What if the Summer Reading Club Didn’t Exist?

You know that thing that takes a huge amount of coordination and causes a fair amount of stress in both the planning and execution? What if we just didn’t do it. What if we went back to the drawing board and started at square one. What if we reimagined what summer at the library looks like for families. What if.

Maybe your library is like my library: You’ve been running a summer reading program for many years and have ties to a larger organization (the provincial SRC in this case) that dictates the theme, the artwork, and design of materials. The baseline assumption is that we want kids to read over the summer and keep track of that reading in some way. And because of tradition and funding and community expectations, this is how it will likely continue. I get it: Summer Reading is a beast and it’s hard to find the time and money for BIG changes.

But it doesn’t stop me from dreaming! As a thought experiment I like to envision summer at the library without the yolk of the SRC program. Here’s what I ask myself:

  • What are the library’s main goals for kids, teens, and families over the summer?
  • What is the library’s role in the lives of families over the summer?
  • Why is what we do in the summer different than what we do during the school year? What changes and what stays the same?
  • What do families want access to over the summer?
  • How can I help kids and teens find the best stories and information, especially during a time when their school library is closed?
  • What feelings and emotions do I want families to associate with the library over the summer?
  • How could I work with community partners to strengthen the library’s presence outside its four walls?
  • How can I do better at reaching families who are underserved or unaware of the library?

Thinking on these questions is deep work. I don’t have the magic answer to what summer at the library should look like. I do know it would look different to what we do now.

What do you think? What would you summer look like? What questions do you ask yourself? How’s it going at your library?

32 thoughts on “What if the Summer Reading Club Didn’t Exist?

  1. Oh you have hit a large vein here, my friend. I dare say most seasoned youth services folks have dreamed of no SRC. After doing 25 years of it , I was happy to turn it over to someone else. But I still see the value in some of it. No need for those cheap crappy prizes. I like the celebration of reading milestones like 10 hours or one million minutes. I like the programs for rural kids, bringing arts & science & culture activities to small communities. I like getting the whole family involved and providing experience-based prizes and challenges.

    I think SRC could certainly use an overhaul, and it would take a brave soul (or maybe a huge grant project) to try it. Looking forward to this discussion!

    1. I do see value in it too, and I think the hardest part is figuring out what we already do that is worth saving and how to fold that good stuff into a new vision. What’s worth saving will be different for every library – I like your example of rural communities getting access to arts, science, and culture, for example. My big city kids have more access to those things year-round. We also struggle with how to create something that will attract all ages, 0 – 18, without creating multiple different summer reading programs that are so different from each other that it becomes a burden to (1) get all staff on board and (2) explain the differences to families. There is a trend to move towards a “Summer Learning” model that encompasses more STEM and community partnerships. Half of me loves the idea of opening the box further, and part of me worries we are way out of scope as a library and miss the opportunity to capitalize on what we specialize in (stories and information!). Sounds like this will be a conversation that will span my entire career 🙂

  2. LOVE this dream! At my library we have been moving away from blindly following the theme and focusing on goals for the summer. No more cheap prizes, but new books($ provided by our Friends Group) for accomplishing the goals. We continue with our foundational programming then add other programs if they provide value and support our library goals. We once purchased the posters, the bookmarks, the t shirts, and other theme items. This year we didn’t purchase any of this and I’m pretty sure no one will notice.

    When we started focusing on really engaging with our community summer became more fun! Still a lot of work, but certainly more satisfying. Shifts in the way we think can make a huge impact.

    I love when you dive off into the “deep work.” It’s so satisfying to hear someone else put these thought out into the world.

    1. What you said! Our library is functioning much the same way as yours, Bonnie.

      Corporate oversight with regards to summer reading certainly can feel like an unnecessary burden. I think Lindsey’s list carries all the best information we will ever need to create beautiful summer reading programs for our communities. It is our list too.

      So much of what the larger organizations are telling us is, frankly, redundant, but I don’t know what financial benefits may spring from that coordination that could be useful, or perhaps even necessary for smaller libraries? I’d love to hear from folks who have benefitted from that association, to get a bigger picture.

      1. I have heard from some smaller libraries in my province that having the provincial support makes a huge difference. Otherwise they wouldn’t have the money or staff to create much of anything over the summer. It’s also supposed to create a sense of community province-wide – families can go to any library and see the same theme, same program name, etc. Hopefully some folks from smaller libraries will chime in here to add their thoughts!

    2. Thanks, Bonnie! And I greatly appreciate you engaging in the thinking with me. When you say focusing on goals, do you mean the kids get to set the goals? That’s what we tried at my library, opening it up from reading for a certain amount of time to goal setting. Part of me likes that is more open-ended for each child’s unique situation and interests, and part of me wonders if it still too much like school (our schools do goal setting multiple times a year) and whether the kids will like that or not. I 100% agree on shifting the focus to engaging with the community. Even now I try to focus on creating moments of connection with families, rather than on being strict with the theme.

