Sunday, August 20, 2023

SRP 2023 "Summer at the Library" Reflection

Image by freepik

This summer was the tenth of my career (not counting 2020, The Summer That Wasn't), and my second as youth services manager, responsible for designing and overseeing everything, including planning and executing most of it myself. This year was a little less stressful since it wasn't my first time, so I had a better idea of what to expect in terms of attendance and had more programming planned and supplies ordered in advance. It was also more satisfying since I got to design things they way I wanted this year, and I departed from the mainstream a bit, "going rogue" in some ways. In the past I've had a love-hate relationship with summer reading, and this year I was able to love it a little more.

Overall, it was a great success. We had a 32% increase in program attendance for birth-10 and families, and a 15% increase in program attendance for ages 11-18 (what we consider "teen"). This was primarily due to more and earlier promotion of "Summer at the Library", more promotion of big events, dropping registration, and getting the retractable wall between our meeting rooms fixed so we could open it up and accommodate more people at our big events (big events being the kick-off, paid performers, guest presenters, and a Meet a Truck event). Attendance for in-house programs was roughly the same, with a slight drop in attendance for the elementary programs, but an increase in attendance at family craft programs, which is what I was hoping for to keep crowd size more manageable in the elementary programs, and avoid some of the issues with younger siblings. Once again, we saw the same trend of a gradual decline in attendance after the first 2-3 weeks due to vacations, summer camps, and getting ready for back to school.

Here's what really worked for us:

  • Having a Purchasing Deadline. Our director imposed a purchasing embargo from May 16th-June 30th (the end of our fiscal year), which forced me to plan things early in order to get supplies ordered by the deadline. Made April-May busy and stressful, but June & July were much less so as a result.
  • Having a kick-off event. This brought a lot of families in that we don't normally see, or see as often, and generated a lot of positive feedback and goodwill. We had a petting zoo, face-painting, games, crafts, costumed staff as T. rex and shark, and an ice cream truck.
  • Having more big events. Paid performers cost $5 per person or less, and really draw a lot of people without a lot of staff effort. They really are worth the expense in the long run, and generate a lot of good will. More people coming to the library means more materials being checked out, more awareness of what the library offers.
  • Ditching the CSLP theme. We really weren't excited about it, and I wanted to be able to do a wide variety of programs and not worry about being tied to a theme. We went with a general "Summer at the Library: Read! Explore! Discover!" Took pressure off me and the YS staff by making it very open-ended and all-encompassing, and patrons didn't miss having a big theme at all. I don't think they even noticed!
  • Adding family craft programs (last year I had tried movie and game days as a way to add family programs with little staff effort, and there was no interest at all). This also helped reduce attendance for the elementary age programs, which had been over-crowded last year.
  • Keeping things simple, especially the first 2 weeks when we typically get big numbers. Planned things that did not require a ton of prep and set up time, and that would be easy to stretch or otherwise accommodate bigger than expected numbers, and younger siblings.
  • Hiring extra summer help. We hired a college student just for the summer, 12 hours a week, specifically to help me prep, set-up, and clean-up for programs, and to be an extra set of hands and eyes during the programs. It would have been a much more stressful and hectic summer without them! (I had two other part-time staff who primarily did the teen & tween programming and desk coverage.)
  • No Slime! Not doing programs for the elementary age that would have safety concerns for younger siblings. Nope, was not fighting that battle again.
  • Dropping registration! Registration was never helpful for planning, as there were so many no-shows and those who showed up without registration, just added more hassle and frustration, and resulted in more negative patron interactions. We only had registration for the teen tie-dye programs in order to know how many and what size shirts to buy (and still had the problems of no-shows and walk-ins).
  • Ticketing - We had one event that had a crowd limit set by the presenter that was lower than our max attendance, so we tried advance ticketing (tickets had to be picked up in-person, no phone reservations, starting a week before the event) on the advice of others, and still had no-shows, but it worked much better than online registration.
  • Consistent Days/Times - All kids programs & events were at 10:30 am, with Toddler Storytime on Tuesday, Family event or craft programs on Wednesday, Elementary kids on Thursday, and Preschool storytime on Friday, every week (except the week of July 4th). Teen programs were always on Tuesday & Thursday afternoons, though times varied slightly.
  • Working in a mini-break the week of July 4th, when we are closed one day and always see much lower numbers anyway. So did not do the full week of programming, just one Family Lego Day and one Family Storytime. Gave staff a nice break, without really impacting numbers.
  • Programs that were big hits: Elementary Butter-Making, Elementary DIY Dinosaur Models, Family No-Sew Sock Animals, Meet a Truck, all performers, Teen/Tween Tie Dye, Teen/Tween Guided Painting, Teen D&D
  • Sleeper Programs: not as highly attended (possibly due to being in July), but were loved by those that did attend, and got attention on social media - Bubble Science, Shark Week
  • Dropping Beanstack and switching to a more fun, easy reading challenge on paper; 46% increase in registration, and even though the completion rate of 34% was disappointing, it was still twice as high as last year.
  • Giving away books at the beginning. Yes, kids got books for signing up, and 2/3 never finished, but putting books in the hands of kids is ALWAYS a win! (They also got a 2nd book, pizza coupon, and raffle entry when they turned in the log at the end.)
What Didn't Work:
  • Elementary Solar System Mobile - Too much work coloring them all in (I felt the pre-colored templates would eliminate all creativity), and kids lost interest; few completed it, and only with significant adult help. It would be better as a group classroom or homeschool activity.
  • Teen/Tween Flip-Book Animation - no one showed up, though I still think this would be a good program. Our teen programming is in transition and re-building after a staff change, so maybe worth trying again and with more promotion.
  • Registration - Though we only used registration for the tie-dye program so we could have the right number and sizes of shirts, we still ended up with too many no-shows and leftover shirts. Next time, we will do something (1) cheaper, and (2) where size is not an issue. Maybe bandanas, and they can bring one additional item of their own if they wish?
  • Teen/Tween Magic the Gathering - This was brand new, and not many in this community are familiar with it, unlike D&D. So the two summer sessions didn't have very good attendance, only 1 at the first and 2 at the second, but the third month had 4, so it seems like it will grow with time. I wish we had waited until fall to start it, and had done programs that would have been more popular for the summer.
  • Consistent Weekday Morning Time Slot - Though we had good attendance having all the kids/family programs in the mornings, we aren't serving those families who are unable to attend mornings. But with our very limited staff and budget, it's hard to add additional evening programs, though I'll have to figure out something.
  • Reading Challenge - Yes, we had significantly better results this year than with Beanstack, and those that completed the Bookopoly reading challenge said they really enjoyed it, I was very disappointed that only 1/3 completed and submitted it by the end of the summer. Adult participation was very low; however, we did see a significant increase in children 5 and under participating, so we are getting the message out that summer reading isn't just for school aged kids that are reading independently, and the 0-5 age group had the highest completion rate (44%). So it worked somewhat, just not as well as I'd hoped.

