Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Librarian Ponders Summer Reading Club

Summer is over, Summer Reading Club 2008 statistics and reports have been turned in, and planning has already begun on Summer Reading Club 2009 – and I’m feeling confused and uncertain about this annual ritual.

2008 was an historic year for me – after more than 16 years working in branches as a Children’s Librarian and then Branch Manager, I transferred to an administrative position in our Children’s Services Department last fall, a wonderful job that allows me to train, aid, and encourage Children’s Librarians in all our branches, to work closely with books and other materials, to help develop and administer system-wide children’s programs, and much more.

What this means is that 2008 is the first year that I have not worked directly with the public. No daily shifts on the information desk, no regular storytimes, no puppet shows – and no Summer Reading Club! My office did a fine job of supplying our Children’s Librarians with supplies, incentives, and great ideas – but then we sat back and let SRC run its course in the branches.

Perhaps this distance is what has made me ponder the purpose of Summer Reading Club. In general, most folks agree that libraries offer SRC to keep kids reading all summer long, so that their reading skills stay honed during the long break from school. In addition, we are trying to attract non-library users to the library for the first time with our exciting programs and themes. Also, we want to promote the idea of reading for fun, tempting reluctant readers with goodies like graphic novels and providing personal reader’s advisory to kids who are already enthusiastic readers.

Those are all fabulous goals, but does SRC achieve them? In my library system, sign-up statistics (meaning simply the kids who signed up and received a reading folder) were slightly up from last year, while program attendance was up sharply across the board. I find sign-up statistics a bit misleading – a librarian can invite dozens of classes to visit the library in June and sign up every kid, creating large numbers, but how many of those kids come back all summer long, or even once? Program attendance is more interesting, especially considering that our Children’s Librarians had much less funding for “professional” entertainers such as magicians and puppeteers, and so presented mostly less flashy home-grown programs. Was the economy affecting the number of kids who went to summer camp or on summer trips?

But whether these statistics soar, decline, or stay even, they don’t answer some crucial questions. Are SRCs encouraging kids to read more than they normally would? Does attendance in SRC lead to better reading skills and higher grades? Are children reading more for fun as a result of SRCs?

The answers to all these questions may well be “yes,” but it’s hard to know how we can measure our success in these areas. Studies have probably been done, tracking the grades and/or reading skills of SRC participants vs. non-participants – although even if SRC participants turned out to be more successful in school, that could be simply because they come from families where libraries are valued, and therefore might already have a built-in advantage.

Certainly SRC must attract a fair number of kids to the library who have rarely or never visited, and often they bring their families with them. Children’s Librarians in my system visit as many of their local schools as possible, making presentations in assemblies or blitzing every classroom to entice kids to join SRC this summer. It’s a reminder to school-weary kids that libraries aren’t just about homework resources and a place to study; we’re free, we’re air-conditioned, and in summer we’re all about having fun.

I can’t help feeling, however, that books and reading sometimes fall by the wayside in all the excitement. Sure, the folders that children receive have spaces for reading and most Children’s Librarians have some sort of bare-minimum reading requirement in order for children to receive an incentive; I always asked that they either have read a book over the past week or be in the process of reading one (after all, it can take more than a week to finish a chapter book). Ask a question or two about the book or books (what was your favorite part? Which was your favorite book? Since you liked that mystery so much, would you like to try another?) if there isn’t a long line, initial and date the folder, hand the kid a cool pencil, and on to the next kid.

Mostly, though, the focus seems to be on the programs, the incentives, and the theme. A cool theme (we used “Reading is Magic” this year – very popular) can generate excitement among both kids and staff and is an excellent way to build programs and activities. Incentives can mean a lot to a kid who is very proud of herself for reading one whole book in a week (or three weeks). Innovative Children’s Librarians can and should always link a fun program like a magic show back to some great books that kids can check out.

But with all this frenzy, it’s especially important to find the time to focus on individual kids and their reading needs and desires. Plenty of families arrive at the library in a great flurry of kids and strollers, stay just long enough for the program and maybe the weekly incentive, grab a DVD or two or six, and then leave. Now, maybe they’ve got shelves overflowing with books at home, but how cool to take home a library book hand-picked by their very own librarian.

