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The rise and rise of library book clubs

In some ways the growth of library book clubs has been a quiet success story. Each year, groups pop up around Australia, coming together for the love of reading. But in other ways, it has been a noisy one, full of all the hearty laughter and heated debate that a great read can generate.

On a recent visit to my local library, I spoke to the librarian about the book club that she ran through the library, who said that she had expected to have a quiet cup of tea and listen to chatter about the latest book they had read.

Instead, she has listened to passionate debates, and, after the group read Call the Midwife, harrowing accounts of experiences of childbirth the women had endured decades ago.

How library book clubs work

There are a couple of different types of library book clubs; a small number is run by the library, but most are external, with the library providing book lists and books to groups that have been formed independently.

In Ballarat, at my local library, there are more than 200 titles available to book clubs, and each book set has 10 copies with accompanying reading notes. In order to be as inclusive possible, large print, audio and eBooks are available.

The most popular books

New releases are generally the regularly chosen by book clubs, and this year Tim Winton’s Shepherd’s Hut and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine among the most popular books. Titles most commonly chosen by book clubs in previous years include Death Comes to Pemberley, Go Set a Watchman, The Girl on the Train and All the Light We Cannot See.

Each year, Brisbane City Council libraries releases its Top 40 Book Club Reads. In 2018, the list included Girl in Between, Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek, A Hundred Small Lessons, Stay With Me, Terra Nullius and House of Names.

The librarian I spoke to said that the book club that she ran tended to choose non fiction books, with just the occasional work of fiction.

The boom in library book clubs

A quick Google search for library book clubs reveals pages of book clubs around Australia. Since 2017, the State Library of Victoria has held its own Thursday night book club, exploring books set in Melbourne, with a physical gathering and an online discussion inspired by each title.

Other Melbourne libraries offer a range of different book club options, from the Any Book Book Club, where participants bring along and talk about any book they are reading, a classics book club, a graphic novel book club and a history lovers’ book club.

According to Central Highlands Libraries Coordinator of Collections and Infrastructure Ross Cumming, the popularity of book clubs is growing every year, and there are currently more than 130 clubs in and around Ballarat.

“Our book clubs are one of our lesser known success stories,” he said. “They are extremely popular and the number of clubs appears to be steadily increasing every year.”

Not just book clubs

In addition to the book clubs, reading events run by the library are popping up through the year, with Silent Reading Parties held quarterly outside in Ballarat gardens and bars. Such events emerged as ‘the new thing’ in the US in 2014, then spread everywhere from the Quaid Library in Islamabad to Denmark’s Odense Libraries. Australian libraries have also embraced the notion and Mr Cumming said these relatively new events had already proven popular locally.

While online book clubs are also thriving, with Facebook’s Books, Blogs, Readers and Writers attracting almost 67,000 members and celebrity book clubs boast tens of thousands of members, library book clubs offer a more intimate community service that is about far more than just books.

Mr Cumming said library book clubs and bookish events played an important role in the community.

“It combines two core roles of a library – fostering an ongoing love of reading and social inclusion. Each month this program brings more than 1,200 people together in cafes, pubs and lounge rooms across Ballarat and surrounding areas – anything that helps people stay connect within a community has to be a good thing,” he said.

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