Every summer, across the country, libraries host summer reading programs that are tailored to their community’s needs. These programs are generally meant to engage young readers during the time school is out of session, keeping kids learning and reading. This year, with the pandemic closing libraries back in March, many were forced to halt in-person activities and programs for public safety. Now, after months of uncertainty, libraries are slowly reopening and launching their summer reading programs, which, traditionally, rely heavily on encouraging patrons to visit the library, take part in group activities and access library materials. PW reached out to libraries that have launched their summer reading programs and received responses from six libraries, in Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio. The updated approach that each library is employing is unique, representing a spectrum of creative options.

Pamela Sanders, youth services coordinator at Champaign County Library in Urbana, Ohio, said that Covid-19 prompted her library to switch back to a virtual, month-long Summer Reading Program, which includes weekly digital story time, grab & go activity bags, and STEAM grab & go kits. The library has also expanded its Book Bundles program, offers personalized book recommendations, and curbside service. Sanders said they opted to use the reading challenge software Beanstack, in part because they were familiar with the system, having used it in previous years, but also because Beanstack includes a mobile app, which Sanders said “has been a tremendous advantage.”

Since the launch of this year’s program, she has noticed an increase in teen participation because young adults “like using the app.” Aiming for flexibility, the library’s program has been streamlined, making it easier for children and families to reach their goals more quickly. “By using Beanstack, the kids and teens earn badges for completing reading goals. We also added simple activities for the kids to do, for which they also earn badges,” she said. These activities include going for a hike, building a fort and reading a book, playing board games, and having a family movie night. “We are measuring success by the feedback we are receiving from the public.”

Sanders explained that, in the past, they’ve looked closely at the numbers —participants, minutes read, items checked out—but they’re now looking at the bigger picture. “Nothing is set in stone; we are meeting the needs of our patrons one request at a time! Our library director, Ty Henderson, is always telling us ‘to give them the pickle!’ We want to give [our community] the best we can, that little bit extra they don’t expect.”

At Canton Public Library in Canton, Mich., “the pandemic changed how we deliver our 62 Days of Summer Program, but not our goals,” said department head of community relations Laurie Golden. “Our overarching goal has been to help our community make summer the best two months of the year,” which the team does by encouraging patrons to engage with fellow community members, learn or experience something new, visit the library, interact with staff, read more, and participate in library programs. “We provide the resources and patrons make the choices about what to do and how they it,” Golden said. Usually patrons would come to the library for a kickoff celebration and activity packet pick-up, but this year the library quickly shifted its model, mailing out 37,000 packets to residents and creating an online headquarters for the program.

“The 62 Days of Summer program has evolved over 10 years,” Golden said, “as the library moved away from a traditional read-for-prizes, age-delineated program to an experiential, all-ages program.” This is the third year the library has used this new model, which features all of the services the library offers and stresses in-person activities and interactions with staff, which posed a challenge due to the nature of Covid-19. Golden said the library worked to translate those experiences to a version that could be done “outside the building, with appropriate safety precautions, keeping in mind everyone has a different comfort left with social interaction,” maintaining flexibility so that as situations change, staff can easily adapt.

This year, the library provided “62 ways to do 62 days” by offering ideas supported by library resources, including reading lists, links to activities, virtual programs, worksheets, scavenger hunts, and more. Patrons complete an activity, note it on a provided tracker, then share it with the library. In the past, patrons would receive a pompom for completing tasks, which Golden said was “wildly successful” and prompted the creation of a way to earn pompoms online. “For instance,” Golden said, “our Garden to Table suggestion is supported with reading lists for adults and youth, articles, links to garden pot planters, apps to track your garden progress and identify seeds and plants, and links to farmer’s markets and sustainable food sites.” Participants are encouraged to share photos of their gardens and what they are growing with library staff. Pompoms can be claimed for any of these activities. Golden said that as staff are allowed to come back to work, they will continue to make the offerings more robust, filling out programs and adding more ideas. And, though this new model was born of necessity, “we might continue to mail the packet out every year to increase patron access,” she said.

