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Book Clubs and Socratic Seminars

The advantage to new technology, according to Beth Dempsey, is that it enables more interaction between patrons and the library. Dempsey focuses particularly on the book club, and shows how librarians have been able to successfully take advantage of people’s interest in sharing their opinions on sites like Amazon and Goodreads to attract them back to the library. Even in cases where attendees cannot make it to the physical library, they can attend book clubs through video chat, or hold the meetings at bars or coffeehouses. In my opinion, this is a great development: anything that brings more people to the library (as long as it does not compromise the ethics of the profession) is good news. This is primarily an issue of outreach, and most of the cases highlighted in Dempsey’s article are examples of successful outreach. For the most part, these book clubs are leisurely rather than scholarly, which is fine: making reading a chore never works in the library’s favor. I do, however, like examples of libraries that have kits ready made for book clubs. If a group of people want to start a book club but do not yet have a book picked out, the library could provide many options with varying degrees of difficulty. Our own Ann Arbor District Library, for example, has The New Jim Crow for book clubs, a choice that is both thought provoking and challenging. The example of the Johnson County Library in Kansas leading a book club for prisoners shows the library actively reaching out to improve people’s lives, for example providing juveniles with books that “feature teens succeeding in life despite difficult circumstances.”

Barbara Hoffert’s article, like Dempsey’s, states the advantages of using emerging technologies to connect to library users. Her article differs, however, in its focus on the content of book clubs themselves, recommending that the clubs organize around a theme with members all reading different books rather than everybody reading the same book. This is certainly an interesting approach and could be successful in forcing participants to think more critically about what they read. In a situation where everybody reads the same book, it is much easier for somebody to hang back and offer non-substantive commentary like “I liked it,” or “I agree with her.” My one concern about this is that if everybody reads a different book, confusion could result from comparing your book to multiple books you have not yet read. There is also the issue of spoilers if you plan to read somebody else’s book. Overall though, this is an interesting idea that certainly bears further examination.

In terms of understanding content, Lynda Tredway’s Socratic Seminars: Engaging Students in Intellectual Discourse and Margaret Metzger’s Teaching Reading: Beyond the Plot discuss using Socratic Seminars with high school and middle school students to conduct close readings of various texts. The idea behind Socratic dialogue is that “through doubt and systematic questioning of another person, one gets to the ultimate truth.” Metzger’s piece shows how Socratic Seminars in her class of high school freshmen increased their critical thinking ability as well as their self-esteem. Socratic Seminars are undoubtedly effective, but I was still somewhat confused as to their actual operation, especially having an inner and outer circle that take turns discussing. While this system looks great for the classroom, I am not sure if this would translate well to the library. We do not have the same control over discussion as a teacher, nor, I think, should we want to. Libraries have always been for more open-ended learning than the classroom, and it is not for us to decide how patrons should run their book clubs. We could, however, incorporate suggestions among questions that we give to book club members, giving them the option to hold book clubs as a Socratic Seminar should they choose to do so.

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