When I started this job in December of 2021, I knew that the summer was going to be hard and stressful, with getting a late start planning it, rebuilding from the ground up, having no idea what people wanted or what kind of numbers to expect, and it was my first time being responsible for actually planning and executing an entire summer reading program. I've lived through many, but always in larger systems where SRP was planned centrally by someone else, and only having to be responsible for planning my own handful of programs. But I was excited at the prospect of for once being able to do things the way I thought they should be done, or so I thought.
As it turned out, though I had been initially told I had free reign (as long as I stayed within the budget), I was hired by an interim director, and once they hired a new director that changed. I was at least still able to plan the programming part how I wanted, but for the second year in a row, I was forced to scrap what I had already planned for the reading part and do something that I didn't think was a good idea, a good fit for the community, nor served my goal of making it fun and encouraging even reluctant readers. My team and I had planned a fun, low-pressure Bingo-card style reading and activity log that would be easy to do, be non-competitive, and hopefully encourage reading for pleasure, trying new things, and attending library programs. We were really excited about it, and I liked how all the staff could be involved and contribute ideas for the squares.
However, the new director discovered something I was unaware of, that the previous administration had already paid for a multi-year subscription to Beanstack, an online reading tracker, and directed me to use it instead. While I understood the thinking that we should give it one good try since it was already paid for, it is everything I wanted to avoid in summer reading: heavily incentivized, highly competitive, and removes the kids from the equation as the parent has to do all the tracking. I also knew it would not be a good fit for this small-town, rural community where wifi access and cell service are very limited, people in general are not very tech savvy, and even those that are comfortable with technology don't necessarily *want* more tech in their lives. I had hoped to at least be able to supplement with paper logs, but was strictly forbidden to do so 🤷. I guess the thinking was we could force the community to do everything online, but I knew from prior experience that does not work.
I found Beanstack to be incredibly painstaking and time-consuming to set up. This needs to be done by someone with a dedicated position for this kind of thing, not your children's librarian who is also doing all the collection development, all children's programming, supervising the teen programmer, and training a new part-timer, all while trying to get ready for summer! I am fairly good with technology, but spent many, many hours working on Beanstack to get the challenges set up and tweaking it, and I still wasn't really happy with it in the end. I tried to eliminate the features that made it feel competitive, and tracked by minutes as that seemed to be the most fair way to accommodate both fast and slow readers, advanced readers, beginning readers, those who read more shorter books, those who reader fewer longer books, those who read a little every day, and those who may read for several hours just one or two days a week.
My goal for summer reading is simply to get kids reading and enjoying it! The picture above represents what I think summer reading should be about. It is my opinion that the heavily incentivized summer reading programs that have become the norm are counter-productive. I feel they only work for the kids who love reading, are strong readers, and would read anyway; and the competitive feel, high pressure, and big goals are going to be a turn-off for kids who are not strong readers, or reluctant readers for whatever reason. There is also research that suggests that incentivized reading does not promote lifelong reading as reading stops once the incentive is no longer there, and that in general incentivizing something that was originally done by choice for enjoyment reduces that behavior rather than increasing it. Also, I've seen that big, expensive, flashy prizes just results in more cheating, not more reading.
It was very difficult to set up a summer reading program that fit my philosophy using Beanstack, but I did the best I could. Also, since incentives have come to be expected, I felt it would be counterproductive to eliminate them completely. Since my primary goal was to get as many books into as many hands of kids as possible, everyone who registered for the reading challenge got a free book that they got to choose from our selection, and if they reached the goal of 1000 minutes (somewhat arbitrarily chosen), they got a second book. Then at various milestones they earned entries into the grand prize drawings. There were 5 drawings for each age group, and the prizes were mostly various $25 gift cards (that we got for free with points on our company credit card account), but there were also some physical prizes with an approximate value of $25. I wanted the prizes to be just enough so that they felt like they had really gotten something, but not so much that it would motivate a lot of cheating, or that kids would be devastated if they didn't win.