In Lake Orion, Mich., at Orion Township Public Library the numerical goals for the summer reading program have changed, but the main goal remains the same. “We strive to provide a fun and interesting reading program that gets kids excited about reading and prevent summer slide,” said head of youth services, Ashley Lehman. In previous years, Lehman said it was standard to aim for the same (or more) participants than the year before, but this year, they’ve eliminated that goal to focus more heavily on the number of patrons who are “actually completing and participating in the program.” The library has used the reading challenge software Wandoo for several years, which Lehman likes because “patrons have the ability to print reading trackers to follow along or log progress online.”

The library’s program is divided into two categories: Pre Reader, or children who still read with adults; and Readers, elementary school aged participants, with the younger set meeting challenges of 10, 20, and 30 books read, and the older reading five , 10, and 15 hours over the summer. The program also features mini challenges that are tracked in Wandoo, including writing and receiving a letter from a librarian, participating in library-related activities with a printable bingo sheet, and virtual programming, from live story times and presenters to recorded activities coupled with take and make goodie bags. Lehman said she was happily surprised by the number of participants who have already requested a librarian letter and added that the library’s live baby story time was a hit. The library also has programs for teens and adults.

In Petoskey, Mich., at Petoskey District Library, the annual Summer Reading Program had to be canceled, and the school visits that usually promote the program were not possible. Megan Goedge, children’s and youth services librarian, said that the library worked to build a program that wouldn’t “overwhelm patrons, but allowed for connection.” Participants will complete a bingo card, of which there are four options, Baby, Kids, Teen, and Adult, all of which have unique activities. As staffers are still unable to host in-person programming, the library will offer online book clubs, book talks, and a “5 Ways to Explore a Book” program for younger children. Goedge said that this year, they can’t measure success by program attendance and they anticipate the portions of the program that encourage reading will be down, but, “even if one patron participates during this wild, wild time, I think it’s a success.”

In Owingsville, Ky., the Bath County Memorial Library started designing Creativity Crates to reach patrons and provide them with summer reading activities. “We had toyed with the idea of some sort of outreach that involved totes with books that were checked out to patrons, but it never really took off in a way we were happy about,” said Holly Howard, assistant director of outreach and programming. When the pandemic shut the library down, staffers began to worry about check-out restrictions and the summer plans that were already underway. Revisiting the idea of totes, Howard began looking at book subscription models to identify successful characteristics. The resulting Creativity Crates, which participants keep, include two books, a brochure with read-alikes, links to thematic crafts and information, and instructions and materials to complete two crafts. After considering its circulation numbers and available funds, the library designed a subscription box program that allows for 100 participants across five age groups to receive a crate once every two weeks throughout the summer, for a total of four deliveries each. To address accessibility concerns, participants can pick up their creativity crate or have it delivered. Howard said that initially staffers had wanted to incorporate virtual elements, like instruction videos for crafts, Zoom meetings, and Facebook Live events, but the community has shown little interest in participating in these online events, while the crates themselves have garnered wait lists. “We have received so many positive comments from the participants with pictures and videos of them opening their crates,” Howard said, adding that many area businesses have contributed to the crates too, providing coupons, gift cards, and small prize items.

Kalamazoo Public Library in Kalamazoo, Mich., scrapped the national summer reading theme, Imagine Your Story, and opted instead for “Stay Strong, Read All Summer Long.” Youth librarian Milan Orozco said that this new theme “encourages people to focus on health and resilience, while also promoting the importance of literacy for children.” In recent years, the library had been working to increase outreach and to partner with area summer camps and organizations to promote summer reading, but due to shelter in place orders and social distancing rules in Michigan, Orozco said promotion has transitioned online and to the library’s physical newsletter, which explains the program and includes a summer reading game board. The library also uses Beanstack, so patrons can play online or using the paper game board provided. Participants are challenged to read 20 minutes per day and, after reaching 15, 30, and 45 days of reading, they earn a free book to keep. At 60 days of reading, the challenge is complete. Staffers also created lists of activities to keep kids moving, learning, and enjoying the summer weather through safe, socially distanced activities. To date, 763 kids have signed up. “It’s really heartwarming to see that during these stressful times, families are still looking to the library for enrichment and a guide to help build literacy skills,” Milan said.