16 November 2020
Reading Colors Your World.

Yes, it’s November. Yes, many of us are still recovering from the Summer Reading Program that wasn’t (or almost wasn’t). No, we don’t want to think about Summer Reading 2021, but like it or not, planning time is here.  Normally, libraries base their coming programs on participation and response rates of the program that just ended, but with a global pandemic raging, nothing is normal. Now is the time to make decisions for 2021.  Do you hope for the best and plan based on your 2019 B.C. (before COVID) program? Were you able to pivot and still provide an SRP in some form in 2020?  If so, what can you learn from this year that will help your program soar in 2021, regardless of the pandemic situation?

Like many others, our library was forced to close in March, right around the time serious planning for our SRP should have started. When staff members began returning to work, it was already late April, a mere six weeks until our SRP was scheduled to begin! Additionally, we were asked to move the start date even earlier on the calendar, since kids were already out of school and had little or nothing to do. We had not yet begun curbside materials pick-up, and not a single sign-up flyer had been handed out. How were we going to pull off a summer program when we: A) weren’t open, B) weren’t checking out materials, C) didn’t have anyone signed up, D) couldn’t hand out reading logs to those who were interested, and E) couldn’t host any traditional event programming to support our SRP?

We created a “quick and dirty” make-shift registration and online reading log. We handed out as many flyers as we could in May. Most importantly, we shifted the expectations for our SRP, for both our patrons and our staff.  We removed the requirement that reading materials had to be checked out from the library.  Patrons were encouraged to read “where you are,” reading whatever they had on hand – books from their home libraries, newspapers, magazines, or e-books. We included listening to audiobooks (for anyone) and even watching YouTube Story Hour book readings for our “read-to-me” preschoolers. Doing this shifted the emphasis back to reading, rather than library usage.  We eliminated benchmark prizes and instituted weekly random drawings for digital gift cards. Money that we would have normally spent on the “trinkets” got re-directed to providing a larger completion prize given to all finishers at the end of the program. We also had grand prize and runners-up drawings for each reader category. We feared our patrons would be disappointed.  While our numbers were a fraction of what they had been in previous years, the feedback we got from patrons was overwhelmingly positive.  There were some complaints about the awkwardness of our online log, and a few complained about the lack of prizes, but for the most part, patrons were grateful that we were able to provide the SRP as a diversion from everything else that was going on.  

For Summer 2021, we have already secured a digital platform for our reading programs (we chose Beanstack, but there are many different options to choose from). We are also planning on keeping many of the new guidelines from this year. We will keep the emphasis on reading, but we are also including activities that encourage educational exploration in different ways. Going outside to find different colored birds and flowers is an activity challenge that fits in with the 2021 iRead theme of “Reading Colors Your World,” yet allows for physical distance from others. One can still quarantine or follow a stay-at-home order from one’s own front or back yard.

The biggest takeaway from Summer 2020 is that, as institutions, we must meet our patrons where they are at. Reading challenges should be easy and inclusive. Staff should be ready to pivot at a moment’s notice. Make decisions based on hoping for the best while preparing for the worst.  Will your patrons be content with earning digital prizes or badges for their progress?  If you are planning on handing out physical prizes, are they things that could be mailed? Perhaps a mix – badges for progress and prizes for finishing – is the solution.  Make sure any supporting programming you want to schedule can be done via video, if necessary. Finally, create a system that could be supported by a skeleton staff (or possibly even just one person) if your library must close.  Your patrons will be grateful knowing they can count on the library, even in the toughest conditions.

Our guest blogger today is Donna Forbis. Donna is the Marketing & Events Coordinator at the Illinois Prairie District Public Library in Woodford County, IL. Donna is also a member of the My Library Is.. Advisory Team.