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What Makes a Good Summer Reading Program?

Elise Moser

Staff Writer

Elise works with kids and teens at a public library, where her speciality is finding awesome book recommendations for customers. She has a degree in journalism and is a certified early childhood educator. When she’s not reading, Elise enjoys watching baseball, running, board games, and playing the flute. She lives in the St. Louis area with her partner Allen and their three cats.

Summer reading programs are a huge undertaking for libraries across the country. Many library systems plan for months to prepare for ways to engage with their community over the summer. But this year, the elements that normally make up a good summer reading program may not be possible. In-person events and casual book browsing, normal mainstays of library summers, are on hold in favor of social distancing.

Summer reading programs look different in 2020, and libraries are ready for the challenge. American library systems are planning ways to implement their summer reading programs from a distance using technology, social media, and reaching patrons in creative ways.

Summer Reading Programs At All Kinds Of Libraries

Libraries are as diverse as the communities they serve. Some large urban systems serve millions of people, while small rural libraries may only have one or two employees. One organization working to support all libraries regardless of location and size is the Collaborative Summer Library Program.

“Our goal is to make sure every public library in the country has the resources and support to put on a top-notch summer program,” said organizational coordinator Luke Kralik. The organization creates an annual theme for summer reading programs for use by any member library across the country. These libraries have access to graphics for marketing materials, programming ideas, and a support network of library staff to help with planning.

This year is going to look very different than previous summers, as most libraries are closed to the public. It’s unlikely children’s spaces will be open or that in-person programming will be possible this summer.

“Summer is going to be very long,” said Kralik. “Any of the negative aspects from the summer slide, those are getting exacerbated. It’s going to be hard to do a really good (program) this year.”

That’s why many libraries are working to plan for ways to support their communities despite the limitations caused by a global pandemic. A big priority is reaching kids who normally rely on the library for free meals and a safe place to hang out during the summer. The Collaborative Summer Library Program issued guidelines for adapting programs this year, and focused a lot on how to implement meal distribution services this year.

Prevent The Summer Slide

Beyond meeting these basic needs, libraries remain committed to their original mission of summer reading programs: reduce or prevent the “summer slide.” The oft-cited goal of summer reading programs is to avoid the loss of academic gains made during the school year.

“Summer reading for us, it’s twofold,” said Cassie Welch, a children’s librarian and Summer Challenge coordinator for Nashville Public Library. “One, to help children and students combat summer slide so that they’re retaining the information that they’ve gained throughout the entire school year, especially this year given the fact that many schools closed earlier.”

“Nashville is a city that we have many students who are not reading on grade level by third grade, so we feel like our push should be to promote reading,” Welch said.

“On the other hand, to engage our adult readers to be reading role models” so that children have someone to look up to and see that reading is important, she said.

The same goes for the San Jose Library system and its Summer Learning program. Senior librarian Lizzie Nolan said the goal is to get kids reading and learning when school is not in session.

“We believe that reading is learning and that it’s for all ages,” she said.

What Makes A Good Summer Reading Program

A traditional summer reading program might include a tracking system for readers to record the number of books they’re reading, or how many minutes they’re reading. Most library systems still include this type of tracker to encourage reading. When participants reach certain milestones, they can earn prizes.

In Nashville, readers track their reading in 20-minute increments and earn prizes when they complete 600, 1200, and 1800 minutes. The library system is pushing the community to reconsider what reading can be.

“It doesn’t have to be sitting down and reading a book,” said Welch. “It can be going to a park and reading the signage there. It can be opening a cookbook and reading the directions. It can be storytelling. We really want people to think outside the box.”

In San Jose, readers read for eight hours to complete the Summer Learning program. Younger readers just need to track eight books to earn their prizes.

“The goal is to read over the summer,” Nolan said. “It doesn’t matter what you read, where you read, and when you read.”

Some libraries have broadened their criteria for program completion by including activities as options. In the Dayton Metro Library system, readers earn points toward prizes in their Summer Challenge. Some options beyond traditional reading include listening to books, school directed learning, virtual programs or camps, and acts of kindness.

“We just really want to make sure that families are being creative,” said Diane Farrell, spokesperson for Dayton Metro Library.

Kralik said he has seen libraries implement lots of creative elements into their summer programs. Some libraries use a bingo-style card with activities to complete. Others hold programs promoting STEM fields or bring in local experts.

“There’s a lot of different ways to have a successful program that’s more than that nuts and bolts of ‘how many pages did you read?’” he said.

Things Are Different This Year

Of course, this year, many of the in-person activities are not taking place at libraries. A big part of a successful summer reading program comes from promotion. Libraries promote their summer programs for months, encouraging patrons to sign up when they’re in the building. They also make use of local schools, with staff visiting classrooms and distributing promotional materials. That hasn’t been an option this year.

“We do not know what to expect this year” in terms of participation, said Farrell. “Promotion is usually done in the schools. We’re relying on schools to share our information electronically.”

In Nashville, the Summer Reading Challenge launched on April 13, at least a month earlier than planned. In Dayton, Summer Challenge is taking place completely virtually. Prizes will be distributed through curbside pickup or through the mail. San Jose is also looking at curbside pickup for prizes.

Summer programming is also taking place online. In San Jose, there will be a virtual performance to kick off the summer. Dayton Metro Library is promoting two virtual summer camps. Kids in kindergarten to 3rd grade can participate in a day camp in partnership with PBS. Activities will include field trips to local attractions with “behind-the-scenes” looks, daily storytimes, and songs led by camp counselors. Middle schoolers can participate in a career exploration camp. Both camps will have unlimited spots and be streamed live on Facebook.

One major challenge is bridging the technology gap. Not all families have reliable internet access, making participating in virtual programming difficult. Rural communities especially have a barrier to accessing the internet.

“I know the kids who have trouble getting to the library anyway, those barriers are getting stronger,” said Kralik. He said he is seeing rural libraries doing more activity packets and “programming-in-a-bag” distributed through curbside pickup at the library branches.

Measuring success is also difficult when so many elements of summer reading programs have had to change. Libraries usually measure success by the number of sign-ups and completions of the program. This year, it’s hard to compare those numbers to past summers.

“Keeping it simple this year is going to be the key to success,” Nolan said. “It’s just going to be a different year.”

Despite the many challenges of promoting summer reading during a pandemic, libraries are seeing positive feedback from their communities.

“We are getting rave reviews around our planning for our two virtual summer camps,” Farrell said. She also said she is hearing from patrons who are excited to get back to their libraries when buildings eventually reopen.