Posted by Jim Craner on September 25, 2023

During a recent private online discussion forum about AI for librarians, a librarian asked how we can use AI for managing our library book clubs.  Here's the answer I posted:

Thanks for posting!  This is a great question!  

(And in the interest of full disclosure, before I answer, my entire "book club" experience consists of a half-dozen get-togethers in my 20s with some work friends, and I seem to remember that they were a lot more "drinking wine" and "office gossip" than "thoughtful discussion of literature" :-)

Off the top of my head, the first thing we know about using ChatGPT for any sort of Readers Advisory function is that it has a knowledge cut-off -- it only knows about books that were released and discussed on the Internet before that date.  For ChatGPT, that cutoff was recently extended from September 2021 to January 2022.  Generally, ChatGPT will know more about a book based on how much that book has been discussed in the AI model's training data.  So ChatGPT won't even know about any new releases, let alone be able to provide any sort of pitches, discussion questions, etc.  For books published in 2021, immediately before the knowledge cut-off, ChatGPT probably knows some facts about the most popular books, but might not know about more obscure titles.

So we know we can't use ChatGPT, on its own, to recommend any new releases!

But what can it help with?  First, let's see what it knows about running community book clubs in the library before we ask it for any detailed advice...

I'm a library staff person who has never run - or even belonged to - a book club. I've been tasked with starting two library-based book clubs in our public library: a community book club (general interest) and a topical book club (nonfiction women's education & empowerment).  Give me a comprehensive overview of what I need to do to successfully implement my book clubs.

Starting and running a library-based book club can be a rewarding experience for both the staff and the participants. It fosters a sense of community and encourages the exploration of literature and relevant topics. Here's a comprehensive overview of what you can do to successfully implement your book clubs:

**1. Define the Purpose and Scope**

- **Community Book Club (General Interest)**
  - Purpose: Engage community members in the joy of reading and provide a forum for discussing diverse literary works.
  - Scope: A mix of fiction and non-fiction, covering different genres, authors, cultures, and themes.

- **Topical Book Club (Nonfiction Women's Education & Empowerment)**
  - Purpose: Dive deep into topics related to women's education and empowerment, stimulate meaningful discussion, and promote actionable insights.
  - Scope: Non-fiction works covering memoirs, historical accounts, contemporary issues, research studies, and more.

**2. Logistics**

- **Meeting Frequency**: Monthly is common, but you can adjust based on community interest.
- **Duration**: 1-1.5 hours is typical.
- **Location**: Library meeting rooms are ideal. Consider virtual options or rotating through local cafes for a change of scenery.
- **Attendance**: Decide whether to limit the number of participants or keep it open.

**3. Book Selection**

- Create a selection committee or let members vote on upcoming reads.
- Consider books available in multiple formats (print, ebook, audiobook) to accommodate various reading preferences.
- Aim for titles with enough copies available in the library system. If not, provide ample notice for participants to purchase or borrow from elsewhere.

**4. Promotion**

- Use library bulletin boards, newsletters, social media, and local newspapers.
- Host a kickoff event or informational session.
- Collaborate with local bookstores, schools, or community centers for wider outreach.

**5. Structure & Facilitation**

- Have a facilitator for each meeting. This could be a library staff member, a rotating member, or a guest expert (especially for the topical book club).
- Start with ice-breakers or general thoughts about the book.
- Use prepared questions to guide the discussion. Publishers often provide discussion guides for popular books.
- Allow members to share and respect diverse opinions.
- Maintain order and ensure everyone gets a chance to speak.

**6. Engage Members**

- Set up an online forum or group (like on Facebook) for members to discuss outside of meetings.
- Encourage members to suggest books or topics.
- Occasionally invite authors, if feasible, to speak or answer questions.

**7. Special Events & Activities**

- For the topical book club, consider workshops, guest speakers, or documentary screenings related to women's education & empowerment.
- Host themed meetings around holidays or local events.
- Organize book-related outings (e.g., visiting a location from the book).

