Sunday, March 24, 2024

A Day in the Life of a Children's Librarian

This was a busy day with two programs, an interview, business lunch, and management meeting! There's really no such thing as a "typical" day as every day is a little bit different, which is one of the things I love about working in public libraries.

  • 9:00am - Arrive at work, clock in, check e-mail, check desk schedules. Drop by assistant director's office to pick up interview questions for later. Post storytime reminder on Facebook.
  • 9:20-10:30am - Prep for storytime. Set up chairs, got out bubbles, shaker eggs, and speaker. Filled sensory bin with water (along with frogs, fish, ducks and lily pads). Select toys for playtime after storytime. Filled water bottle and made quick trip to restroom.
  • 10:30-11:00am - Toddler Storytime! (co-worker stepped in for playtime so I could go to interview.)
  • 11:00am-12:00pm - Participated in interviewing of candidate for adult services librarian position.
  • 12:00-1:00pm - Took candidate out to lunch with rest of interview panel
  • 1:00-3:00pm - Covered service desk in youth services, during which I checked & responded to e-mail, began selecting books on requested themes to take to daycare later in week, and checked in with staff.
  • 3:00-3:45pm - Met with rest of management team to discuss the candidate we interviewed earlier, and other personnel matters.
  • 3:45-4:00pm - Opened up room and set up for Pokémon Club, walked through library informing potential attendees of location (a change from previous month)
  • 4:00-5:00pm - Pokémon Club
  • 5:00-5:15pm - Cleared out and locked up meeting room, recorded attendance, checked e-mail, and checked in with assistant director before leaving for the day.
And as always, I'm sure there are several quick tasks and short conversations with various staff and/or patrons that I've forgotten to include. 

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Evidence-Based Summer Reading Program Design

The Inconvenient Truth of Incentivized Reading Programs, Part 2

Image by freepik at

In Part 1 of this series I discussed how summer reading evolved to become the heavily incentivized programs that are so commonplace today, despite the fact that research does not support the effectiveness of using rewards to promote long-term reading habits or gains, and suggests that extrinsic rewards are not only ineffective, but can actually reduce the desired behavior. I also posed some of the beliefs, attitudes, and conflicting priorities that have led to this research being largely ignored as an inconvenient and uncomfortable truth. So, where do we go from here?

The first thing we have to do is start talking about it! Yes, it is very uncomfortable to challenge long-held beliefs and traditions, to question the status quo, and it takes a lot of time to dig into the research to educate ourselves and others (which is why I've shared an annotated bibliography). But if our mission is truly to encourage life-long reading, then we can no longer bury our heads in the sand and fall into the trap of "that's how it's always been done". We need to educate ourselves and have the difficult conversations, look at reading programs through a critical, evidence-based lens. And yes, convincing the powers-that-be will likely be a challenge, but the sooner we start having those conversations and presenting evidence, the sooner we can effect positive change. 

So, lets start with the assumption that our goal really is to promote reading and life-long reading habits. If the typical incentivized reading program doesn't really support that, what do we do? Fortunately, we can also turn to the literature for guidance as to what factors do positively affect reading habits and ability, which generally fall into three categories: (1) self-direction & autonomy, (2) ease of access to, and ease of finding, materials they want to read; and (3) social interaction and collaboration:

