A Moment of Science

Posted Monday, May 19, 2014 - 11:08
Use a book discussion group to promote learning
Rene Tanner

Libraries are places where people can continue their education. However, for a person studying alone, it is often easy to lose momentum. Starting a book discussion can be an excellent way to encourage people to read challenging material within a supportive learning environment, and it can become an integral part of your outreach efforts.

Academic libraries are adopting strategies bookstores use—arranging writing workshops, inviting authors to give talks, and hosting book clubs—to make their spaces and services engaging. Thriving local bookstores, such as the Poisoned Pen and Changing Hands Bookstore in the Phoenix area, have figured out the importance of community and social activities in an era of steep competition from online booksellers. Toward this end, I experimented with a science book discussion.

My first step was to figure out which books to select. I wanted books that were challenging but not so advanced that we’d give up. I began my search by reading book reviews in New Scientist, National Public Radio blogs, The Guardian, and the New York Times. I discovered quite a bit of variability in science writing. Some books have a theme that runs through their entirety, while others are a compilation of stories about a topic like chemistry or birds’ feathers. Both approaches can appeal to readers—if they’re done well. 

To begin the discussion, I selected three books and prepared questions to guide the discussion. The books were fairly inexpensive, well received by reviewers, and relatively succinct. Building on that approach I then invited readers to vote on future book selections. I compiled about 10 choices at a time, and depending on how well the books were received, we could get up to three months’ worth of selections. 

Currently, I have readers lead discussions based on books of their choice. The philosophy is that everyone gets an opportunity to make a selection while the rest of us get to respect that choice and have a lively discussion. 

Coincidentally, many of the books we read touch on similar scientific discoveries and events. For instance, in 1493 by Charles C. Mann, we learned about the impact of fire ants on the Spanish inhabitants of Hispaniola. And many months later, we followed up on the topic with Journey to the Ants by Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson. These overlaps happen time and again and solidify the concepts. One regular told the group that she was surprised at how much she had learned.

At our library, a typical book ­discussion draws about 10 participants. However, we’ve had more than 50 people attend to hear a university author or local lecturer, whom we invite on rare occasions. A regular, Barbara, was so inspired by a talk we hosted with Lawrence Krauss, an Arizona State University physicist and author of A Universe from Nothing, that she wrote a poem after the lecture. 

I’ve used various methods to promote the discussions, including press releases to the local and university newspapers, and advertising on the university calendar and library web page. In addition, I post notices on an online site (Meetup) that promotes local social events.

Studies show that people who ­exercise together reach their goals more readily than those who exercise alone. Exercising our minds is much the same. One attendee noted, “Every meeting has been so interesting that the time just flies by, and I often want it to last longer.” A book discussion can provide structure for learning, promote your institution’s research, and build community at your academic library—but I really do it because it’s fun. z

RENE TANNER is life sciences librarian at Arizona State University. Email: rene.tanner@asu.edu.

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