BookBrowse interviews Marianne Paterniti, Book Groups Coordinator at the Darien Public Library in Connecticut talks with BookBrowse about the library's very comprehensive book club programs. about all aspects of their book club.

Book Club Interview (see full list)

Marianne Paterniti, Book Groups Coordinator at the Darien Public Library in Connecticut talks with BookBrowse about the library's very comprehensive book club programs.

Hello Marianne, thank you for taking the time to talk to us about Darien Library's book group programs. First off, please tell us about your community.

Darien is a town of just under 23,000 people. It's an hour train ride from New York City so many citizens are commuters. Residents tend to be college graduates with above average income. They are well read and strong supporters of the library. In addition, our school system is highly ranked and we attract many young families.

It sounds like you have your work cut out providing services to such a well-read population; and I know you have a vibrant book club program; please tell us about this.

That's true, and as a result "extreme customer service"' has been our working banner for some time.

Darien Library formalized its book group program back in 2004 after we recognized that book group members were our core readership. The goal was to maximize our adult readership and to ensure the quality of their reading experience. Today, with about 100 registered book groups, our focus is more on the quality of the program. Ever dynamic, our strategies to achieve our goal include:

  • A book collection of 200 titles, available through the Books in a Bag (BIAB) program, targeted at improving the quality of the reading experience.
  • Author, Publisher and Training programs designed to maintain book group interest and improve their effectiveness.
  • Library sponsored book groups to satisfy transient and special interests, help unaffiliated readers organize and provide a vehicle to test new approaches.
  • Promotional programs aimed at maintaining a high interest in book groups.
  • Communications' vehicles for delivering timely news to book group members.

Can you expand on some of these elements, for example, are the library sponsored book clubs ones that the library runs itself?

Yes, these groups meet at the Library. At times we will conduct an "outreach"' meeting off site to help a new group get started. For example, most recently we supported the newly established historical museum, Mather Homestead, to set up a book group as part of their programming. We supported this effort by providing books and then moderating their first few discussions. In addition, we support about 100 registered local book clubs that meet in the community.

That's interesting, let's break this down. First off, what book groups does the library run itself?

The library currently runs three book groups:
  • Our Monthly Book Group reads primarily contemporary, literary fiction. Some members have been in the group since its beginning in 2004.
  • The Business Book Group meets quarterly.
  • The Fifty/Fifty Group (fiction/non-fiction) meets monthly and alternates fiction with non-fiction.
In addition:
  • Pop-up Book Groups are held when there is supporting interest in a specific topic
  • Books by the Fire is a weekly group that meets to discuss what individual members are reading. This used to be run by the library but has now been turned over to members of the group to run at the library.
  • The Library also sponsors a short story discussion program that takes place weekly from May through November which is run by a professional leader.

Could you give us an example of your pop-up book groups?

Our last pop-up book group took place in the fall of 2019. We teamed up with the local nature center to discuss the Pulitzer prizewinning, The Overstory by Richard Powers. About 15 people came to the nature center to discuss the book and then took a guided tour through the center's adjacent woods.

That sounds wonderful! Where are the groups meeting during the pandemic?

All are currently meeting regularly on Zoom.

So, now on to the registered book clubs. How does Darien Library support these?

Books in a Bag is a direct support program to help book groups conduct their meetings. With approximately 200 titles, these bags with multiple copies of a single title are made available to book groups. The idea is to make the book group meeting process easy. Beyond that, BIAB program provides a broader communication link between the Library and the book group.

Another element of direct support is Book Group planning wherein we invite interested groups to meet with us on an individual basis to select reading choices for their upcoming season. This activity has inevitably morphed into a much broader and important discussion of books, genres and authors, an important communication link that we informally call Book Talking.

Also, we directly support book groups with periodic workshops. The most popular, and one we've repeated, has been the "How to Lead a Better Book Discussion" program.

In addition to direct support activity, we have communication programs to deal with news and calendar related events. For example, our monthly e-newsletter and our dedicated Web Page for Book Groups highlight new acquisitions to the books in a bag collection and advertise upcoming programs.

To complement the direct support, we arrange author events which have proven to be very popular with book groups. We join forces with our programming staff to offer a variety of author events and invite book groups and the public to attend.

In a similar category of support, we conduct publisher programs. Our primary event is a yearly evening gala with 10 publishing representatives and with some 125 attendees, called Book Buzz for Book Groups. During the pandemic we resorted to a remote zoom approach where we featured a different publisher every week for 8 weeks.

Finally, we have promotional programs that include simple displays, book marks, and pictures of book groups displayed on our electronic panels during National Book Group Month in the Library's main lobby. Social media is another means we use to promote our events.

What do your Books in a Bag consist of and why do you limit them to just registered book clubs?

Each book bag consists of 10 copies of a title, usually in hardcover. Early on, we provided hard copy supplemental information, but now we generally provide links to enrichment materials available online. Additionally, we post sources for discussion questions and additional information on the Book Groups Page on the Library web site.

We've found that requiring every book group to be registered promotes fairness in the distribution of our collection and a commitment and sense of belonging to the Library. It justifies the personal and individualized service our program provides. Also, the book collection is in great demand and funding plays a role here. All of our materials and programs are supported by donations by the Friends of the Darien Library.

What happens if a group has more than 10 members?

We promise ten copies of each title. We try to augment that when extra copies are needed.

I see that you ask for contact information for all members of the group? What is the purpose of collecting this information, and are they automatically signed up for mailings?

The book group format often has different individuals run individual meetings and in doing so they need to interact with the Library. In order to maintain continuity with the book groups, we need to know which individuals belong to which group. And for effective communications we need to have individual names.