  • Choice - The importance of empowering kids with the freedom to make their own reading choices is mentioned repeatedly in the literature. Let them choose what they want to read, validate and show interest in their choices, let them set their own reading goals, let them decide when and how they like to read. Some may like to read a little every day, others may only read 2-3 days a week, but sit and read an entire book, or several books, at one time; reading is not a "one size fits all" practice!
  • Non-Competitive - Reading programs should not be competitive, or have a competitive feel. This may attract your competitive, high-achieving skilled readers (who are going to read regardless), but will alienate those who are not competitive, those who read more slowly, struggling readers, and reluctant readers.
  • Book-Rich Environment - This is mentioned in the literature more in regards to the classroom and home as obviously the library is a book-rich environment. But we need to be sure we are making everyone feel welcome and offering well-curated collections that will attract readers and make it easier to find books they want to read. Also, are there ways we can support book-rich environments at school and at home? Outreach, bookmobiles, etc.
  • Variety - Offer a variety of reading levels, formats, and materials in a variety of genres and topics. Fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, magazines, audiobooks, digital materials, print materials, etc. This also will make it more likely kids can find something they enjoy reading, are willing to try, and will continue reading. Any and all reading "counts"! Don't limit your reading program to only include certain types of reading material, and don't limit it to only library books! I know we want the circs, but odds are most of the books they read will be library books anyway, so why set a limitation that may make it difficult for some to participate? My first manager used to tell kids they could read the back of cereal boxes if they wanted. Reading is reading! Tracking time rather than books, titles, or page numbers allows for this.
  • Make it Social - Book clubs, group reading times, book-themed programs, lunch bunch, author talks....give kids the chance to see other kids reading and to talk with other kids about their reading.
  • Set an Example - Seeing adults reading and hearing adults talking about their reading and sharing their love of reading.
  • Remove Barriers to Access - Re-examine library policies and procedures to make it easier for kids to have access. Fine forgiveness programs or going fine-free all together, temporarily overriding blocked juvenile/teen accounts for the summer, a "community shelf" of donated books kids without cards can take, making it easier for kids to get library cards, partnering with the schools to issue all kids library cards, bookmobiles and other outreach programs to bring the library to those who can't get to the library, etc. 
  • Remove Barriers to Participation - Re-evaluate your reading program to make it easier for all kids and types of readers to participate. Allow any and all types of reading and reading materials to count. Don't limit reading to library books, don't require a library card to participate or attend programs. Don't require specific titles, formats, or reading every day. If you must track, track by time rather than books, titles, pages, or days of reading. This levels the playing field among ages and abilities, allows for any and all types of reading, and validates all reading choices and habits.
  • Reading-Related Prizes - If you must offer rewards, make them related to reading (or supportive of early literacy skills with young children), no big, expensive flashy grand prizes. Books, bookmarks, e-readers, etc. 
  • Read to Them - Older kids still like to be read to! Be sure to read a variety of materials, genres, fiction, and non-fiction. Incorporate reading aloud to older kids in your programming, and encourage parents to continue reading aloud to older kids.
  • Help Them Find Books They Will Enjoy - Margaret Mackey (2014) asserts that one key difference between successful and unsuccessful readers is the ability to find and select books that they will like, a skill that is not taught in school and only innate to some. Providing finding aids such as shelf labels and signage, themed bibliographies, displays, book reviews, book talks, and instruction on using the online catalog are all ways to make it more likely kids can find books that will interest them.
  • Make Reading Relevant - Tie reading to real life experiences, current trends and interests, and engaging programs and activities that will stimulate curiosity.
  • Creating a Welcoming Environment - Make sure kids, families, and teens feel welcome in your library. Create play areas, cozy seating for families to read together, comfy seating or reading nooks for solitary reading, activities to do while at the library, displays that invite browsing, staff that are welcoming and provide excellent customer service and reader's advisory. The more welcome people are, the more often they will come to the library, the more time they will spend in the library, and the more books they will read in the library and checkout to read at home.
  • Market Collections & Programs - We try, yet it still seems that so many people are unaware of all the library has to offer. Partner with schools, other civic organizations, non-profits, and businesses to get the word out! What works for you will depend on your community. 

What might this look like? There is no "one size fits all", but I will describe the compromise I have come up with that satisfies my need to at least attempt to incorporate what the literature is telling me, and still satisfy the [former] director's need for stats to present to the board and resistance to new ideas (hopefully the next one will be more receptive to trying new things and thinking out of the box).

