Summer Reading Programs – What Works?

As we get ever-closer to summer recess, it’s time for my annual post about summer reading programs at public libraries. Summertime marks a respite for school librarians and the peak season for public librarians. As mentioned in my 2016 post , the three-month interim between academic sessions affords public librarians the opportunity to maintain literary engagement with young patrons. Those who aren’t particularly avid readers are in danger of falling victim to the “summer slide,” which involves taking a mental vacation while school is out.

Aside from augmented programming calendars, how can we ensure that patrons of public libraries are inclined to keep reading? 

Public libraries all over the U.S. have instituted summer reading programs (SRPs) for decades. Patrons of all ages – from infants to senior citizens – seem to find the structure of these programs motivate reading during the summer months. While there are state-wide SRP themes and collaborative sites such as Summer Reading at New York Libraries, and Illinois’ iRead, the American Library Association does not set nation-wide themes. In other words, there is no widespread rule book on how exactly to implement a public library’s summer reading program. There is, however, the Collaborative Summer Library Program, (with the theme “Build a Better World” for 2017) which is a consortium of states working together and exchanging ideas for successful, low-cost SRPs.

The reason for the lack of uniformity is clear – each community throughout the country has very specific needs; a certain SRP’s structure may thrive in one library and fall flat in another. A May 2017 American Libraries magazine article corroborates, “Every community is different, and it’s meaningless to compare summer reading program statistics between libraries.”

According to ALA, the benefits of a SRP include:

  • encouragement that reading become a lifelong habit
  • reluctant readers can be drawn in by the activities
  • reading over the summer helps children keep their skills up
  • the program can generate interest in the library and books

Many libraries use booklets, worksheets, bingo sheets, and even scratch-off tickets for patrons to log hours or mark progress in SRPs. There are often SRP kickoff and closing events, to mark the beginning and end of a library’s SRP. Libraries may create flyers or posters that convey the program’s structure or “steps” in order to entice potential participants.

Most libraries use prize incentives in the SRPs – either incrementally based on hours or books read, or an end-of-program raffle of big-ticket book or tech-oriented items. Incremental prizes often include toys from Oriental Trading such as stickers, keychains, bookmarks, and sensory play toys; coupons and vouchers from local businesses; and library-branded totes, thumb drives, or pens.  Grand prizes may include Kindles, GoPro cameras, iPads, etc.

While these prizes may encourage some less avid readers to initially register, it doesn’t guarantee they’ll complete the SRP, nor be honest about their reading habits. It also may involve spending a huge chunk of a library’s materials budget that is unneccessary, as librarians must speculate how many prizes to order past on participation from previous years.

Despite the fact that most public libraries do offer prizes, there are some who believe the notion of “bribing” patrons to read (or lie about reading) is counterproductive. Some libraries across the country are experimenting with different approaches for SRPs and experiencing positive results.

Regardless of how libraries pursue summer reading endorsement one thing is clear: the main objective should be to get acquainted with your specific community’s interests and fill in the gaps after school’s out to ensure there is continued engagement and enthusiasm for the library and its materials.