Summer Reading Levels Up

How two library summer reading programs evolved into summer games

November 3, 2011


Participants in the Ann Arbor District Library's Summer Game could earn the Return of the Branch Explorer Badge, among many others.

Like many libraries, Canton (Mich.) Public Library has traditionally operated a summer reading program to encourage children to keep reading through the summer months when they aren’t facing regular class assignments. But the library had two significant issues with the program. One was budgetary. “We have relied on the community, sponsors, donors, and our own budget to pay for the traditional program,” said Laurie Golden, CPL’s marketing and communications manager. That network of community partners wasn’t enough to offset sharp cuts to the library’s budget, because the partners are facing budget cuts of their own. The second issue was effectiveness. The library was concerned that simply offering a reward for kids to read does not help them develop into lifelong readers.

This year, instead of offering a summer reading program, CPL presented Connect Your Summer, a game in which players collected badges for tapping into various experiences. “Our goal was to find ways to connect people to the library and the community,” Golden said.

Each of the 10 badges could be earned by reading, but players could also earn them by attending programs hosted by the library or its community partners, or by choosing their own related activity. Players had the option of sharing how they earned each badge on the library’s blog. Many revealed that they earned badges with multiple experiences: earning the “Sports Fan” badge, for example, by first reading a book about soccer and then attending a game. The library was delighted by this depth. “If you want kids engaged, let the book pay off with an experience,” Golden said.

Perhaps even more radical a shift was Ann Arbor (Mich.) District Library’s Summer Game 2011. Like Connect Your Summer, AADL’s game offers badges for a variety of activities both in the library and elsewhere, but it also incorporates a point system. Players earn points for earning many of the badges, as well as for attending library events, checking out items, reporting time spent reading, tagging or reviewing items in the library catalog, or commenting on a library blog post. Those points could be redeemed for prizes and position on the game’s leaderboard.

Effectiveness was also a motivating factor for AADL. The library’s traditional summer reading program actually “disincentivized reading in that 10 books was ‘enough,’” said Eli Neiburger, AADL associate director of IT and production. The library had received feedback from parents of kids who were normally enthusiastic readers saying their children would read a lot to finish the program—and then stop reading. It also proved to be a burden on already-busy service desks, where staff found themselves spending more time processing forms than actually helping patrons.

Creating the game economy

Both summer games were based on the web, with online sign-up, badge and point awarding, and opportunities for players to share their activities. AADL’s game also had to connect to the catalog, since players could earn points for their contributions to it. The library built its game in a Drupal module that works with SOPAC. “You need knowledgeable developers, but it is all open source,” Neiburger said.

Developing the gameplay also required significant time investment. Neiburger likened the process to creating a new economy. A design team comprising librarians and service desk and marketing staff discussed the tasks players could perform and what the rewards should be. The team modeled gameplay metrics on Foursquare. “Like many things that are called ‘innovative,’ the ideas are all over the web,” Neiburger said.

Both games were open to all ages, and both allowed patrons to sign up as families or groups, rather than just as individuals. Being based online also opened the programs to patrons who might normally not have been able to participate. In Canton, Golden said, “One grandmother in the area has seven grandkids in different states. They signed up together and played online.” In addition, many residents spend their summers out of town, and Connect Your Summer allowed them to participate from wherever they were.

Information literacy by stealth

Despite living online, AADL’s game didn’t exclude traditionalists. The library offered a classic paper log–based reading program with its own prizes. But librarians also used it to encourage patrons to try the online game. “We could say, ‘Here’s your paper game, and if you complete it, you get 1,000 points in this online game that you can check out,’” Neiburger said.

In fact, much of AADL’s game rewarded players for learning new things that they could do online. “The badges stealthily teach information literacy,” Neiburger noted. For example, many players didn’t know that they could request an item online until they learned they could win points for doing so. Other badges could be earned only by exploring the library’s catalog, often by using a not-so-common search method. The Remake Remaster badge required players to find five movie remakes and their five original films in the catalog, but it also introduced tag searching to patrons who might normally only search by title or keyword.

“Teaching information literacy can be successful, so long as you don’t call it that,” Neiburger said. “Gameplay is key. It’s an extremely powerful way to motivate your audience.”

But fun is a critical component, Neiburger added. “In a traditional summer reading program, you get your form, you write down what you read, and you get an ice cream cone. That’s not really a game, that’s doing your homework.”

Golden said that giving homework hurt attendance at some of CPL’s Connect Your Summer programs. Programs like a cooking contest and a pecha kucha (short-form presentation) night that required preparation did not attract big crowds. “People enjoyed entertaining programs, or programs that taught a new skill,” like a dog show or classes in flower arranging or Kanzashi (fabric flower making).

At AADL, “We tried to be silly and entertaining, because that’s what fun feels like,” Neiburger said.

What about reading?

Neiburger described AADL’s game as a “summer using-the-library game” rather than a “summer reading game.” But de-emphasizing reading in the game marketing actually increased reading. The library’s 5,220 players reported reading more than 5 million pages—while also adding almost 300,000 tags and more than 29,000 reviews to the library catalog.

Still, some of CPL’s patrons did feel that reading wasn’t emphasized enough in Connect Your Summer. “Reading was the first item on the list to earn every badge, and we had book recommendations for every badge, but some patrons didn’t realize it,” Golden said. Next year, she added, reading will be stressed a bit more.

Overall, though, community reaction to both games was strong. In Canton, players earned 2,871 badges and shared how they earned an elite 1,337 of them on the library’s blog. Some even printed their badges on iron-on paper to create totes or shirts showing off their activities. And in Ann Arbor, “Patrons were asking, ‘Does the summer game have to end?’ That’s a new thing,” Neiburger said.

Ann Arbor’s reaction was so strong that AADL created two new games that will keep players engaged until next year’s summer game. Treasure Quest offers riddles in the same vein as many of the summer game tasks, although with a ramped-up level of difficulty. Players can solve the riddles using the library’s catalog and the web. Points-O-Matic Click-O-Tron offers points for working within the library’s catalog by picking the more helpful of two user reviews of a book (many of which were generated during the summer game), tagging good images, performing optical character recognition correction, and other tasks. “It’s a framework for harvesting people’s willingness to work on the library’s behalf,” Neiburger said, noting that both games are attracting players even though the library hasn’t announced any reward for earning points in either.

But as players work on behalf of the library, they also—whether they realize it or not—learn more about how the library works for them. “For a lot of people without library cards, they don’t think about the library as a place where they get a return on their tax dollars,” Neiburger said. “The more they use their library, the bigger their return on investment—that is the hidden message of these games.”

Watch this screencast for a demonstration of Ann Arbor District Library’s Summer Game.