To start with, since I arrived at this library I have worked to create a welcoming, inviting environment, and I try to create fun, interesting programs for all ages with lots of hands-on, experiential learning to help draw people in, and of course the programming is increased during the summer with a combination of mostly in-house programs with some outside presenters and paid performers. I have displays, try to tie books to programming, starting each elementary program by inviting kids to share about what they had been reading and booktalking 3 new books, or books that relate to the activity we are about to do. And yes, I will bend the rules a bit if that means sending a kid home with a book they wanted.

For the reading challenge, instead of logging minutes, pages, books, or days, I created what I hoped would be more relaxed, fun, non-competitive "Bookopoly" board, with each square containing a prompt for reading or a learning activity that supported program attendance, interacting with library staff, family reading, or early literacy skills (there were also opportunities for free choice). This was for all ages, birth through adult. Participants were encouraged to set their own goals, though I did ask that at least 5 squares be completed (out of a total of 40). They did not have to go in any direction or order, and could pick and choose which squares to do. Every child/kid/teen that signed up got to pick a prize book! What better way to encourage reading that to start them off with a book of their own choosing to keep? When they turned it back in at the end, they got another book, and an entry into a prize drawing. I don't really like prize drawings to be honest, but I felt they were expected. My compromise was to keep them modest ($20-$30 value) and reading or learning related.

I pushed that this was leisure reading and meant to be FUN, not a competition or a chore, and that ALL genres and formats were valid, and that kids should be allowed to choose what they wanted to read. There was no requirement to read only library books or to have a library card to participate. The only stipulation was that grand prizes were limited to those in our service area (our county and surrounding counties) and must be picked up in person (sorry, Aaron), and the child had to be present to pick their own prize book (to encourage free choice, and be sure the child existed). I got a lot of positive feedback, though not as many were turned back in at the end as I'd hoped. I'm basically doing things the same this year, but maybe doing a finale event to encourage returned reading logs. So that's what I am actually doing, for now. 

But, what would I do if I could *really* do whatever I wanted, and had the staff and funding to do so? First off, I would ditch the whole formal reading challenge and reading logs! Are you clutching your pearls? I know it sounds like blasphemy, but I just think they are largely ineffective, people are over them, and no matter how fun and easy we try to make it, it still feels too much like homework when it's required (I would still put out various reading challenges as purely optional activities for those who enjoy them). 

Instead, I would just give books away! No strings attached. Not only at the kickoff at the library, but also at various locations around town where families or kids who might not typically come to the library might be. The park, the splash pad, the health department, the farmers market, low-income housing complexes, community centers (if we had one), etc. I would also like to see a significant summer outreach program in addition to our in-house programs.

If your library has successfully moved away from incentivized reading programs, please share in the comments, or by e-mail at I'd really love to hear what others are doing instead, and how they were able to convince the powers-that-be to try something totally different. Did they give up their focus on stats, or just shift to focusing on other stats, like program attendance? How did staff and the community respond?

Let's make summer reading less about numbers and prizes, and more about kids and reading!

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The Inconvenient Truth of Incentivized Reading Programs

So, I've been working on that deeper dive into incentivized reading I kept saying I was going to do, and I have found that there is a plethora of literature on incentivizing desired behaviors and extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivations in general and specifically in regards to reading, and even some about summer reading programs in particular. In fact, there is so much research on extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation I could work on this for years and not get through it all, but I now feel like I've read more than enough to draw and support informed conclusions about summer reading programs (see Annotated Bibliography).

*Spoiler Alert* - We're doing it wrong

Let me qualify that....we're doing it wrong IF our goal is to encourage reading, and especially if our goal is to create life-long readers. Moreover, this is not new information. Not only does research regarding extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation go back several decades, I discovered that an article reviewing the existing research and making evidence-based recommendations for summer reading program design was published in the top journal for children's librarianship seven years ago, and an opinion piece cautioning against incentivized reading supported with references appeared in the same journal FIFTEEN years ago! And apparently ignored, likely because they didn't fit the narrative librarians want to believe or meet the demand for statistics by administrators and politicians. It is, as Al Gore would say, an inconvenient truth.

