Posted by: paultovell | January 27, 2010

The Reading Cafe

Yesterday we held our first Reading Cafe at the library.  If having to fetch more chairs at the start of an event is a benchmark of success, then we struck gold.  In all 16 people attended – far more than we anticipated – and while most of them didn’t know what to expect when they arrived (but hoped it wasn’t going to be like a reading group), they nearly all really enjoyed it (and were openly delighted it wasn’t like a reading group).

This started from the premise that not all of our readers want the formal setting of a reading group, but they do love to talk about books.  So we decided to create an event for them, where they could come along and chat – very informally – about books.  The only bit that was remotely formal was the start (after we’d served tea and coffee), when I had to welcome everyone, point out that we were not sat in a circle deliberately, and say what my favourite book was.  The next person to speak couldn’t be heard by everyone, people started their own conversations, and 2 hours later they left (when we did).  Simple.

Key things:

  • We needed a hook to act as an icebreaker – these were people who didn’t know each other.  So we had a pinboard where we encouraged them to stick the title of their favourite book (and a box labelled “books we love to hate”).  At the end, we had a ready-made display, and are going to find copies of the books to put below it.  Hopefully this will happen each month.
  • There were postcards on the table and pens so people could write down any books they heard about that they wanted to trace.  And the recommendations were flowing the whole time, especially when people discovered who liked reading the same things as they did.  They also loved being able to recommend books to library staff for purchase!
  • The chairs were arranged around tables, next to sofas – all over the place, but not in a circle facing each other, which helped those casual chats to start.
  • In future months, we’re going to pick different themes (some will hopefully be suggested by our new cafe-goers!) and hooks to hang those opening chats on – though I’m sure they’ll all end up talking about books of all sorts, which is fine.
  • The informal nature of it meant that they got to know each other much better and have already started forming relationships which should hopefully keep them coming.  One person even saw it was happening, “dropped in” for half an hour, then disappeared again.  Exactly the point.
  • Finally, it was brilliant for us as library staff to talk casually with readers about what they like and don’t like, and what we can do to help them.  That kind of open forum doesn’t exist in many places. 

I have never organised, or been to, an event where people were so uninterested in free tea and coffee.  It was clear from the start that they were there to talk about books.  Looking back, we really feel like we’ve hit on a new direction for reader-centred events, certainly in this authority.  Time will tell  – but the signs are all very promising so far.  I’m not sure I’ve heard of any other events similar to this – please tell me if there are!


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