A Bookchain can most simply be described as a reading group that doesn’t meet. It is an ideal option for readers who want to share their reading experiences but don’t have the time or inclination for a regular face-to-face group. Readers are grouped together – three or four people per bookchain is typical – and they choose, write about and pass on books to other member of their chain in a process managed by the library staff.
Bookchains are unique to public libraries. This is a classic reader development project which requires almost no money, no authors, no external support and which exploits the basic library mechanism which already exists where books are passed from person to person. It meets the objectives of introducing readers to new writers and gives them a chance to share their opinions. It also provides for the library a large resource of book comments which can be used to promote the books to a wider audience.
Here are some questions and answers to help you get started with your own library bookchain. Scroll down the page or click on the link for a specific answer. Don’t be afraid to adapt/update these suggestions to suit your library, your systems and your readers.
Organising the bookchain
The end of the chain
Participating in a bookchain is a great value-added offer to make to your readers. It capitalises on the flow of books from one reader to another and provides the means for readers to express their opinions about the books to each other. It is an opportunity for readers to extend the range of fiction they are reading and to get the odd surprise. Libraries are the best places for bookchains to flourish – and library staff are the best people to make them work – giving added value to their readers. The bookchain is an ideal project for keen readers in school libraries, preserving the anonymity of readers while offering students opportunities to share reading experiences with readers that they probably wouldn’t encounter in any other situation in school. These sort of reader-to-reader opportunities just don’t exist in bookshops. A bookchain can be the starting point for other reader-to-reader activities. A library reading group could develop from a successful bookchain – with both groups co-existing and offering local readers two very different reading experiences
Bookchains are for people who want to share their reading experiences, but don’t necessarily want to do this face-to-face with other readers. The anonymity offered by the book chain allows you (as a reader) to let rip with your opinion and no-one knows it’s you. Bookchains are great for:
Bookchains include all kinds of readers. You don’t need a degree in literature or an inexhaustible appetite for books. An interest in trying something different and being open to sharing what you like, is more than enough. However, in some libraries it’s the bookchain which kick starts a reading group as people experience the pleasure of exchanging opinions about books with other readers. It’s quite possible for readers to take part in both experiences, crossing over between the reading group and the bookchain: meeting and talking face-to-face in one and exchanging comments anonymously in the other.
Participants submit a book of their own choice which is passed (via the library staff) to other readers in their chain. In return they receive books chosen by other readers. Reader comments are written on special bookchain reader comments sheets and participants collect and return their bookchain books from and to the library. There’s no pressure for a reader to finish a book they don’t like, provided that they write a few words to explain why it didn’t work for them. The bottom line is that you get to try out two books chosen by other people – books you might never have picked up and you find out what other readers think of the book you chose. At the end of the bookchain the reader comments and the books are displayed in the library or via the library website for other borrowers to read.
Staff attitude is the single most important factor in the success of a library-based bookchain. In libraries where everyone is committed to making this reader-centred project work, the rewards for readers, staff and the library as a whole are significant.
You need a small core of people to get a bookchain started in the library. For a first attempt 9 or 12 people is plenty – but less is OK too. You could actually run your first bookchain with a minimum of 3 people.
Ways of recruiting people
It really helps to have a specific person who takes on the roll of bookchain organiser. This person should be enthusiastic about developing reader-to-reader contacts in the library and offering keen readers added value through the membership of the bookchain. The bookchain organiser must be someone who can give a two or three hours at the start and end of each bookchain to liaise with readers, colleagues and complete all the administration. He/she must be committed to the project and able to communicate effectively with colleagues and borrowers alike. The paperwork is not too onerous, but will be suited to someone with access to a pc and good organisational skills. The bookchain organiser does not need to be a frontline member of staff. In some libraries, the bookchain organiser is a keen member of the reading group or an enthusiastic borrower. However, if the organiser is not a regular member of staff, they need to enlist the help of someone who works in the library, so that they can oversee the day-to-day running of the bookchain and be a point of contact for bookchain members and colleagues alike. All frontline library staff must be kept informed and up-to-date about the bookchain and its members. Their commitment to and belief in a library-based project for readers like this is essential to its success. The attitude of frontline staff can make or break a bookchain.
Once you’ve got a list of potential bookchain members, send out a letter to give interested people full information about what they have to do to join the library bookchain. Make sure all the instructions are clear and straightforward and allow approximately four weeks between the date of the letter and the deadline for handing in the bookchain book at the library.
With this letter, enclose a copy of your reader comments sheet. This is where bookchain members will record their thoughts and feelings about their chosen book. Ensure that the sheet has a front cover and spaces for up to 4 readers to write their comments and record their bookchain identification number (see below). You might also want to include some tips and sample comments for bookchain readers. These are particularly helpful for readers whose last experience of writing about books was the book review exercise at school. Using an A4 sheet of paper folded into 3 as shown below will give you 6 distinct spaces – a front and back cover and 4 writing spaces.
When you’ve got a group of people who want to take part in the bookchain and they have submitted a book and a reader comments sheet (filled in), you need to organise them into smaller chains of 3 or 4 people. If you have a total of 12 people in your bookchain group, you should divide them into 4 small groups of 3 or 3 small groups of 4. You can have as many small chains as you need in a bookchain.
On balance, chains of 3 people seem to have the best success rate, with a greater chance that the chain will complete and everyone will read all 3 books. However, 4 will work well too. If the number of people wanting to take part in the bookchain is not divisible by 3 or 4, the bookchain organiser will need to recruit extra people or take part them self.
