The Sound of Silence
When a friend and fellow librarian mentioned to Christina Wolfskehl that the most popular programming at her library focused on silent reading, she seemed almost embarrassed by the activity’s simplicity. But the premise intrigued Wolfskehl, young adult librarian at Newport (R.I.) Public Library (NPL), who decided to give it a try.
“Our Silent Book Club has been a surprising success—surprising because if someone had told me a year ago that relaxing on comfortable beanbags and reading whatever books we want to read qualifies as an actual program, I would have yeeted that person straight out of the library,” says Wolfskehl, using the popular slang term for a sudden or forceful motion.
As these Silent Book Clubs have popped up in coffee shops, community centers, and libraries in several countries, librarians have recognized an opportunity to engage less social readers of all ages with low-cost, low-tech programming. They have also given libraries an opportunity to highlight an essential part of what made them special in the first place—the space and time for quiet reading.
During NPL’s weekly after-school gatherings, Wolfskehl leads about 45 minutes of silent reading. The inclusive environment, replete with flexible seating and sweet treats, has attracted an average of 10 kids each week since its debut in April 2019.
“It’s a place [for teens] to be themselves,” Wolfskehl says. “There are kids who want to be around others but don’t want to be the center of attention.”
Although participants aren’t required to share or socialize with one another or staff as part of the event, it has helped forge connections during the informal conversations that occur after the books are closed for the afternoon.
“What I really enjoy about [our] Silent Book Club is … we have been able to build relationships with our teens,” Wolfskehl says.
Kevin Brown, senior library assistant at Gloucester County (N.J.) Library System’s (GCLS) Mullica Hill branch, founded an all-ages Silent Book Club in early 2020 after reading about it on NPR. His goal is to reach readers who aren’t interested in or comfortable with the familiar book club model of reading at home and sharing as a group, which can give some participants performance anxiety or make the reading feel like homework.
“I thought this would be a nontraditional way to get people together who like books and don’t want to be forced to discuss them,” says Brown, a self-described introvert. “They can if they want to, but they’re under no obligation to do so.”
One Saturday a month, for about an hour and a half, a small group gathers outside the library’s makerspace for quiet reading in full view of other patrons.
“It’s open to anyone who is interested in reading without having the purpose be to read an assigned book and have to talk about it,” he says. “You can read whatever you want to read, whether that’s an ebook or an audiobook.”
I thought this would be a nontraditional way to get people together who like books and don’t want to be forced to discuss them.—Kevin Brown, senior library assistant at Gloucester County (N.J.) Library System’s (GCLS) Mullica Hill branch
Francisco Vargas, branch manager at San Mateo County (Calif.) Libraries (SMCL), runs a monthly Silent Book Club at the Half Moon Bay branch that targets the 18-and-over crowd with monthly early-evening meetings. Held in a “pristine” space at the branch, winner of a 2019 American Institute of Architects/American Library Association Library Building Award, the event debuted in April 2018 during the library’s annual “Ditch Your Device Week” initiative.
“It’s bring your own book—BYOB,” says Vargas, who provides an array of treats from a local health food store, making sure to avoid foods that might crunch loudly and disturb the atmosphere. “The vibe in there feels super serene. There’s no chitchat.”
Participants can read for as long as an hour and 20 minutes, with an optional opportunity to share the book they’re reading and socialize afterward.
Other libraries place more emphasis on the sharing portion of the gathering.
“The discussion was the meat and potatoes of our event,” says Rachael Parlier, adult programming coordinator at Autauga-Prattville (Ala.) Public Library (APPL), outside Montgomery. APPL hosted its first-ever Silent Book Club meeting in February.
The program includes about 30 minutes each of introductions, silent reading, and optional discussion. Attendees bring their own books, but Parlier plans an optional theme, such as mythology or adulthood. The club meets twice monthly after library hours at a local fast-casual restaurant and ice cream parlor, finding that off-site meetings contribute to flexibility.
“A lot of businesses are happy to partner with you,” Parlier says. “Our space and availability in the library is at a premium. It opens up new opportunities, [not] having to worry about timing.”
Silent Book Club, a network of active silent reading organizations to which these libraries belong, offers online resources for anyone looking to start a chapter.
“We have seen a big jump in the number of Silent Book Clubs hosted by libraries in the past year,” says Guinevere de la Mare, an author who cofounded Silent Book Club at a bar in San Francisco in 2012.
De la Mare says the organization includes 36 chapters based in or hosted by libraries, or 15% of its 240 worldwide affiliates. Of those, 30 are in the US and six overseas, in Australia, Italy, Sweden, and the UK.
Librarians running Silent Book Clubs report them as win-win programming with their accessible concept and low cost.
“It’s one of the easiest programs to set up,” says Vargas of SMCL. “A volunteer could get it started.”
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