      1. The library still sets a reading goal that is easily achievable. We ask everyone, youth and adults, to read 500 minutes in eight weeks. The goals that really made the difference were the priorities we set as a staff for the overall program and for ourselves. Two examples: 1) Focus on encouraging the participants to read 500 minutes instead of going for large sign-up numbers. This was a shift from “Hey, hey, sign-up!” to “How is it going? What are you reading? What did you like about the last book you read?” Helping and encouraging are the important things. Our overall completion rate last summer was 56%. 2) Streamline processes and information so the staff, volunteers and patron can be successful. This was a big one we’ve been working on for several years. It has really paid off. Last summer each staff member could tell you exactly how to sign up in person or on line. Doing this has empowered all staff. They understand what’s going on and if they don’t remember, it is easily accessible. We work hard to have consistent clear messaging on all our platforms.

        One last big shift for us was changing what we report. We are still required to track all the traditional numbers, however, we don’t highlight those as much as we do the success stories and positive interactions. Those things really illustrate the good work we do better that just reporting the number of people at a program. This too was a game changer for the staff. Placing value on interactions increased our dedication to great customer service.

  3. I think SRC is a lot more for the parents than the kids! I’ve seen parents get upset that their kids didn’t get bigger prizes or some parents throw huge fits if their child doesn’t finish before the program ends- all this stress, chaos- it’s my least favorite time to work at the public library!

    Some things are improving- I think we’re realizing that we don’t need any more “stuff” But, none the less, the fact that you read to “get” something is something I feel very reluctant to promote.

    If SRC gets a child into reading who may not have before, then it’s done something wonderful. However, I think the focus on medals and prizes has got out of hand and at this point I feel like I’m just contributing to “do something get something” culture.

    1. Extrinsic motivation for something you intrinsically like to do actually decreases your intrinsic motivation. The research supports moving away from rewarding reading when we want kids to read for fun. I think a lot of libraries are letting go of cheap prizes and rewards, for that reason and also for the environmental impact of all the little plastics that end up in the garbage. Managing parental expectations is a great topic though! We struggle to even accurately explain what the Summer Reading Club is to families (is it a real club? do they have to show up each day? do they have to read in the library?) That’s another question to add to my list – how will we communicate the value of the library/program to caregivers? Thanks for helping me think more about this topic, Erica!

      1. My library decided to make the program all ages, everyone who signs up gets an age appropriate book in June, July, and August. Then we don’t have to get parent buy in, we also get adults who are just excited about signing up as their kids! Or just excited! No kids required.
        It’s so much easier to get parent buy in now.
        Any reading tracking is a kind of bonus that allows for raffle prizes.
        We did a big overhaul of our SRC and moved away from themes, instead it’s the same visual branding every year (something about consistent program recognition) and we call it Summer Break Baltimore.
        I actually really like how my system has reworked our goals for SRC, instead of stopping summer slide, we are engaging with families and helping them to build their home libraries. I think this is a much more solid goal for my system where many families don’t have home libraries at all.

        1. That sounds like a fantastic system. Really, I think SRC has become very complicated. Prizes, log books, “optional challenge activities,” extra programming, on and on it goes.

          Your system is much more simple and I can see it generating more enthusiasm among the staff who have to explain it as well as the public.

          1. The fact that our spiel is easily 1/4 the length has boosted staff morale and keeps customers attention as we explain it. So much easier!

  4. Our library sets no goals or requirements, since we think the summer emphasis should be reading for fun. (We have a little note explaining our philosophy to give to parents if they seem puzzled/disappointed.) We sign kids up for summer reading, and they get a cool, us-branded color-changing pencil, a bookmark and some stickers, and a reading record. (We usually use the CSLP items for those last 3 items.) We update suggested lists for each grade annually, and do displays of those titles–kids are encouraged to use any lists they want — or pick any other books, obviously. In addition, we have a weekly guessing jar: kids try to guess how many things (candy, snack bags of chips, small toys or art supplies) are in the jar, and the three (or more) closest guessers split the contents–that keeps kids visiting us and checking out books all summer. They fill out their guesses with their address, and we mail the winners postcards–good writing practice and so exciting! This relatively low-key approach seems to work for our families.

    1. We do a “guess how many LEGO piece” challenge every year that the kids love too. We also have a reading record provided by the province. It’s morphed over the years. It’s where kids are supposed to keep track of the goal. Do the kids record the names of books in your reading record?

      1. Yes, and they can show it to us, or to their new teacher in the fall, or keep it until they’re grown up to see what their favorites were… basically whatever.

