I’ve been a children’s librarian for 13 years. Currently I work at Nashville Public Library (NPL) in Tennessee where I’ve been for the past two and half years. My best friend, Matt, has been a teacher for just as long as I’ve been a librarian, and every May we enact this scene:
Matt: (gleefully) Only two weeks left until summer!
Me: (pulling hair out in last-minute summer preparations) Only two weeks left until summer!
Sound familiar? It should. We’ve been doing summer programming so long that it’s automatic. In fact, collectively, we’ve offered summer learning since the days of Cleopatra. The Library of Alexandria published the first peer-reviewed scroll on summer slide. I’m kidding, of course, but you get the point: Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in what to do for summer learning, we don’t get to really enjoy why we do it.
Last year, our summer program participation at NPL dropped. So we decided to step back and reinvent our model. Already, we’re seeing early success. When our attendance numbers fell in 2013, parents told us their kids’ schedules were just too packed with other educational camps and activities.
This revelation prompted us to ask ourselves some questions: First question—is a child who is over-scheduled during school break likely also experiencing summer slide? Probably not. Chances are they already have access to books and reading role models. Second question—so why gear our program to children who are already learning during vacation, either at the library or elsewhere? Ultimately, we decided to reinvent our program, creating a model that would appeal to our library regulars—and a new audience. We took three major steps.
We made the program the incentive
Regardless of our financial support, we can’t offer uber-glamorous summer reading prizes that will send kids running to the library. However, if participants find the new program challenging, interesting, fun, and inspiring, then participation itself will be their reward. Through the new “NPL Summer Challenge,” from May 1– August 15, participants complete free and easy learning activities—reading with friends, visiting a park, doing a science experiment, helping someone—to earn points. They redeem points for “traditional goodies,” such as discounted passes to local venues.
Some additional “smart designs” we integrated into our “Summer Challenge” are:
- One program for everyone: A single program (for children, teens and adults) is simpler to explain, create, and produce. This model also encourages families to participate together.
- A community-level challenge: Each of our branch libraries has a point goal it wants the neighborhood to reach. Every branch that hits its goal will throw an end-of-summer party. This type of competition encourages participation all summer.
- A citywide challenge: This is the big one. If Nashville earns 500,000 collective points, participants can eliminate overdue book fines during an upcoming “fine amnesty” week.
We shouted about the program from the rooftops
Research here, there, and everywhere confirms it: summer reading prevents summer slide. This year, we started sharing what we already knew with people outside the library.
- We talk to any willing audience and tailor our presentations. We let funders and administrators know there’s a dollar sign attached to summer slide. Meanwhile, we talk to teachers and parents about the long-term effects of summer slide in a child’s life.
- We get out of the building. Working together to cover desk shifts and story times gives us more flexibility for community outreach.
- We “went back” to print. We don’t rely on online presence alone. Kids who might not have Internet access during the summer use hard copy materials to participate.
We designed the program to travel
To reach kids who might be outside our usual reach:
- We extended the program from May 1 through August 15. By starting early, we could promote “Summer Challenge” in public schools, sending registration packets home with every student. The later end date means that students can participate even if they can’t make it to the library, since they can turn in their points at the school library this fall.
- We formed smart partnerships with organizations, such as Metro Parks and the local health department. We sought out other entities that also fill the summer gap with structured activities and services.
- We “followed the food” by teaming with our local food bank. The food bank feeds families at several summer meal sites across town. We’ll also be there, promoting our program and handing out free books.
Time will tell if our approach gets results. Already, we’ve achieved something monumental: We’ve generated excitement about summer learning. Our staff, our patrons, and our partner organizations are energized. We’re getting early thumbs-ups from kids and parents. And, as of June 5, we had registered 11,000 participants. The most important takeaway is our vibrant refocus on what’s really important. Instead of doing a summer reading program because we have always done a summer reading program, we celebrated the reasons to pour so much energy into this work.
Remember that scene I do every May with my best friend, Matt the teacher? This time, it went a bit differently:
Matt: (gleefully) Only two weeks left until summer!
Me: (equally gleefully) No worries! We’ll take it from here!
And high-fives followed all around.
For a visual walk-through on why “Summer Challenge” is important and the return on investment (and money saved) by using programs such as “Summer Challenge,” visit: http://library.nashville.org/summerchallenge/about.html.
Lindsey Patrick is the children’s services manager of Nashville Public Library in Nashville, Tennessee. She has worked in youth services in St. Louis, Memphis and Sacramento. This fall, she’ll begin teaching Children’s Literature at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Lindsey has an ironic “sshhh…” tattooed on her index finger, but she is happy to report that she never uses it with her patrons.