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.
- Why run a bookchain?
- Who is a bookchain for?
- What happens in a bookchain?
- What makes a bookchain successful?
- Who should organise and run the bookchain?
- What is the best way to contact interested readers?
- What else do I need to send with the introductory letter/email?
Organising the bookchain
- How many small chains can we have in the bookchain?
- What is the ideal number of readers for a small chain?
- How can we tell the different small chains apart?
- What’s the ideal length of time for a bookchain?
- What do bookchain members need to know – before they start reading?
- Where is the best place to store the bookchain books in the library?
- What do we do if another library user requests a bookchain book?
- What do other library staff need to know about the bookchain?
The end of the chain
- What should we do to remind readers that the chain has finished?
- What should we do with the reader comments?
- What scares bookchain members off?
- What do we do if a bookchain member is taking longer than the three week issue period to read a book?
- What do we do if one bookchain reader is rude about another reader’s choices?
- How do we avoid staff shelving bookchain books?
- Some bookchain members read very quickly and get bored waiting for the chain to finish. What can we offer them to keep them reading?
Why run a bookchain?
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
Who is a bookchain for?
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:
- keen readers looking for stimulus
- people who find it hard to choose what to read next
- people who want to tell others about the great books they have been reading
- people looking for something different but don’t know where to find it.
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.
What happens in a bookchain?
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.
What makes a bookchain successful?
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.
- Staff satisfaction levels rise when they see the enjoyment readers get as both participants and observers. The bookchain comments displayed on a readers’ noticeboard have a far-reaching effect. Many library users depend on these recommendations when choosing new books.
- Regular library users welcome this opportunity to exchange books and opinions with other readers, especially the ones they would not normally meet. Seeing their reader comments displayed on a noticeboard as a resource for other library users gives additional added value to the experience.
- Bookchains are about customer service and satisfaction in its purest form. A library with a successful bookchain, which reaches out to the whole of the reading community, maximises the opportunity to raise issue figures.
What is the best way to recruit readers to join a bookchain?
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
- Word of mouth – chat up your pet borrowers (don’t forget reading group members, if you have them) and get them to recruit a friend too.
- Put slips in books inviting people to join a bookchain.
- Design a poster for the readers’ noticeboard.
- Design some information leaflets – to hand/send out to keen borrowers or display in the library (by the counter, where staff can promote them or by the readers’ noticeboard).
- Use your mailing list – if you have a list of people who come to library events they might be interested in joining a bookchain. Send them some information and an invitation to take part in this exciting new venture.
- E-news, banners on websites, Facebook and Twitter
- Hold an information session – morning or evening, you decide on the best time depending on your target audience. Keep this fun – and light. Provide refreshments and play some reader-centred ice breakers. Focus on what people will get out of joining a bookchain rather than the nitty gritty of the organisation.
- Approach keen library colleagues – a short staff pilot project is often the best way to start a bookchain.
Who should organise and run the bookchain?
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.
What is the best way to contact interested readers?
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.
What else do I need to send with the introductory letter?
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.
How many small chains can we have in the bookchain?
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.
What is the ideal number of readers for a small chain?
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.
How can we tell the different small chains apart?
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.
How do we identify each individual bookchain member?
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.
What the ideal timescale for a bookchain?
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.
What do bookchain members need to know before they start reading?
Once the small chains have been organised, each bookchain participant needs the know the following
- their chain colour and unique bookchain identification number
- the duration of the bookchain – starting and finishing dates
- the number of books in their chain – but not the titles
- who to contact at the library if they have a problem.
Where is the best place to store the bookchain books in the library?
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.
What do we do if another borrower or library requests a bookchain book?
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.
What do other library staff need to know?
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:
- where the books are kept
- what support bookchain members need
- that the bookchain books must not be given out to non-bookchain readers – even if they are requested.
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.
What should we do to remind readers that the chain has finished?
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
- display the comments in the library
- organise a social gathering for bookchain members
- start a new bookchain
What should we do with the reader comments?
Reader comments generated by a bookchain are a fantastic resource for any library. Here are some suggestions of what you could do with them.
- Display them on a noticeboard in a prominent place in the library. Keep comments on the same book together so that other borrowers can see the range of opinions.
- Create a small face-on display of bookchain books close to the noticeboard. Ensure this display is kept topped up by library staff. Treat it as a ‘Readers Recommend’ display and when the bookchain books are borrowed replace them with other paperbacks returned or suggested by staff and borrowers.
- Liaise with your local newspaper and supply them with bookchain comments for a regular ‘book of the day’ or ‘book of the week’ feature in the paper.
- Post the comments on your library website; broadcast through Twitter or Facebook.
What scares bookchain members off?
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.
- ‘I don’t know anything about that.’
- ‘You can’t take that book, it’s reserved for someone else.’
- ‘I can’t find the book, it may have been shelved. Go and have a look.’
- ‘These books are a real nuisance, they take up too much space.’
- ‘I haven’t got time to deal with this.’
- ‘You’ll have to ask Sue, she’s in next week.’
Keeping staff in the loop makes them feel valued and involved and that will ensure a good service for the bookchain members.
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.
What do we do if one bookchain reader is rude about another reader’s choices?
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.
How do we stop staff shelving bookchain books?
- Ensure that all staff (including relief and part-time staff) are kept fully informed about the bookchain. Use staff briefings as well as written memos and information sheets.
- Set aside a separate space for bookchain books under the counter and mark it clearly. Use a box so that they don’t get mixed up with returned stock.
- Use small stickers (on the inside or back cover of the books) and on the reader comments sheets to identify which chain both belong to. (For example, a small blue sticker.)
- Print reader comment sheets on coloured paper to make them stand out.
- If the bookchain organiser is not a member of frontline staff, appoint someone who is to take responsibility for the smooth running of the bookchain on a day-to-day basis.
- If a book does go missing, make it a priority to find it straightaway. If it doesn’t turn up, try to give the reader another copy.
- Ask counter staff to look out for any missing bookchain titles as borrowers bring their books to be issued. The stickers will help here.
Some bookchain members read very quickly and get bored waiting for the chain to finish. What can we offer them to keep them reading?
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.