Or what about those kids who hang out at the library all day playing on the computers? They can sometimes be dragged into a program, they might consent to signing up for the reading club, but they’re at the library not because they like to read but because they have nowhere else to go – and the computers are free here. Some of these kids are only seven or eight and might be easy to hook on books if we put forth a bit of effort. Even a thirteen-year-old isn’t too old – my own husband accidentally discovered Paula Danziger’s The Cat Ate My Gym Suit at age 13 or 14, and read it all the way through. It was the first book he had ever read for pleasure, but not the last.

Unfortunately, branches are often busy and understaffed, and no one is busier than the Children’s Librarian. No one is more important, either, and I hope that Branch Managers can give their Children’s Librarians a bit of time to roam the children’s area and to simply sit down with kids and read to them once in a while. Too often, librarians are chained to the information desk. Some kids do venture up to us there – but many don’t.

We all have at least a handful of Eager Readers who check out stacks of our favorite books and whom we think of when we order the latest well-reviewed fiction, but there are plenty more who roam the shelves, guessing that there might be something interesting there but not quite sure how to find it, or who sit slumped at a table, bored out of their minds while waiting for the next available computer. These are the kids who parents probably didn’t bring them to our storytimes and so they don’t know us and don’t quite believe that books can be anything but a chore.

If Summer Reading Club were toned down a bit – still fun, still an exciting change from the boring school year, but less about flashy performers and prizes – maybe Children’s Librarians could reach some kind of balance. We could still attract some non-users to the library, still offer enough cool stuff to interest kids all summer long, but we’d have more time to add a personal touch that was less about entertainment and toys and more about books and reading.

“The right book for the right child” has always been a wonderful mantra. If I, as a Children’s Librarian, had eschewed the ritual weekly “handing out of the incentive” and instead simply asked kids to come talk to me about the books, I wonder how that would have worked. Instead of zooming from the community room to the information desk after a standing-room-only program so that I could hand out a sticker to 60 kids, I could have invited them all to join me in the children’s area so that we could find some fabulous books. Yes, I would have been swamped, but the focus would have been on books, not checking off a reading folder.

That sounds all very idealistic. Kids (and librarians) do love performers, incentives, and the rest of the SRC trappings. I’m just pondering the possibility of a slight change in focus and attitude, of reminding oneself every day what we’re all about and why we raise such a hullabaloo every summer. I think that, when I talk to Children’s Librarians who are either new and alarmed or faded and jaded, I will suggest that they concentrate not on numbers and statistics but on getting the right book to the right child, one kid or audience at a time. The theme and incentives are fluffy icing; the books are the cake; the kids are our guests. Let them eat cake!


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  2. I have been ranting about summer reading club for about 40 years now. As a baby librarian, I disapproved of the competition and the emphasis on external rewards. Over time, I have come to question both our knee-jerk approach to this annual endeavor (doing it because we've always done it) and the somewhat cynical use which some administrators make of the almost certainly inflated registration statistics.

    I can't imagine that we would be able to eliminate Summer Reading Club, even if we wanted to. We can, however, be more intentional about the programs we run -- and I think this is what Eva is suggesting. The correction that I am advocating these days is an outcome-based planning and evaluation approach, in which librarians systematically think about the desirable outcomes they would like their SRCs to produce (preferably after some kind of focused needs assessment in their own communities) and then design and implement a program that is likely to achieve those outcomes.

    We really can do this differently and more effectively.

  3. Bravo, bravo, Eva. This is such an articulate and thoughtful statement of what we need to be looking at and ways we can make SRC more meaningful.

    When I was a child and joined the library SRC in the 1950's, I was not "successful" because it took me (a slow reader) weeks to finish one long novel. Other kids got more praise and incentives for reading many more books. Thankfully, we no longer reward for quantity--at least I think most libraries have changed that practice.

    Susan Patron

  4. It would be so wonderful if summer was a long and lazy season with plenty of time for reading. Kids get dragged from activity to activity; parents seem to have a dread of letting their kids have a bit of down time - they might get (gasp) bored! And we librarians contribute to the frenzy when we could be hanging out in the children's room, reading a chapter of Emily Jenkin's "Toys Go Out" or telling jokes from a joke book or...

  5. Do you really think we can get rid of stats? You have been at the meetings. That is what the admin wants from us, good stats. I do my best to get them but know that only a small number are actually reading....

    I wish the emphasis was not on numbers but seems to be what the donors or admin wants.

    I started a weekly reading club at my branch to be able to talk books with kids. Very satisfying.

  6. Your weekly reading club sounds great, Martha. I don't think we can get away from statistics at this point, as our donors do like to see "results," so perhaps a shift in our own way of looking at SRC is the first step.