Registration helps us keep track of how many members are in each group. Based on this, we can determine whether or not we're purchasing the right number of books.

We've also found that registration makes for a closer relationship between group members and the Library.

Regarding mailings, there are two ways that happens. Either the book group gives permission initially or individuals sign up themselves.

So, if I understand correctly, in addition to one person completing the registration form, each member of the group also registers at the library. How does this work if some members do not live within the library's boundaries?

We do expect book group members to register as individuals with the Library, at which time they become a patron of the Library and are then able to check out books. From a statistical point of view, it makes the number of people using the Library more accurate. This service is not limited to residents; in our area, a person doesn't have to be a town resident to use most of our Library services. Distance has not been a factor for non-residents as geographically, we're in a rather densely populated metropolitan area. And so members generally live fairly close to each other.

Do you allow groups to request specific titles for BIAB?

The titles are carefully selected to represent the books of most interest. For practical reasons we manage the program to 200 titles. However, we will consider requests for other titles as we are continually reviewing our line-up.

How do you keep your records up to date when people join or leave a group?

Book club registrations expire every three years. At that time, we ask for an update to the membership.

What happens to the BIAB books that are no longer in demand?

Once we determine the titles are no longer active, we channel them for general Library use or to a book purchasing service.

I see that you also offer book club kits for children. Are these popular? And are they checked out by the children or are they the province of parents and perhaps homeschoolers?

Krishna Grady (Head of Youth Services) and Mia Orobona (Assistant Head of teen services) manage this part of the program. Here are their responses: The kits are checked out occasionally and usually at the province of parents. In the past we have had some homeschool groups check them out but they are usually interested in books that we have not made into book club kits.

What about BIAB for teens?

In the past, the Library has tried to run teen book club events but rarely have we had success. We have found that the teenagers generally want to read for pleasure and select their own titles as they have so much assigned reading in school.

That lines up with what I've heard from a number of other libraries who run thriving book clubs for those of elementary school age but not for the teen years.

We do have a handful of teen titles with 5-10 copies that we used for the Forever Young Adult group, and once or twice I've had parents or teachers take a bunch for small groups. In the four years that Krishna has been with the library she says she's been asked for help with a teenaged book group perhaps five times.

Many times, we will give patrons multiple copies of books that we have on hand such as past Nutmeg nominees or anything that we have multiple copies of that kids would be interested in discussing in a book club. The Nutmeg Book Award encourages children in grades 2 through 12 to read quality literature and vote for their favorite titles. Jointly sponsored by the Connecticut Library Association and the Connecticut Association of School Librarians, the Nutmeg Committee is comprised of children's librarians and school library media specialists. The Darien Library Youth Services Department orders many of these titles in multiples.

Very interesting, thank you. Getting back to your adult book groups, what is the typical profile of your registered book groups?

Most groups in town are made up of women from ages 50-90+. We have several male and female groups, as well as several male-only groups. One of the most fervent groups we have is the Darien Mens' Association whose interest centers on World War ll titles.

Once a group registers, approximately, how many of their future book selections come from Darien Library?

We don't track that statistic directly because groups in any given year sign up in a random pattern.

Do you have any sense of how many book groups there are in your community that are not registered with you?

That's hard to judge but we do occasionally hear of groups who read very specific genres e.g.18th century classics. Also, we have worked with other town organizations, assisting them in starting in-house book groups as part of their programming; and those book groups later registered with us.

That's a really interesting idea – to set the expectation that you'll help a book club get on its feet, but after the initial set up it will be on its own. That sounds like a formula that other libraries could use to support book clubs without taking on the commitment of running them permanently. You mentioned the Mather Homestead book club earlier, are there any other examples of book clubs you've helped form in this way?

Yes, we find this approach works very well. It is not only a great way to start a relationship but it's an effective way to leverage our resources. The local YWCA is another example; they recently organized the Y Newcomers' book group and were interested in having some start-up help which we are providing. We also used this approach with two of our in-house groups that I mentioned earlier.

Do people ask for ebooks as part of the BIAB?

No, we're seldom asked for ebooks.

This does sound like a very comprehensive program. I am sure that many librarians reading this are wondering how much time it takes to run. Would you be able to give an approximation?

First, it's important to understand that our library is very team oriented. We dedicate about 30 hours a week, split between two people, to orchestrating our book group efforts but we could not approach doing all that we do without considerable cross function support from other library staff. For example, we have a dedicated communications team who are deeply involved in all of our communications and promotional undertakings. Also, when we have our annual big tent “Book Buzz" with some 125 attendees and 10 publishers participating, we call on the assistance of a good number of our library staff.

What advice would you offer to librarians interested in developing a similar program; and particularly to librarians that would like to offer more to their book groups but don't have the resources to develop as complete a program as yours?

As I mentioned, we formalized our book group work in 2004. Since then, it's been a continual learning process as we look to what we can do better, listen to our patrons to understand their needs and talk to our fellow libraries about new ideas.

As we look back, we realize we've learned a great deal about planning and developing a measurement system to help understand what works and what doesn't. Having said that, we recognize that we are blessed with a stimulated reading patronage who motivate us to step-up our game. Finally, we clearly recognize that we are still a work in progress!

Thank you very much Marianne, I so appreciate you telling us about Darien Library's book club programs. I have found it fascinating and I am sure that the many who will read this will do so as well.

Pop-up book group to discuss The Overstory by Richard Powers
Book Buzz event

Interview by Davina Morgan-Witts, BookBrowse publisher

© March 2021.

If you feel that your book group has something unique to offer, and you would like to tell others about it, please contact us with brief details, and maybe we can feature you in the future.

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