Sunday, October 18, 2009

Thoughts on the Summer Reading Club 2009

Now that summer is over and the season of class visits and school assignments is upon us, it's time once again to ponder the Summer Reading Club.

Last year, I was feeling a bit jaded about the whole thing and wishing we could use something more meaningful than numbers of sign-ups and attendance at programs to measure SRC success. I also yearned for a way to focus more on books and reading, child by child, than on gimmicky toys and huge performer programs.

This spring, I wrote about how outcome measurements could be used to plan and deliver a superlative SRC, one that left us knowing exactly what kids got out of the program rather than just how many kids came to the library.

I was excited to learn that several library systems, including neighboring Santa Monica Public Library, in California initiated an experiment to measure outcomes as part of California Library Association's California Summer Reading Program. The results haven't been published yet, and I am very curious to find out how they decided on the desired outcomes to measure, how they measured the outcomes, and how they will incorporate the findings into the planning of next year's program. When I find out, I'll post it.

In the meantime, I found a helpful chapter called "Review and Reflect: Meauring Outcomes" in Rita Soltan's Summer Reading Renaissance (Libraries Unlimited, 2008). This book suggests an interesting approach to SRC, incorporating museum-like interactive "exhibits" in the children's area that change weekly and both enhance and extend the SRC theme for the summer. Whether a library uses this approach or not, Soltan's chapter on how to measure for those less tangible results like the SRC's influence on a child's reading habits and interests, success in narrowing summer reading loss, and so on is extremely useful - she includes not only a discussion of outcome-based evaluation (and to a certain extent planning), but also methods of collecting data, including informal interviews, staff logs, surveys, and focus groups. For the latter, she includes sample questions - so handy!

My own system, like most library systems, isn't there yet - we still collect the same old output measures like number of sign-ups and number of kids at programs. Still, this summer seemed a bit... fresher than summers past, and I believe this is because our tiny budget for performers and incentives meant that children's librarians had ample opportunity to get creative. And lo, they rose to the occasion with admirable innovation and good cheer.

We allow the children's librarians in our 71 branches and Central Library to use the method they think best to administer the program, and so some reward kids for visits to the library, some for number of books read (although this is very rare), some for number of minutes read, and some for pounds of books read (yes, the books are actually weighed). So far, no change from previous years - but I loved where the children's librarians went from there.

One librarian gave each kid one "vote" for each pound of books read, and they got to use these votes to decide on what was coolest, pirates or ninjas. (Our theme was "Treasured Islands" - pirates bury treasure on islands and ninjas come from the island of Japan) Ninjas won, so the End-of-Summer party had a ninja theme. Cool!

Another librarian gave each kid a ticket for every 20 minutes of reading - at the End-of-Summer party, kids could "spend" their tickets for small prizes (pencils, books, etc).

Another librarian used a variety of "incentives." For younger readers, she gave kids a piece of a puzzle for each week they participated in the program, which they colored as soon as they received it. At the end of summer they had a colorful completed puzzle. Older kids earned raffle tickets for each week of reading. And coolest of all, for each 10 books a kid read, they "earned" a paper image of a canned good. This would be colored and put up on the bulletin board - and at the end of the summer, her Friends group bought real canned goods for each of the paper ones and donated them to the LA Food Bank. Now that's reading for a good cause!

From reading their reports on the SRC, I get the feeling that many children's librarians relished the opportunity to get creative with all aspects of the program. Now that they have been inspired and refreshed, we need to be able to measure the effect of the SRC on kids, in a way that is both meaningful AND not too onerous for staff.

Hmm - we've got our work cut out for us - but luckily, I like a challenge!

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