In all of our marketing materials and in talking with kids and parents I emphasized free-choice and leisure reading, that it was not a competition nor like school: there was no reading list, it didn't have to be library books, any and all reading counted (print, e-books, audiobooks, graphic novels, fiction, non-fiction, reading independently, reading to someone else, being read to...), and it was not about who read the most. It was simply about the joy of reading. For the prize books I tried to provide a wide selection of good books (purchased mostly through Scholastic's "Literacy Partners" program, but also a few from Dollar Tree), and we set up the teen lounge (which never gets used once school is out) like a little bookstore. This was a huge departure from how my predecessor used to do things, which apparently was to give the same book to all kids of that age along with "homework", and then when they finished the book and assigned activities, they got another book; a very school-like approach.
So, how did it go? Well, not surprisingly our participation numbers were very low. I didn't really know what was a realistic goal for this small town, but had hoped to get somewhere around 350 to maybe 500 (though I thought 500 was probably a very lofty goal). We ended up with about 300 kids signed up for the reading challenges, which I thought wasn't bad for the first year, but then when I looked closer, only half of those ever actually logged any reading. And you might think it was a mistake giving out free books just for signing up, but (1) I don't think it's ever a mistake to put a book in the hands of a child, and (2) about 2/3 of those that never logged any reading also never claimed that first free book. Of those that logged reading, only about a third met the goal of 1000 minutes. Another thing we found was that probably half the people who earned entry tickets for the grand prize drawings never chose the drawings to enter. Of those that did, we found that the Amazon gift cards were by far the most popular choice (over fast food, movies, GameStop, and book sets), with the Lego Aquarium set being a very popular choice as well.
It seems pretty clear from the data, feedback from staff, and feedback from patrons that using Beanstack, was not a good fit for this community. It was way too labor-intensive to set up, did not fit our philosophy or mission for summer reading, and was too complex for many of our frontline staff. Patrons reported that it was confusing for them, the phone app turned out to be even more difficult and complicated to use than the desktop website and patrons reported it kept changing and looked/worked differently almost every time they opened it. Patrons also reported it was too much work with everything having to be done by the parent and too easy to forget about, that they like paper logs the kids could do themselves. I and the rest of the youth services staff missed having all the great interactions with kids as they picked up and turned in their completed reading logs. Yes, there were some patrons who loved it, and yes, you can extract all kinds of data and reports using Beanstack, but as a small community library, we really don't need the same kinds of breakdowns and analyses that a larger system might.
Also, it seems that while a few far exceeded the goal of 1000 minutes, it was probably too lofty of a goal for most readers, and may have been too intimidating for some. This was another reason I wanted to give books away at the beginning, but I think it was still too intimidating and prevented some from participating. While we did have one person who very obviously was cheating (made up a child that doesn't exist and logged completely unrealistic times) and one or two others we suspected, overall I think cheating was very minimal, and it was more common that people were forgetting to log and under-reporting reading time. We did get good feedback about the prize books and having such a good selection, though one person did express a preference for the way my predecessor did it.
I will say that even though participation was lower than hoped, I believe we still engaged more people and a broader cross-section of the community than before, as my predecessor is said to have catered to one specific group rather the whole community, and didn't include all age groups. However, there are no stats to back this up as she didn't track reading program participation separately, just program attendance.
Next year I hope that I will be given more freedom to design summer reading in the way I think will work best for this community, that will serve both my mission to promote reading as well as satisfy admin and the state library's desire for numbers. I feel certain that if my department is allowed to do things our way, we will get better participation. I will still want to give away as many books as possible, and keep prizes small enough so that cheating is minimal. I still like our original Bingo card idea, and I've also heard of a couple of other libraries having success with having each reader set their own reading goals, rather than having the same goal for everyone, and I really like that idea as well. So I'm thinking of some sort of combination Bingo card that challenges them to explore different types of books as well as encourages program attendance and library visits, with some sort of flexible "reading log" on the back that they can use related to the individual goal they've set.
I would LOVE to hear about your experiences with different methods and approaches to summer reading! What have you tried that failed? What have you found successful?