Wednesday, June 2, 2021

True Confessions...


So, I have something to confess that might be shocking to some, though I am sure there are those who are secretly in agreement with me. Now hold on to your cardigans folks, but the truth is.... I hate summer reading! 

I know that must seem downright blasphemous coming from a children's librarian who is dedicated to promoting literacy and lifelong reading, but it's true. Ok, maybe not 100% true; I guess it's really more of a love-hate relationship. I do love seeing all the kids and families in the library more often during the summer, catching up with former storytime regulars who are now in elementary school, talking books with teens, and doing fun programs, and I am very passionate about promoting reading and lifelong learning. However, that mission seems to have gotten lost in the stressful circus that summer reading programs have become, and that is what I truly hate. 

Summer reading programs were started in order to fight the supposed "summer slide". Aside from recent studies and re-examination of the original research casting doubt on whether the summer slide actually exists, promoting reading as mental exercise to keep the brain active over the summer is certainly a laudable goal. However, we seem to have completely lost sight of that original goal. I fondly remember the summer reading program at my local library. We made a weekly trip to the library where I checked out a huge stack of books that wouldn't quite last me until the next trip. I faithfully recorded the titles I read, and at the end exchanged my list for a coupon for a free ice cream cone from Dairy Queen and I was happy. It was simple, low-key, and effective. The focus was on celebrating the joy of reading; the worlds, adventures, and information we could find in a book, not prizes, not numbers, not publicity.

These days the mission of promoting reading has been lost in the pursuit of numbers. Every year we push for greater numbers, which we hope to get by being bigger and better than the year before. More programs, more publicity, more prizes, more money.....more, more, more. I've seen this lead to very un-healthy competition among staff as administration subtly pitted locations against each other, trying to outdo each other for numbers of participants. Those in the branches with extremely high numbers often patted themselves on the back and looked down at other locations, forgetting that much of their "success" was simply due to the different demographics of the respective locations. But yet, these numbers led to prejudices that extended well-beyond a little "friendly" summer competition and affected hiring decisions and career advancement for many staff.

In the endless chase for ever increasing numbers, staff are frequently pushed to the breaking point by the push for more programs, bigger programs, flashier, sexier programs, without the needed staffing and budgets to do so. This is simply not sustainable and leads to excess stress, anxiety, and ultimately, burnout; every year people leave youth services or public librarianship altogether for this reason. In our never-ending pursuit of ever increasing numbers we offer bigger and bigger prizes, everything from tablets, e-readers, and gift cards to cold hard cash. While this may lead to more "participation" in terms of signing up or turning in reading logs, does it actually lead to more reading? Or just more cheating? I have definitely observed the latter. And more importantly, does it really do anything to promote lifelong reading? There is research that suggests incentivized reading does not promote lifelong reading, and may in fact be counter-productive, and I believe this is true based on my own observations. 

So what would I do for summer reading if it were completely up to me, no worrying about numbers and focusing only on the kids and the mission to promote lifelong reading? Here are my "Do's and Don'ts" for an ideal summer reading program*:

  • DO put as many books into the hands of as many kids as possible! Give books away for them to keep, make it as easy as possible to check out materials by removing barriers.
  • DO outreach and more outreach! Visit day camps and daycares, especially those with children who are less likely to ever visit the library. Give away books, talk about books, do fun programs with them. 
  • DO fun programs for all ages, but a reasonable amount relative to staffing, and keep most of them relatively simple.
  • DO have your summer program designed by librarians, with input from ALL staff that will be responsible for implementing it.
  • DO stay focused on the mission of promoting reading.
  • DO encourage free-choice and making reading FUN!
  • DO be clear on your goals and how success will be measured.
  • DO have a clear plan in place, with clear procedures and rules, well in advance and stick to it. Give staff plenty of time to ask questions and understand everything about the plan.

  • DON'T let your program be designed by politicians, marketing people, business people or others who are not professionally trained in child development, literacy, and reading motivation.
  • DON'T lose sight of the mission in the chase for numbers, publicity, or personal ambitions.
  • DON'T push so much programming that it becomes a circus and no one can keep up with what's going on and everyone becomes completely exhausted and burned out.
  • DON'T ignore valid concerns from your staff, then leave them to deal with the mess.
  • DON'T literally pay kids for checking out books and tell them it's their "summer job". SRP is supposed to promote the idea that reading is fun, enjoyable, and useful, not reinforce the idea that it's a chore.
  • DON'T make it up as you go along. Have a clear mission, a well-thought out plan for execution, and clear rules/criteria for participation and "winning" well in advance, and don't change the rules once the program has already started.
Now, I am a realist and I do understand that numbers are an easy, convenient, and tangible way to show board members and taxpayers what we do; I love data and stats as much as the next person, probably more if truth be told. But numbers are only part of the story, they aren't everything, and by becoming so obsessed with numbers we have crept further and further away from our mission and created miserable conditions for the front-line staff. I think it's time to say enough is enough, and re-focus our attentions on the mission of promoting literacy and learning, and allow staff to have less stress, more job satisfaction, and a reasonable work-life balance. 

Unfortunately, until library boards and administrations start to value and appreciate staff, recognize their experience and expertise, and seek and consider their input, change will be difficult at best. But we can try! Summer reading should be enjoyable for everyone, not something to be dreaded and suffered through. In the meantime, I will try to focus on the positive, that more families are coming in to the library so I'll at least have a chance to engage them, promote reading, and develop relationships.

Anyone else feel the same? Care to try to convince me the circus is necessary or at all beneficial? Anyone have a different experience? Please share in the comments below!

*For more information on planning summer reading programs based on what research suggests is effective, please see "Evidence-Based Summer Reading Program Design"


  1. For me, summer reading is a love/hate relationship. I love that families have more time to come to programs (pre pandemic), check out more books, and enjoy the activities but I'd rather spread such things out during the year. I would like to be able to enjoy my summer too.

    1. I do love seeing all the families coming back, but I don't feel we need a circus-like atmosphere and ridiculous prizes to do that, and actual reading seems to have gotten lost in the focus on increasing "participation" and boosting circulation. Admin often only cares about those numbers, not whether anyone is actually reading.

  2. In the last several years I've really tried to take the focus off of prizes and make summer reading a reminder to read over the summer. A large library system in my state that does amazing things also puts an insane amount of pressure on their staff to get sign ups and I always thought they should be doing stellar readers' advisory instead. I have also scaled way back on programming. We get amazing turnout for performers and small turnout for homegrown programs so it didn't make sense to put so much effort, time, and heart for two people to show up. Thank you for sharing your thoughts that I feel hard!