      2. And I love the LEGO idea! We’ve done rubber ducks, ping pong balls, deflated blow-up balls, but never LEGOs.

  5. The power of the pause! My district took a pause a few years ago and I think summer reading came back better and more intentional than ever. The biggest (and my favorite change) upon its return was giving out a free book at the beginning of summer – no reading logs/tracking minutes required! No other prizes. Our numbers are better than ever before – especially with teens and the under 3 crowd!

    This reminds me, I need to finish a draft blog post about summer reading…

    1. You know I read everything you write! I need to hear more about this pause – like did you stop doing things for one summer? Or was this an internal pause? I want to know alllllll the details 🙂

      1. I’m a little fuzzy on the details since the pause happened before I came back, but if I recall correctly, they took a complete break for summer 2020!

  6. I think my library has found a nice balance between traditional SRC/P and changing it up to fit the needs of today’s families. We pick our own theme. Sometimes it’s the CSLP or other universal theme, sometimes it’s our own theme that fits better with what is going on in the community. We track days of reading, and any reading counts (audiobooks, someone reading to you, 15 minutes of looking at a magazine, etc…really no parameters). We try to encourage children and teens to read as many days as possible, but don’t focus on hours or minutes of reading. You can keep track either online or on a paper tracker. We give everyone who signs up a book, and are trying to give other prizes that have at least some longevity/usability beyond the cheap plastic stuff (e.g. slime, sidewalk chalk, bubbles, hand puppets, frisbees, etc…even if that means giving less prizes overall). We offer a summer bridge type program with certified teachers in reading & math that always meets capacity. Last year we did a neighborhood scavenger hunt that was very popular. We’ve also started offering a snacks and stories program where people can come in and get a snack and listen to a story every day Monday-Friday. It is still a good deal of work, but I think we’re meeting some community needs and we always take time to evaluate what worked and what didn’t to use for planning next year.

    1. I like how you have built in time for evaluation at the end of the summer. If you do anything in particular to reflect, I’d love to know more about it. We usually have a group discussion. Your SRC sounds a lot like ours, except we don’t have the budget to offer snacks. Food always brings people in and helps with food security during the summer.

  7. We redesigned some years ago, so now the burden of summer is not SRC, but actual programming. Our community loves it, but it is even more exhausting than the previous version, and I can’t recommend it unless you have a ridiculous number of very enthusiastic staff! For SRC we hand out the TD materials, but otherwise have Beanstack and do Read and Bead, so that takes care of the tracking and prizes and stuff, so that part is actually fairly little effort. I do highly recommend Read and Bead, it’s awesome–they get beads to put on a chain for their reading and program attendance, so summer reading is a necklace or something to pin to your backpack when it’s over.

    1. I’ve never heard of Read and Bead. I do like the idea of having something visual that represents their participation outside of a medal. I could see lots of kids putting them on backpacks. It sounds like you all do a lot! We do a lot of programming as well, and I agree it can be exhausting to develop so many new programs each year. We’re trying to create a group of core programs each summer that are fresh but also re-use things from past years.

  8. I can relate to a lot of what people have commented here. Many things we doing during summer reading feels like things we “have to do.” About 7 years ago when I came on at my current library, I brought up a point when we were talking about moving our drawing prize entries away from a weekly ticket, (meaning they could only be turned in during a certain week) to a reading achievement entry. I got a lot of push back but my question I kept returning to, and still do, is summer reading a program to encourage reading or a program to encourage library visits? Keeping that question center of all decisions we make on summer reading has helped centered what we offer or don’t offer and what we choose to spend time on planning and executing. We no longer give out small physical prizes, mostly it’s coupons for local businesses. Everyone who finishes gets a book. We track days of reading or minutes and offer tracking online on in-person. We have programs for all ages and with our teen program we ask teens directly what kind of program they’re interested in, what grand prizes they would be interested in to get buy-in. We also now have a library wide committee that meets year around to plan and coordinate Summer and Winter Reading. The committee is made up of members from all departments with the clear message that our reading programs are library-wide initiatives, not just a “youth” thing or a public service thing because Summer Reading affects all departments, even if indirectly. And even with all of this, Summer Reading is still a lot of work. But by making our reading programs a high priority for the whole organization and spreading the work among multiple departments, it can fit into our staff’s work without over taking it.
    And to wrap up my extra long comment, we also skipped Winter Reading in 2021-2022 because frankly, staff was burnout from COVID and also multiple departments were short-staffed. I was worried we would get a negative response from patrons but we didn’t get much, just causal comments here or there. So when 2022-2023 Winter Reading rolled around, we also weren’t sure what kind of participation to expect given previous years’ low numbers and skipping the year before. All of our Winter Reading programs not only bounced back, but surpassed pre-pandemic participation numbers. My takeaway from that experience was we could pause, take a break, come back and patrons still be excited and interested in reading programs.

