Summer Reading Reboot

How to decide if your library should make changes to its program

May 1, 2017

Abby Johnson

When was the last time you looked critically at your summer reading program? Have you fallen into the trap of running it the same way every year because that’s the way it’s always been done?

It’s understandable. Summer is a busy time at the public library, and repeating a program saves work, even if it’s not the best thing for your youth participants or staff. Though your plans for summer reading are probably set, now is an opportune time to take inventory of what you’re doing, what is and isn’t working, and what to change in your program when it wraps.

Rebecca McCorkindale, assistant library director and creative director at Gretna (Neb.) Public Library, introduced major changes to her library’s summer reading program several years ago. Her philosophy is that kids should “make good memories,” so she phased out cheap prizes in favor of keepsake booklets that combine a reading log with activities and coupons for local businesses, such as free ice-cream cones or personal-size pizzas. The switch was popular among children, parents, and sponsors and made it easier for staff members to keep tabs on the program.

There were some bumps at first, but tracking problem areas enabled the library to tweak the program. And though this project is near to her heart, McCorkindale says that she will embrace change if it ever seems to stop working: “Programming should evolve, since everything else in life does.”

Marge Loch-Wouters, youth services consultant at Southwest Wisconsin Library System in Fennimore, recently wrote on her blog about the evolution of reading programs at libraries where she has worked. Instead of simply reading for prizes, her programs got kids engaged in acts of kindness, volunteer activities, and writing book reviews.

Every community is different, and it’s meaningless to compare summer reading program statistics between libraries.

Three years ago, my own library went prizeless, eliminating plastic toys in favor of free books and inexpensive staff-assembled science activity packs as a way to inspire participants to keep the learning going at home.

Noticing areas for change may be easy when employees aren’t happy, patrons complain, or participation numbers are down. But what if everything’s going reasonably smoothly? How do you know if it’s time for a shake-up?

Think about your goals for summer reading and solicit feedback.

  • Talk to staff members. Is summer a time that they dread? Will small changes to the program have big effects on workflow? If you have new staffers, get them involved and leverage their fresh eyes and diverse experiences.
  • Ask patrons. Poll kids and parents at the close of your summer reading program. Are they in it for the prizes, or are they truly engaging with your library?
  • Listen to teachers. Summer reading is, in a big way, for our local educators. We aim to help students retain reading skills so that they aren’t behind when school resumes in the fall. If teachers could design a perfect summer reading program, what would it look like?
  • Reach out to your personal learning network. Get together with neighboring libraries, ask librarians on Twitter, or email librarian friends for ideas. What are others doing that you haven’t considered?

The bottom line is that you need to do what works for your library and patrons. Every community is different, and it’s meaningless to compare summer reading program statistics between libraries, though we might be tempted.

Making your program better will look different for everyone. You don’t have to do anything and everything that people suggest, but having these conversations may help you evaluate your program in a way that you haven’t before. Change can be scary, but fear is a terrible reason to not strive for better results.