**8. Feedback & Adaptation**

- Regularly solicit feedback from members about the book selection, meeting structure, and other aspects.
- Be open to change. If something isn't working, try a new approach.

**9. Maintenance & Record Keeping**

- Keep records of books read, attendance, discussion highlights, etc.
- Stay updated on upcoming book releases or relevant topics to keep the club fresh and interesting.

**10. Additional Tips**

- For the topical club, occasionally feature international works to provide global perspectives on women's education & empowerment.
- Celebrate milestones: one-year anniversary, 50th book read, etc.
- Stay inclusive. Ensure discussions are welcoming to people of all backgrounds.

In conclusion, the key to a successful book club lies in fostering a welcoming environment, stimulating discussions, and being receptive to member feedback. As you go along, you'll find what works best for your community. Happy reading!

Is this accurate?  You're the librarians; you tell me.  

Now, of course we want to fact-check and sanity-check anything that ChatGPT tells us to avoid hallucinations, implicit bias, etc.  For the purpose of posting this overview, I poked around on ALA's "Hosting a Book Club" site and ChatGPT's answer seems like a decent start to me.

Alright, so ChatGPT has a sufficient "understanding" of a library book club that we can proceed.  Now one helpful hint is to ask ChatGPT how *it* thinks it can help you!  But here we had a few challenges:

How do you think we could utilize AI for book clubs, where you have a diverse set of readers with different preferences and reading goals, but all reading the same book (or type of book, or subject of book)?


<it gave me a list of general AI tools that could - some day in the future, MAYBE - be used for library purposes.  I'll pick two to review, for instance:>

AI can analyze a reader's past reading habits and preferences to create tailored guides for the book at hand, highlighting themes or aspects that align with their unique interests.

<Well, IF you gave the AI that reader's reading history and preferences...  But ChatGPT on its own doesn't know anything about any specific reader's preferences. And of course we can't send patron data to the AI!
Here's another suggestion of a potential use of AI:>

For a more immersive experience, AI can help design VR settings of the book's locations, allowing readers to "experience" the setting. This can be especially great for historical or fantasy novels.

<And that would be super cool but ChatGPT can't do that right now before next Wednesday's book club meeting!>

So let's do a little "prompt engineering" on your question and tailor it for our specific needs:

How do you think we could utilize ChatGPT for library-based book clubs, where you have a diverse set of readers with different preferences and reading goals, but all reading the same book (or type of book, or subject of book)?  Limit your responses to use cases that are possible with books that you are an expert on. Also identify ChatGPT's weaknesses where it could mislead humans or provide incorrect information about books and/or the books' content.


Absolutely, ChatGPT can be a valuable resource for library-based book clubs, especially when catering to diverse sets of readers. Here are some ways ChatGPT could be utilized, along with potential weaknesses to be aware of:

### Use Cases:

1. **Book Summary and Analysis**: ChatGPT can provide concise summaries and analyses of books. This can help readers quickly understand the book's main plot, themes, and characters, or to refresh their memory.

2. **Background Information**: For historical novels or books set in unfamiliar settings, ChatGPT can provide background information to help readers better understand the context in which the story unfolds.

3. **Discussion Questions**: ChatGPT can generate a list of discussion questions tailored to the book's content, themes, and characters, sparking more in-depth conversations among club members.

4. **Vocabulary Assistance**: For books with challenging vocabulary or written in older forms of English, ChatGPT can assist in defining and explaining words or phrases.

5. **Diverse Perspectives**: ChatGPT can offer various interpretations of a book, catering to the different preferences and reading goals of club members. For instance, if one member is reading for pleasure while another is researching for a project, ChatGPT can provide insights tailored to both needs.

6. **Recommendations**: Based on club members' reactions to the current book, ChatGPT can suggest similar books or reading materials that might be of interest.

7. **Reading Goals and Progress**: ChatGPT can help club members set and track reading goals, ensuring they finish the book by the next meeting.

