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Online Science Fiction Book Club

John Grayshaw
John Grayshaw

By John Grayshaw
Library Director,
Middletown Public Library

When Star Trek first came out in the 1960’s many of the concepts it introduced were revolutionary such as starships, transporters, and phasers. But some of the futuristic technology like automatic doors and communicators/cell phones which were amazing at the time are now commonplace.

For this reason classic science fiction is often called prophetic. H.G. Wells is sometimes thought to be as much of a time traveller himself as his unnamed narrator in “The Time Machine.” How else did he predict around the turn of the 20th century such things as phones, email, TV, genetic engineering, lasers, and atomic bombs?

But this isn’t always the case, for every amazing prediction, you have characters smoking cigars on spaceships and using typewriters in “the future.”

Nevertheless overall science fiction has predicted many modern technologies we enjoy; everything from submarines, helicopters, waldos, and waterbeds, to tasers. To borrow a term from science fiction, we are truly living in a “Golden Age” of technology. And librarians should be at the forefront of this. Our libraries have four walls, but we need not be limited by them in the digital age.

The Middletown Public Library is a small independent library in a suburb of Harrisburg. It is located in a building that was originally a firehouse which was built in 1891. The population of Middletown PA is about 8,000 people. But there are no limits to how big our online presence can be.

To that end, the Library is associated with a science fiction book group on Facebook that as of June 2017 has 3,331 members and more members are added every day. The membership is not limited to the library’s coverage area. Instead it draws from around the world and has members from the US, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, South Africa, Australia, Japan, and many more.

Facebook has a translation function so people who don’t speak English as their first language are able to write posts in their own language if they want to. It’s like having Star Trek’s universal translator or a babel fish from “the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” This diversity has led to many fascinating discussions. Most members find that due to a shared love of classic science fiction they feel a connection to members, a connection that they don’t feel to people in their own towns or countries because their neighbors don’t read science fiction. In “the Dark Tower” series Stephen King called it a Ka-tet, which is group of people bound together by fate/destiny or in this case a love of the same fiction genre.

However, while there is a common group of science fiction novels that have been translated into many languages, there are also thousands of science fiction novels that have never been translated to other languages. There has been so much interest in talking about science fiction from a French, or an Italian or a Chinese perspective that we have started a weekly thread devoted to foreign language science fiction.

The main focus of the book group is the monthly Group Read. Members nominate and vote each month to decide what novel or short fiction collection will be read. Then each week there is a weekly discussion post. This post is very important because participation in that post is counted on the library’s monthly and yearly statistics just like attendance at an in-person book group would be. This attendance is a real boon as Middletown’s adult attendance numbers are on track to increase 300% in 2017 because of the Science Fiction Group’s average of around 50 people a month.

Some librarians who have tried online book groups found they fizzled out. Middletown’s group has been successful for several reasons

  • It’s a niche market– As previously stated many of the Group’s members have commented that it is great to find a community of readers rather than feeling like a lone and isolated reader like Harold Bemis from the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last.”
  • Draws on a broader market– The group has a generic name “Science Fiction Book Club” rather than “Middletown Science Fiction Book Club” which means people around the world find it if they do a search for a science fiction book club on Facebook.
  • Time– The group was started in the summer of 2010 and didn’t start a monthly Group Read until the summer of 2015 when the group had reached 1,000 members. Sometimes it takes a long time for something to grow.
  • Keep politics out– These next two are very specific to groups/message boards. In today’s world people often read books and join book groups to relax and escape the everyday news cycle. The last thing they want is to reencounter the news of the days in their read groups.
  • Keep promotion out– It is an unfortunate fact that many people try to join read groups not to discuss things, but to get some free advertising for their latest book. The group’s rules ban such promotion and any member who tries it is deleted from the group.

In closing, the idea of globalism for libraries isn’t limited to Book Groups. It can be applied to other avenues as well. Middletown’s twitter account has followed 3,538 other libraries and librarians around the world and a handful of our tweets have earned 5,000-12,000 impressions. In the future Middletown is looking to crack the Instagram market and unlock the potential for that program or perhaps the next focus will be on something else. No one knows the future…except writers like H.G. Wells who have been there.

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