I just returned from a great visit to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, where I detailed for a large group of librarians a fascinating development: my current employer, the New York Public Library, is revamping its Summer Reading Program for 2015.

Like most public libraries, the NYPL has historically used its summer program to encourage kids to read books, often from specific lists. The NYPL usually collaborates with the New York City Department of Education to find titles that complement the curriculum of city schools. But this year, we are going to stop pushing kids to read just books. It’s the reading part that we think is most important, after all, and we think that the best way to get kids to read more is to encourage them to read whatever the heck they want.

Among the tweaks made to this year’s NYPL Summer Reading Program, instead of emphasizing a list of titles, the 2015 program will emphasize time spent reading. Our goal is to get kids to read for at least 20 minutes every day—more, if we are lucky. If a kid wants to read Rookie magazine on the Web, that’s great. If it is a superhero comic book, go for it. And if it is Stendhal, then thank the heavens and pass the Proust!

It’s the 21st Century

Chances are that you or someone in your family has participated in a summer reading program at some point. Libraries in the U.S. have been offering summer reading programs for more than 100 years, and such programs have been adopted by about 95% of public American libraries, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And those programs are important, as they keep kids engaged with reading in the gap between school years, helping them develop literacy and language skills. Studies have shown that the summer hiatus between school years can be destructive to children’s ascent through school curricula. Continued reading keeps children mentally active and curious about the world during their time out of class. And as an added benefit, summer reading also helps relieve the stress of parents, whose kids have way more unscripted time on their hands in the summer than during the school year.

But it wasn’t until my visit to Bologna last month that I realized that summer reading programs are really more of an American thing. Summer reading programs don’t exist in Italy, or in most of Europe for that matter. But they could. And simply talking about them in Bologna really perked up the interest of both the publishers and librarians there.

The conversations I had in Bologna highlighted some of the ways European libraries and schools differ from those in America. But the discussions also underscored how necessary it is for U.S. libraries to reinvigorate our summer reading programs. To be effective, summer reading programs must reflect the way kids everywhere are reading, and living, today. In changing its Summer Reading Program, NYPL is acknowledging that we now live in a world of networked distraction. And we have learned that if we want to keep kids reading, we need to respect kids’ choices about what they read, and how they read it.

To do this, the NYPL program will devote more energy to encouraging kids to read whatever, whenever, and wherever: whether at home, on the subway, in line at the store, or at the local library—in print or digitally. We’ve come to understand that whatever publishers and librarians might want literature to be, kids don’t always share that point of view. But kids today are reading, even if they are not necessarily reading books. And there’s actually a lot of great stuff online, as well as in print, for kids to read. Our job is to get more kids reading that stuff.

This evolution in our approach didn’t happen overnight, of course. NYPL started to relax the emphasis on reading lists years ago. But even so, the aim of the Summer Reading Program at the time was to help children engage with what we defined, broadly, as age-appropriate fiction. That didn’t necessarily mean Mark Twain (much less Stendhal). We lived through several happy years with popular series such as Harry Potter, or the latest from Rick Riordan.

But in 2015, without a captivating, hugely popular new YA bestseller, and with an increasingly pervasive Internet that’s about to encroach into our wristwatches, our summer reading practices felt out of step. This spring our YA librarians have been surveying a world where kids are not drawing up lists of cool books to read, but are instead engaging with smartphones, reading manga, and playing games on tablets and consoles.

We Get It

Without question, reading is undergoing a transformation in the digital age. And librarians are increasingly coming to the conclusion that respecting the world kids live in now is a lot more fruitful than pretending it’s still the world that our parents shaped in the 1960s and ’70s. Most librarians now realize that in order to encourage kids to read more, we need to be everywhere and anywhere our kids are.

Thus, the new summer reading website we are developing at NYPL (with the help of various business partners) will be available as a responsive, mobile-ready application (which is going to be open source). To create an appealing and successful summer reading program, we are not only enlisting our physical library branches and resources throughout the city, but with the mobile app, we hope to put the program directly in the hands of kids. We may not be always be the ones providing all the cool things for kids to read this summer (maybe we can think about how to do more of that for 2016), but we are determined to put the coolness of reading right there on their phones.

Furthermore, one of the most awesomely huge advantages of going digital is that it offers kids a “read and write” world. In 2015, kids have an opportunity to do something drastically different than what kids did in 2005. Through online magazines and publications, such as Rookie, kids are now invited to author their own contributions, sharing their thoughts on subjects such as making or losing friends, feeling lonely or isolated, dealing with a move from one neighborhood to another. This ability to encourage active engagement is intrinsic to the digital world, and kids are enthusiastically embracing it. Librarians should embrace it, too.

It’s worth noting here that this is where the lack of broadband access really hurts kids. Limited access to the Internet is not only felt when kids are unable to look things up for school or read online. Engaging with friends on social media, and learning how to be digitally social, is a critical skill for children today. Instead of being afraid that our kids will only run into trolls online, parents, teachers, and librarians should be helping kids learn the skills they need to participate in the online communities of their peers, which are becoming ubiquitous and more essential to our social and economic infrastructure than ever before. But without good Internet access, too many kids are being left behind.

The Italian Job

It was actually this disjuncture that became most painfully obvious to me in Bologna. As I talked with concerned librarians, who noted that the percentage of kids who read books is dismal in many European countries, I was struck by the corresponding lack of opportunity to reach those kids online.

One prominent Italian librarian painted for me a sad picture of dusty libraries in towns and in the countryside that serve as little more than warehouses for books, where civil servants flip through newspapers during the day, go out for long lunches, and return only to lock up their unvisited, and unloved, buildings. But even if some libraries are staffed by civil servants that are close to retirement, it really doesn’t take a lot to get on the side of kids that now read online every day. But it starts with acknowledging that this is the job librarians face today, in every country.

When I ended my talk in Bologna, I was asked, “What two things should every librarian in Italy do this year?” First, I responded, learn to program.

Librarians don’t have to program for a living, but being comfortable making a computer do something is essential. And if that is too much, then at least make something digital: a video, some music, a Web page. Just make something—because that is what our kids are doing, all the time.

And second, go find something online that is a great and cool thing to read, and share it with kids. Being enthusiastic about the world and sharing the best parts of it is the best way to keep kids reading, thinking, and sharing.