Summer Days: A History of Summer Reading in Libraries
Summer equals long days, blooming gardens, shorts, cookouts and, in most libraries across the country, the summer reading program. For two months libraries devote significant amounts of time and energy to getting patrons of all ages to spend part of their summer getting lost in a book. The roots of this idea go back almost a hundred and forty years and spread like wildfire across the country, surviving all the twists and turns of history. Take a journey to see how this program became a cornerstone of library programming.
The roots of this program got planted in three libraries. All of them, looking to engage with kids to increase the number of library cards issued and circulation numbers during summer vacation, initiated ideas that still exist todays.
In 1895, Linda Eastman, who worked at the Cleveland Public Library, created a list, The Best Books in the Library for Children, and distributed it to schools in her area in June. Seeing an increase in circulation due to this list, she formed a reading club for kids, the Children’s Library League. The idea caught on, spread fast, swelling to 1200 members.
The Carnegie Library of Pittsburg took a different approach. The library built in Andrew Carnegie’s home city, opened the main branches doors in 1910. Instead of trying to get families to come to them, the decided to branch out into the community. For six weeks during the summer, they set up temporary library services in five playgrounds across the city.
Caroline Hewins, working in Hartford Conn, saw the success of these approaches and took things a step further. She made the decision to create a theme each year and brought in weekly speakers related to it. She got the management to extend the check-out times for materials during the summer and introduced storytimes and book talks, taking a step into the modern looking program.
All these programs placed most or all their focus on older kids, 6–9 graders, and all of them were determined to try and guide them toward choosing “quality” books. Both ideas would change and evolve as time went on, but the basics started here.
As librarians created educational standards and professional organizations, including the creation of a specialized sub-group within the American Library Association focused solely on children, information about these programs spread and got adopted in many communities. Participating libraries included a set of standard elements including:
· Most programs were centered around a theme and their seemed to be a set of popular ideas regarding the types of focus. In the 1920s, the treasure hunt idea took hold. The 1930s embraced the idea of travel and exploring the world. The coming of World War 2 changed it toward patriotic themes
· A reading log
· A reading goal with a prize attached to it. Many libraries settled on ten books, but that varied
· A written or oral report given to the librarian on all books read. Many featured the best of these in the local paper
· School visits and local papers were used to drum up excitement
Growth spurts, however, lead to growing pains. During this time, the program also attracted critics. By demanding a reading minimum and reports, they argued, made the program more like school. Offering prizes turned it into a competition. Both things undermined the idea of helping children discover the pleasures of reading for fun which they felt should be the goal. Despite these protests, the idea kept spreading and growing.
Not A Fun Slide
By the 1950s, the term ‘Summer Reading Program’ became the official title, reading logs and reports were still in existence, but an important change happened. In 1946, we get the first mention in of the idea of a ‘summer slide,’ the idea that kids lose reading skills over the summer. This led libraries to work closely with schools and PTAs to ensure that kids participated in order to not backslide on this skill. Since this affected everyone, the program expanded the ages of the kids they served. Local businesses contributed prizes as an incentive. They also saw the benefits of collaborations. The state libraries of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming became the first to create a single theme and collaborate on programming ideas. That caught on so that today, there is a nationwide theme utilized across the country. As kids now had a lot of competition for their attention, libraries also pumped up the programming to get them through the door. These shifts inspired a loosening of the idea of “quality” books and created greater acceptance of whatever kids wanted to read and eliminated the aspect of the mandatory report.
The Second Wave
Today’s summer programs have all but removed any reading requirements and replaced them with fun activities, reading logs replaced with reading goals. The “log” now includes suggestions for books and activities that all connect to the theme, and while prizes are still offered, in addition local businesses, passes to local cultural centers, museums and zoos, make for more varied options. Most also include adults in the fun, knowing an important element in raising a reader is for kids to see that their parents find reading a fun activity.
Come on down to your library this summer and sign yourself and your family up for the program. You might be surprised at the variety of options, programs and outright fun to be had. More important, you might rediscover or trigger your own love of reading and stories.