### Potential Weaknesses:

1. **Accuracy Concerns**: While ChatGPT is knowledgeable about many books, it's not infallible. Its information is based on the data it was trained on, and it may occasionally provide inaccurate or outdated insights.

2. **Interpretation Limits**: Literature is subjective, and while ChatGPT can offer interpretations, it doesn't have emotions or personal experiences. Its perspectives might be seen as objective or analytical, potentially lacking the nuanced emotional responses a human might have.

3. **Over-reliance**: There's a danger of club members relying too heavily on ChatGPT for insights, potentially stifling personal interpretations and opinions. 

4. **Spoilers**: If not explicitly instructed to avoid them, ChatGPT could inadvertently reveal plot points or endings, spoiling the reading experience for some.

5. **Lack of Awareness of Recent Publications**: As of my last training data in January 2022, I might not be aware of books published after that. Therefore, for more recent books, my knowledge could be limited.

6. **Potential Misunderstanding**: ChatGPT responds based on patterns in its training data. There are instances where it might misunderstand a user's question, leading to potentially irrelevant or incorrect answers.

To ensure the most beneficial experience, it would be wise to use ChatGPT as a supplementary tool for library-based book clubs. Encourage club members to rely primarily on their own insights and research, turning to ChatGPT for additional information or perspectives when needed.

Now this is a pretty fair disclaimer, in my opinion.  The knowledge cut-off is acknowledged, the potential for incorrect answers is mentioned -- and of course, spoiler alerts.  But again, the accuracy and usefulness of what ChatGPT says about any given book is going to be based on the "language patterns" it absorbed during training -- it's not an infallible database of every page of every book!

OK so let's see how it does.  You can ask ChatGPT or the PLAIDapp Chat interface for its take on any book but I'm going with "The Time Traveler's Wife" because I first read it - and fell in love with it - in that long-ago book club:

I'm running a community book club at my local library for a general audience of diverse readers. Next month's book is "The Time Traveler's Wife."  Give me a list of ten potential discussion questions.

Certainly! "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger is a novel that delves into themes of love, fate, time, and the challenges posed by uncontrollable circumstances. Here are ten discussion questions for your book club:

1. **Chronological Structure**: The novel doesn’t follow a linear timeline but instead jumps back and forth through time. How did this affect your reading experience? Did it enhance or detract from the narrative?

2. **Free Will vs. Determinism**: The novel touches on the concepts of fate and destiny. Do you believe the characters have any control over their lives, or are they simply subject to preordained events?

3. **Love and Sacrifice**: Clare and Henry's relationship is filled with challenges that most couples never face. What sacrifices do both characters make for their love? Are there limits to what one should sacrifice for love?

4. **Concept of Time**: Henry's time traveling is involuntary and uncontrollable. How does the novel challenge conventional notions of time? How would your perception of time change if you were in Henry's shoes?

5. **Identity and Change**: As Henry travels through time, he meets different versions of himself and Clare. How do these encounters shape his identity? How do they affect Clare's perception of Henry?

6. **Children and Parenting**: Discuss the challenges Clare and Henry face when trying to have a child. How does time travel complicate their desires and efforts to become parents?

7. **Secondary Characters**: How do the secondary characters, like Gomez and Charisse, provide depth to the story? How do their perspectives on Clare and Henry's relationship differ from the main characters' views?

8. **Aging and Mortality**: The novel presents a unique perspective on aging since Henry experiences life out of sequence. How does this unconventional experience of aging influence his perspective on life and death?

9. **Adaptations**: Some members might be aware of the film adaptation of "The Time Traveler's Wife." How do adaptations (film, TV, etc.) of novels change or enhance the reading experience? If you've seen the film, how does it compare to the book?

10. **Personal Connections**: If you could time travel to any moment in your past or future, when would you go, and why? How do you think such an ability would influence your life and relationships?

These questions should spark engaging discussions among your book club members and allow them to delve deeper into the intricacies of the novel.

Whew!  OK, hope this helped answer your question!  :-)  

Have you used ChatGPT or another AI tool for planning or running your library's book club?  Get in touch and let us know how it went!