mostly ebooks, occasionally audio. Although there have been challenges with adopting a technology that was new for many, some found it a positive experience and will continue with ebooks; others prefer to read in print (who doesn't like the feel of a book in the hand?), and so will revert back to print when they can.

Hoopla was widely praised by both librarians and book club members as particularly useful because there are no limits on the number of copies that can be checked out, so all members of a group can download a title at the same time. Overdrive and its app Libby were mentioned by some, as was Project Gutenberg.

During the first few months of the pandemic (through July) we were unable to obtain physical copies (or enough physical copies) of books for our members. We instead substituted titles that were available through the library's Hoopla eLibrary platform.

Before, most members of the book club checked out print copies of library books to we have changed to only selecting books that are available for all members to read as e-books.

Our library was closed for three months, so we switched to ebooks that were available from free platforms (e.g. Project Gutenberg).

More Buying - and Sharing

buying booksAbout one-fifth of respondents said that their book club members have been buying books where previously they would have borrowed. This boost in book purchases is likely to be temporary as most who previously borrowed say they plan to return to doing so.

Many book clubs are also sharing bought and borrowed books among the membership more than they did before. Often, if a member has borrowed a book from the library, they'll now pass it on to others in the group before returning it. Some book clubs have even taken to sharing ebooks by passing their e-readers on to other members of the group.

I have had no choice except to buy the Kindle version and learn to accept reading from it, having always wanted only to read a physical book.

It has been next to impossible to get books from the library so we have had to try other ways to obtain the book for the month--online, buying, sharing more than usual.

There seems to be more people reading, which makes for more competition for the newer books especially. One person would get the book and pass it on to members instead of returning it.

Books are less available as they are kept for one week between readers to disperse any viruses. We share library books--if you get one you read and then offer to others. If necessary, buy book and again share.

In some cases, we passed books and a Kindle around.

Discovering New Library Resources

In addition to ebooks, some book clubbers have discovered other library resources, such as "book club in a bag" kits (where a library makes available multiple copies of a book that can be checked out to one book club member).

We could no longer get a quantity of books drawing from several suburban libraries. Then a member whose library has book bags started checking them out for a month--the perfect solution for us.

Others are learning to work their library's lending system to their advantage.

We advised everyone to put holds on all the books that were currently unavailable and then to manage the holds by specifying when they wanted them. In our library system you still move up the line, but don't have to get the book until you are ready.

Changing Reading Schedules

Some book clubs changed their schedules, shifting the order of books to discuss depending on availability, or even changing to different titles that are more readily available.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the group was unable to borrow from the library the book to be discussed. The first two months we chose a different book to discuss. The third we purchased or shared copies of the book. After that the library was available for "no contact book pickup." That is still how the group is checking out books.

Books weren't available so we switched to a book scheduled for later on in the year.

There was no intra-library loaning of books in our library system until September. We had to use sets of books that the system already provided for book clubs, and so had to leave our scheduled reads, but we're very happy with the choices. Now back to "normal."

If a book was not available for all we went on to the next book and put a hold on the one that we wanted to read for next month.

We switched the order of books to allow people to get the book, or if some couldn't get the book, they skipped the meeting. It varied.

reading schedulesHowever, not all book clubs find it easy to change their plans. About 40% of groups choose their reading at least four months ahead, and about half of these (i.e., one-fifth of all groups) plan a full year ahead. Among respondents in groups that are currently meeting and plan at least four months in advance, 20% say their group never changes its schedule and 74% say they rarely do. Schedule rigidity has been an issue for many book groups during the pandemic and, along with challenges around how and where to meet, is one of the reasons why a quarter of the book club members we surveyed said their group was not currently meeting.

Enjoyed this article? Download the full Book Clubs in Lockdown report for free!

Davina, BookBrowse Publisher

The findings in this article are drawn from our published research: The Inner Lives of Book Clubs and/or Book Clubs in Lockdown. More about both at

You can see more articles in The Inner Lives of Book Clubs section of this blog; and receive future articles in your mailbox by subscribing to our newsletters, in particular Book Club News or Librarian News.

And if you're looking for an expert on book clubs for interview, please contact us!

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