Two years ago, the Columbus Metropolitan Library took its summer reading program online.
“We thought, ‘we’ll have an online experience which will mirror or even be better than the paper experience,'” said Kathy Shahbodaghi, public services director.
But this year, the paper booklet to track how much children read is back. The online portal is still there for those who prefer it, Shahbodaghi said, but the emphasis is on the booklets that had been used before.
“For many children, especially younger children in preschool and the early grades, that tactile experience of keeping track on a piece of paper is really important,” she said. “It’s a different experience when you don’t have a piece of paper and the satisfaction of seeing it right in front you.”
The Columbus Metropolitan Library’s online experiment reflects a question libraries across the county are asking: In the digital age, with smartphones, social media and studies showing declines in young people reading books, how do you keep kids interested in summer reading programs?
It has led some libraries to start counting the numbers of hours read instead of total books. It has led to new types of prizes, such as coupons for local businesses to catch the eye of teenagers. But it hasn’t changed the libraries’ mission: to help kids continue learning when school is out.
“We’ve definitely had to raise the stakes with summer reading club,” said Rachel Rausch, youth services librarian at Grandview Heights Public Library. Years ago, “you’d get a sticker on a reading log. That was very cool at the time, but that isn’t necessarily as impressive to kids nowadays.”
Rausch said that reading programs also are vying for attention against an increase in other summer options for kids, such as vacations, camps and programs at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium or COSI, for example.
Columbus Metropolitan Library has tried to partner with groups offering summer activities programming to try and have the participants also enroll in the summer reading challenge, Shahbodaghi said. In 2018, about 59,000 people participated in the library’s summer reading program, down from about 71,500 a decade year earlier.
The Grandview library’s push to combat that in earnest started three years ago, Rausch said. Some of the changes included setting individualized weekly goals, instead of everyone trying to read 20 hours by summer’s end, and an emphasis that reading of all kinds counts — chapter books, magazines, comics, audio books.
“We’re not picky,” Rausch said.
She said they’ve also tried to make rewards for meeting goals more “experience-based,” adding rewards such as coupons for places like Chipotle and Dairy Queen and grand prize drawings later in the summer for Kings Island tickets or movie night at the Grandview Theater.
While Grandview’s enrollment numbers are lower than what they would’ve been a decade ago, Rausch said, they’ve remained just above 500 for the last three summers.
Many libraries have full schedules of events directly linked to the summer-reading program. On Wednesday, COSI was at the Grandview library for lessons on dinosaurs. At the Granville Public Library, there are summer reading programs this month teaching fourth through sixth graders how to use 3D printers.
“We’re offering these experiences because they support the learning of books,” said Betsy Wernert, a children’s librarian at the Granville library, where creative writing programs also are offered for kids. “It’s the idea that there is literacy beyond reading a book.”
The broader focus on literacy is increasingly common in summer reading programs, said Luke Kralik, organizational coordinator for the Collaborative Summer Library Program, a national group that provides materials and other resources to libraries for their summer reading challenges.
“It’s about learning and reading, regardless of the format it takes,” Kralik said.
Miranda Gerberding, 38 of Galloway, said the summer reading programs are “a lot different from when I was a kid” and she finds the changes are beneficial for her and her three children. Two are entering kindergarten and one is a rising third-grader.
The events offered at the Grandview library can be used as motivation, Gerberding said, to “make sure we get our reading done beforehand.”