Reading Well: Supporting staff wellbeing through an after-work book group
Casual research* reveals that quite a few NHS Library & Knowledge Services operate book groups. The approach and format differ, but all share the same purpose; the discussion of books is the main activity.
I started an after-work book group at Airedale NHS Foundation Trust in January 2022 with the following objectives:
- Engage with staff who wouldn’t normally use the library by demonstrating that the library is not just for work and study.
- Develop my facilitation skills.
- Read a broader range of fiction (another personal objective).
After the pandemic, this was one of the earliest opportunities to bring people together (without masks) in one of our meeting rooms. I know that some other services started virtual book groups in 2020, but I hadn’t considered this at the time. I remember finding it difficult to adjust to working from home and didn’t spend long attempting to do that before returning to the library. In retrospect, there might have been members of staff who would have appreciated the distraction of, and the sense of community offered through, a virtual book group. I admire the library staff who did start these groups.
* browsing NHS LKS websites and emailing the Northlks list
I started thinking about the possibility of a face-to-face book group in the autumn of 2021. In addition to the objectives listed above, I thought it would be nice to offer an in-person social opportunity. The start of a new year seemed like the perfect time to do this. In December 2021, I started advertising the group through the main staff newsletter. My manager agreed to purchase multiple copies of The Midnight Library, a title which seemed apt for the group although I chose the more sociable start time of 5:30pm for our meetings. The four copies we had were claimed and collected before the Christmas break and all those who claimed them went on to attend the meeting at the end of January.
For that first meeting, I prepared a list of questions to help me lead the discussion:
- Did you enjoy reading this book? If so, what did you like most about it? If you didn’t like the book, was this because of the themes explored, the writing style or something else?
- How satisfied were you with the ending?
- Did you learn anything from this book? This could be anything you didn’t know beforehand, including anything about yourself.
- Would you have read this book if it hadn’t been selected for the reading group?
- Have you read any other books by the same author?
- Have you read any other books like this one?
- Would you recommend this book to others? Who do you think it would appeal to?
I don’t think I asked every question on the list, but it felt reassuring to have a list. I also tried to make sure that we heard from everyone in the group. I think I managed to do this in a friendly way that wasn’t reminiscent of a stern teacher putting a pupil on the spot. The attendees seemed to enjoy the discussion and were keen to meet again.
I selected books (mostly novels) that are shorter than your average paperback, often opting for ones with 200-250 pages. Some of the novels I discovered using www.whichbook.net. This website suggests books based on moods, emotions and (crucially) length. I also chose some titles from the fiction stock that we already held in the library. Apart from the first month, I bought second-hand copies of the titles (usually three if there wasn’t already a copy in the library). Afterwards I added the copy in the best condition to library stock and put the others in our book exchange or sent them to another library. The availability of reasonably priced second-hand copies also played a part in the selection of titles.
Attendance and promotion
The group remained largely unchanged for the first five months with me and three or four attendees. For the remainder of the year, it was common for me to meet with two or three others. The reason that some people stopped coming was due to workload – one person was often still at their desk whilst the group met and another was often on call. At the end of 2022, one regular attendee left the organisation, but another member of staff started attending regularly. Part way through 2023, one member of the group suggested meeting on lunchtimes which we have done since then.
At various times in 2022, I promoted the book group to registered library users using email, posters and leaflets. I also included notices in the weekly staff newsletter and on the library website. At one point, I decided to contact an author to see if he would be interested in attending the group to answer questions about his debut novel God’s Own Country. I had learnt from a library user that Ross Raisin had grown up in the area (which was partly why I had included the book in the schedule) and decided I had nothing to lose by contacting him. I was delighted when Ross agreed to appear via video link and so were the group. Whilst it was a great event, it failed to attract new members.
There were several reasons why I decided to change the format for 2023. I felt as though I needed to reduce the frequency of the meetings slightly, anticipating that I might struggle to keep up with the pace again due to commitments outside of work. I therefore reduced the number of meetings from ten to eight. I also decided that it might be useful to have some months where a selection of books on a theme was available. Having a selection of different titles would also benefit the library; I saved money by lending some of my own books and more of the books I bought for the group could be added to the library. Whilst I came up with the ideas for the selections, I asked group members to vote on the books they thought we should all read.
It was interesting hearing how attendees got on with their books, but I felt as though the best discussions were those that focused on a single book. Nevertheless, I think the new format worked well with the more casual lunchtime discussions that we ended up having in the canteen. We all discovered more books this way too.
This year (2024) I have decided to have a more relaxed approach. A few of us will still meet monthly on a lunchtime and discuss the books we have read; there won’t be set books. That said, I have recently been successful in bidding for funding from the hospital charity for some new fiction stock and I think the group will be keen to read and discuss some of these books. I won’t rule out having a set book if there is something we are all keen to read.
I feel as though I met the three objectives I set at the start of 2022, although the first was perhaps achieved more minimally than anticipated.
Facilitating the meetings required a little bit more preparation than attending. In addition to my back-up list of generic questions, I also tried to think of some specific questions about set books and that required me to make notes when reading. Once I got to know the members of the group, facilitating became easier and I didn’t have to think about the process as much.
I have read more widely than I would have otherwise and everyone who has attended over the two years has said the same. I feel more confident now about recommending fiction titles to library users.
If you are thinking of starting your own reading group, you just need to be willing to say ‘yes’ to the following:
- Do I have time to read the set book each month and take notes?
- Do I have the enthusiasm to promote the reading group?
- Am I willing to facilitate the group in my free time, and can I commit to specific dates?
Airedale NHS Foundation Trust