Give each small chain an identity. For example, you could identify each chain by a colour – blue, green, red etc. You might also put a small sticker (of the relevant colour) inside the front cover (or on the back cover) of each book in the chain and one on each reader comment sheet. This will help both bookchain members and library staff identify the right books and sheets with the correct small chain. It also helps prevent bookchain books ‘disappearing’ back onto the library shelves – and when the chain is complete, the stickers can be peeled off the books and thrown away.
The beauty of the bookchain is that it allows readers to pass books to each other and comment on them anonymously – a hugely liberating experience. However, individual bookchain members do need some form of identification. Allocate each small group to a particular colour (or chain). Then give each person in the chain a number (1-4). For example: B = blue, so the blue chain is made up of readers identified as B1, B2, B3. B4. Therefore each participant has a unique bookchain identification number.
Each bookchain needs a time scale – a starting date and a finishing date. A good period of time is 10 to 12 weeks. Participants need to read 2/3 ‘surprise’ books – so 10 to 12 weeks allows most readers to do this, without boredom setting in for the faster readers. However, be prepared to be flexible if all the books are not returned by the agreed finishing date. Don’t be tempted to send a fierce email or make a chasing phone call if a book isn’t back for the deadline. It may be that the reader has almost finished the book and that few extra days means that you get a complete comments sheet and a happy punter.
Once the small chains have been organised, each bookchain participant needs the know the following
Before the bookchain gets going you need to decide where to keep the bookchain books (so they don’t get muddled up with each other or with other books from library stock). This place needs to be convenient to counter staff and bookchain members alike. Most libraries find a space behind or underneath the counter to do this and mark the area clearly so that colleagues do not re-shelve the books while the bookchain is in progress.
Once a book is entered by a reader into the bookchain it is essential that it stays there and isn’t removed as a request for a non-bookchain reader or another library. You will have to decide how to do this depending on your library request system. In some libraries, all bookchain books are immediately placed on request to bookchain participants and are therefore not available to other readers until that particular chain is finished. In other libraries, staff have worked out other systems to ensure bookchain books are not removed until the end of the chain.
It is essential that library staff are thoroughly briefed on the workings of the bookchain so that everyone – both part-timers and full-timers – know how the following aspects of the bookchain work:
A named bookchain contact (who is a regular member of staff) to sort out any problems is just as important for library staff as it is for bookchain members. In turn, if this person is not the bookchain organiser, they must be fully briefed (by the bookchain organiser) about bookchain readers and their chosen books. You may find it helpful to supply one member of staff with a complete list of bookchain members, listed in their small chain (e.g. Blue) and including their personal identification numbers (1-4). You may also want to include the title and author of the book submitted by each participating reader.
You could send bookchain members a letter or email to remind them of the finishing date and to ask them to return all books to the library as soon as possible. You might want to tell them any plans you have to
Reader comments generated by a bookchain are a fantastic resource for any library. Here are some suggestions of what you could do with them.
The success of the bookchain is very much dependent on the attitude of the frontline staff in the library. If the frontline staff are not helpful and friendly, it puts bookchain members off, and they may not take part a second time round. Try to ensure that bookchain members do not get any of these answers from staff on the library counter.
What should we do if a bookchain member takes longer than our three week issue period to read a book? This only becomes a problem if another bookchain reader is waiting for that book. Don’t hassle the first reader – there may be a very good reason why it is taking them a while to read the book. Better that they finish the book than have it taken from them. However, do make sure that they know they don’t have to battle on with a book they really don’t like. Try to access another copy of the book for the waiting reader – and give them a spare comments sheet. They will get to see all the other readers’ reactions when the comments are displayed on the noticeboard, and if the first reader returns the book before the second reader has finished, you can always post the comments sheet onto them. Aim to be flexible with the bookchain rules and always look for solutions that will keep all readers satisfied. If you know there will be a long book in the chain, try and anticipate the problems this may create and reserve another copy at the outset.
This is a tricky one. While we want readers to feel free to be honest about the books they read – whether they loved them or hated them – they must also respect other readers’ choices. It’s the difference between: ‘I couldn’t finish this book. I don’t like books with violence or bad language and this had both. It upset me.’ and ‘This is a sick book for sick people. I can’t imagine a normal person wanting to read it. I think it should be banned,’
The first comment is personal and written about the way the book made the reader feel and why. That’s fine – and we should encourage readers to articulate these feelings. The second comment is a clear judgement on the person who chose the book and must be challenged. The bookchain organiser has a responsibility to explain to the reader that his/her comment is not acceptable and why. Give them a chance to re-write the comment without the personal attack on the reader who chose the book. If they refuse to do this, withdraw the comments sheet and remove the offending comment and explain why. Remember, the job of the library is not to censor the books on its shelves but to buy a wide variety of books for a range of reading tastes. You can always quote your library authority’s official position on this. The responsibility lies with the adult reader to put down a book if it offends them and return it to the library. The bookchain is about trying new things and taking risks with your reading. If you don’t like the book, you can say so, but don’t carry the criticism over to the person who selected it.
You could put together a box of books called Loose Links. If a bookchain member has read all the books in their chain, you could offer them a ‘dip’ in the Loose Links box. Don’t forget to give them a spare comments sheet to record their response to the book. Choose more unusual books for the Loose Links box. This is your chance to promote less mainstream library stock or new authors – and get some issues on titles which readers haven’t found for themselves. Display the Loose Links reader comments in the same way as the bookchain comments.