    1. You do Summer and Winter reading?! Holy smokies that’ a lot of work. I like how you get the whole library involved though. One of the challenges we face is explaining SRC to all levels of staff who have little to no involvement in the planning. Your takeaway is reinforcing my hope that taking breaks from things can rejuvenate not only staff but the public as well. It builds excitement when you can reintroduce something, especially if it comes with a few tweaks. p.s. Love the long comments; keep ’em coming 🙂

  9. This is a subject that I tackled in depth several years ago. First, I revisited my mission statement. (This is something I created about 15 years ago…and it has helped immensely to have a personal mission statement for my career. If my efforts do not mesh with my mission statement, I do not engage in that activity or program.) My mission statement is two-fold:
    1. I want each of my young patrons to be a life-long reader.
    Now, knowing that a lot of #1 is out of my control, I developed part 2 in support of part 1:
    2. I want as many connections that my young patrons have with the library to be pleasure connections. In other words, I want them to feel that their library is a good place, and that they are valued here.
    Just having my mission statement, especially part 2, has made developing any program so much easier! This is how Summer Reading has changed for us:
    1. We will have no raffles and no big prizes. In that scenario we have one happy patron and many hundreds of disappointed ones. No pleasure connections there! Instead, when you have finished your summer reading card, you may return it and pick a brand-new, free, book off of our prize carts. That prize is accessible to everybody, and is given based on your own efforts. No luck. (And I make sure our prize books are just as desirable and fun as I can afford.)
    2. To encourage summer-long reading, no prizes are given until the last two weeks in August. We are on our third year of a great Summer Celebration mid-August, and that is the first day that cards can be returned for prize books. Of course, we leave our prize carts out for an extra week or two into September, because sometimes life gets in the way of getting to the library.
    3. Our summer reading cards can be completed with NO actual reading! (I know, counter-intuitive, but, pleasure connections are important.) We give a series of 25 or so tasks, and ask patrons to finish any 12. Of course, many of them include reading, for example, read under a tree, read to someone in your family, read a book someone else chooses for you, write a five word book review, etc. We also, though, have many other challenges such as: help someone with a chore or project, plant something, read a recipe and make that dish, play outside for an hour, learn a new joke and tell three people, make a new summer drink, write a letter to the editor about something important to you, etc.
    4. Since Covid, we have made Summer Reading the same for all patrons. We don’t have many adult finishers, but those who are are dedicated!
    5. Because our program is so low-key and relaxed, nobody has to be the library police. If I suspect a child just randomly crossed off twelve activities before the walked in the door, so what? I can celebrate the achievement with that child, and delight in the book they choose. They are happy to be here, and, maybe next summer, they’ll do more activities. Or, maybe I was wrong and they completed them all. My point is, it doesn’t matter! What does matter is that they are still happily engaged in books, their library, and reading in general. That’s a definite win!

    I know this approach won’t work for everybody, but it has been a game-changer for us. I would encourage everybody to determine what is most important to them, and devise a program that fits. (I almost just tallied visits to the library as our SRP, but then realized that our rural kids would be at a disadvantage.) If you hate it, and can, change it.

    1. Tracy, thank you for sharing this long and thoughtful post. You have won me over with the concept of “pleasure connections.” That is absolutely what I want to do at my library too, and it is so helpful to see how someone else has thought this through and connected it back to a mission statement. I think a lot of libraries, mine included, haven’t started at that base level and then get lost along the way when they can see that things need to change but aren’t sure how. Your comment has helped me get closer to visualizing the summer of my dreams. Thank you so much – I am so grateful to learn from you!

  10. This is something I definitely have thought, so many times. My perspective changed after moving to a rural library and seeing that the Summer Reading Club is actual, weekly, free programs for various age cohorts and can be dreamed up to be anything we want! Much like smaller, shorter, more manageable day camps for kids. I think large, urban library systems could really do something else with all their resources, like partnering with schools or community groups to target the kids who really need summer support. And all the wasted printed materials and supplies. Don’t even get me started!

    1. I think my view is definitely skewed by working in a large urban system. I am glad to hear smaller libraries have the freedom to customize to their heart’s desire!

  11. I definitely like making books and reading-adjacent accessories as the main “prizes”. I also would like to make the summer about guiding kids to set their own reading goals, to take stock of what works well in their reading lives and what they’d like to change, if anything. I appreciate the models of Colby Sharp and Donalyn Miller who not only inspire and nurture a love of reading in their students, but also help students identify and develop as readers. I’d like to generally make summer reading a more thoughtful time and show patrons how to select good books for them.

    1. Love those goals, Michelle! Goal setting is a part of our version of SRC right now. The schools here do goal setting too, so it seems like a natural fit.

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