Let's back up for a minute... So, just what is our goal for summer reading and other reading programs? Summer reading programs date back as far as 1896, but they rapidly expanded and gained importance after early research seemed to confirm the idea of summer learning loss, often referred to as the "summer slide", and show it was responsible for the increasing achievement gaps between students from upper and lower socioeconomic households (more recent research casting doubts on this notwithstanding). Summer reading programs then gained a sense of urgency and evolved from relatively simple, laid-back programs to be a major focus of public libraries. 

Then the perfect storm of recession, reduced funding, the advent of the internet, and development of new digital media threw public libraries into a fight to continuously prove their relevance, and administrators and bureaucrats relied heavily on statistics to do this. This emphasis on stats is where summer reading programs began to go off the rails, in my opinion. The focus changed from children to numbers as staff became pressured to increase their stats year after year. More programs, more people attending, more kids participating in summer reading....more, more, more. Summer reading became a stressful, exhausting circus and the original goals of fighting the alleged "summer slide", encouraging reading, and creating a life-long love of reading fell by the wayside in the pursuit of numbers.

This focus on numbers over children led to the incentivized reading programs that are the standard today. In order to get kids to participate, prizes were given. To get even more kids participating the next year more prizes were given, then chances at raffles for increasingly expensive, flashy prizes: bicycles, videogames, iPads, e-readers (at least those are related to reading), gift cards, elaborate themed gift or "experience" packages, and more. I once worked for a library that literally paid kids to check out books! In the late 1970s-early 1980s my siblings and I were happy to get a coupon for a free DQ ice cream cone; now some kids are walking away with prizes valued at hundreds of dollars. 

So, what's wrong with this? Anyone who has had basic psychology (or heard enough pop psychology) is familiar with the Skinnerian theory that giving rewards increases a desired behavior, right? It's such a widely held belief that most people take it as fact rather than theory, but the truth is that it's not quite that simple. Yes, rewards may increase the desired behavior---in the short term. But once the reward is removed, the behavior decreases. In order to make long-term, lasting changes in behavior, you have to have a carefully designed, long-term behavior modification program that is designed to gradually transfer extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation. And that's not going to happen in an 8-week summer program.

There is an abundance of research going back decades that supports this, but much like the research showing the necessity of phonics instruction was ignored for decades by the educational system, this research has also largely been ignored. To be fair, all research has to be looked at with a critical eye, many are very small studies and there is research that suggests otherwise, but what I've read so far, combined with my own training in behavior modification and observations from a decade of summer reading programs, has me convinced that the typical incentivized summer reading program is not very effective in developing life-long readers. Big flashy prizes and cash payouts motivate more cheating rather than more reading, in my observations.

And what about the articles claiming successful incentivized summer reading programs? That brings us back to the question of what the goal of summer reading really is, what behaviors are we actually wanting to increase? What are we measuring? If the goal is simply a short-term increase in circulation and "participation" stats by getting people to check out books and complete reading logs, then incentives work. But if the goal is to actually increase reading, and *especially* if the goal is for that increase to be long-term, then typical incentivized summer reading programs aren't going to do that. Even more concerning is research that suggests that incentivizing something the person previously did on their own, without incentives, can actually cause the desired behavior to decrease​. The mere offering of a reward for a behavior may lead the subject to infer that the desired behavior must be unpleasant if they need to be bribed to do it. So not only are we NOT really creating a bunch of new lifelong readers, we could be hurting kids that are already readers!