For next year, I probably won't change much as far as programming, except to figure out how to add at least a few weekend or evening programs to accommodate those who can't come during weekday mornings, and tweak the teen/tween programming a little, possibly adding more. We may or may not follow the CSLP theme; that will be something we re-evaluate from year to year. [I honestly think CSLP has become obsolete; I don't find the manual very useful and can get better ideas with much more complete instructions online, and I haven't been thrilled with the artwork and often use other stock art.] I also think I want to add some kind of finale event, maybe that would encourage more people to get reading logs turned in.

I'm not sure what to do about the reading challenge. I was encouraged by the higher registration this year, but then disappointed by the low completion rate. Yes, having more/bigger/flashier prize drawings might help motivate more people to turn them in, but I don't believe it really motivates more reading. I honestly think people are just over reading programs that require logging, no matter how easy and fun we try to make it; it still becomes a chore. They are usually required to log reading during the school year, which I always hated as a parent, and don't want to have to do it in the summer, too. There are issues with any format; not everyone has internet access or the ability or inclination to use online trackers, paper logs get lost, etc. And whether reading logs do anything positive is highly questionnable.

What I've observed, read, and heard from others is that highly incentivized programs don't work anyway, if encouraging long-term reading habits is the goal. It does encourage more cheating, but even worse, incentivizing reading may actually have the opposite affect of the intended goal. Unfortunately, we have become stuck in this cycle of chasing numbers, forgetting about the original goal of summer reading, and ignoring the research that suggests otherwise. 
If I could really do summer reading any way I wanted, not worrying about numbers or stats, I'd drop reading logs all together! That's pearl-clutching inducing heresy, right? But, hear me out. 

Research may not support what summer reading has become, and "we've always done it that way" isn't a good enough justification to keep doing it. However, administrators and state libraries are loathe to give up their statistics, and even many among our own youth librarian ranks insist that they work, despite evidence to the contrary, often insisting they have seen the results (maybe in the short-term, but can you show long-term?), or using the emotional argument "But if even ONE child is motivated to come to the library/check out a book, then maybe they will find that one book that will hook them...". Sounds good, tugs at our heartstrings, appeals to our vocational awe in wanting to believe we make a difference...but I believe library practice should be based in evidence, not emotion, and this ignores the very real, research-supported, possibility that these highly incentivized programs actually decrease reading in the long run. (I still intend to do a deep dive on this with proper citations, I promise!). Unfortunately, it seems this may have become the "inconvenient truth" of our profession.

But I digress... What I would do is instead is encourage reading with messaging, with giving away books all over town, with programming and outreach. Do more storytimes out and about in the community, incorporate books and reading into your programming as much as possible. For example, a cooking program for teens based on recipes found in YA books, STEM activities inspired by books, non-traditional book clubs, giving booktalks at the beginning of every program, arts/crafts inspired by book characters or illustrators, anything that encourages reading and portrays reading as both fun and functional. What would we use for stats? Why not base it on how many books given away, circulation, and program attendance? Why have we come to place so much importance on how many minutes or numbers of books are read? Does that REALLY mean anything? A child reading one book, but really enjoying that book and being excited about reading the next one is better than a child reading 10 books to get a prize, but not really enjoying it or continuing to read after getting said prize.

Will I be able to do this? Probably not, but I will at least pitch the idea, and if denied, I'll gather more evidence, and pitch it again next year!

If you have significantly changed your approach to summer reading, or if you have done any research on the subject, actual research or a lit review, I would LOVE to hear from you! Please drop me a line at!