So if there is so much research suggesting short-term, incentivized reading programs are not in the best interest of encouraging life-long reading, why are we still doing them? For many reasons it is not only an inconvenient truth, but an uncomfortable one that many of us, and most of our bosses, just don't want to talk about: 

  1. We've fallen into the trap of "that's the way it's always been done"; we've drunk the Kool-Aid.
  2. Denial - it's not just a river in Egypt. People don't want to know or believe the truth because they don't want to admit what we've always done isn't working, feel powerless to change it, don't want to have to make changes, or don't know how to change; so they'd rather just ignore it.
  3. We tend to create emotional narratives to rationalize it, because we so badly WANT it to work, "if incentives motivate them to even pick up a book, then hopefully something will catch their attention and they will start reading", sounds good, tugs at the heartstrings, but is this really happening enough to warrant continuing the status quo? Do they really keep reading after the summer is over and rewards are gone? Could there not be better ways to facilitate this scenario than flashy prizes?
  4. Admin and stakeholders like numbers, and are VERY resistant to giving up anything that generates statistics! Stats can be useful and have their place, but do not tell the whole story. This is where children's librarians and library administrations can be at odds; we tend to focus on the kids, they tend to focus on the numbers. And I won't lie, I also like numbers and data because they are a concrete way to show the powers-that-be (who generally don't really understand my job and have different priorities) that I'm doing a good job.
  5. It's not really possible to do controlled, long-term studies of reading habits in relation to library summer reading programs to clearly show what works and doesn't work; but measuring short-term concrete behavior such as completion of reading logs is easy
  6. Front-line librarians often don't have a voice in the design of summer reading or authority to make radical changes; these decisions are often far-removed from those who have the most knowledge and expertise, and actually work with the kids.
  7. FEAR! The fear of change, the fear of questioning the status quo, the fear of not having convenient stats to demonstrate our worth, the fear of going against the grain, the fear of less participation. But consider this quote from Suzanne Stauffer in her 2009 article in Children and Libraries (the peer-reviewed ALSC journal):

"If you find yourself thinking, 'If I don't give incentives, no one will come [participate],' ask yourself what that says about the children's real motivation and the program's real effect."

If our goal is truly to promote reading and life-long reading habits, and the typical incentivized reading program doesn't really support that, what do we do? That's a very good question, and one I will attempt to explore in my next postIn the meantime, please see my annotated bibliography (link below) for supporting references:

Thursday, March 7, 2024

A Day in the Life of a Children's Librarian


This was a Monday. I generally do not do programs on Mondays and use them for planning and prep, and easing into the week.

Today we were short-staffed so I covered the service desk in the children's department most of the morning, from 9:30a-1pm. During this time I also:

  • did a walk-thru to be sure shelves were tidy & face-outs on the shelves
  • changed out the weekly scavenger hunt
  • changed out a display
  • took up/down pictures of animals off the floor and wall and the jumping distance labels left from Leap Day
  • set up a table with info for our Peeps diorama contest, with signage and décor to attract attention
  • checked for new purchase requests
  • left the desk for a brief meeting with the director and assistant director
  • looked at a new Indiana Jones version of Monopoly I had just purchased to serve as inspiration for this summer's "Bookopoly" reading challenge (it will go into our circulating collection of games at the end of the summer)
  • checked in with another staff member to see if they could cover the playtime after storytime the next day as I was needed to help interview a candidate for our open adult services librarian position.
  • and probably a few other little things I've forgotten
Lunch roughly from 1:00p-2:00p. 

In the afternoon from 2-5pm:
  • touched base with both part-time teen/tween programmers about their upcoming programs, how things were going, and assigned tasks for the afternoon.
  • emailed daycares to confirm visits for later this week
  • planned the next day's storytime and printed programs
  • discussed candidates we would be interviewing with AD, and likelihood of having to modify the position and re-post 
  • informed AD that one of the daycares had responded that they no longer wanted visits, with no explanation, and discussed how to respond.
Left shortly after 5:00pm. 

I'm sure I've forgotten various minor tasks, brief conversations with staff about various things, time here and there looking up ideas, but that is a "typical" day in a nutshell. I put "typical" in quotes, because there really is no such thing as typical; every day is different! That's one of the things I have always like about working in public libraries; every day is a little bit different.