The history of summer reading programs is long, reaching back more than 100 years. As far back as the late 1800s, librarians realized that children had less access to reading materials in the summer months and, more concerning to them at the time, the few books they were reading were often of poor quality. Today, nearly every library in the nation offers some sort of summer reading program that encourages a love of reading and incentivizes turning the pages.
There’s good reason for this too! In addition to combating what’s known as the Summer Slide (a phenomenon where children often lose skills in reading and math over the summer, sometimes as much as 30%), summer reading programs have been shown to encourage parents to be involved with their children’s reading, advance reading skills, and improve attitudes towards reading. With all of these positive benefits, it may be surprising to learn that summer reading programs have been under scrutiny since the day they were started. Not only do librarians and educators disagree on how such programs should be run, some disagree on whether or not summer reading programs should be run at all.
The Early Days
In their earliest incarnations, summer reading programs were little more than small reading clubs. Librarians selected titles, usually 10 or so, they felt children should read and gave a certificate to each child who read every book on the list. Such clubs were restricted to older children, aged 10-18. Over the next 20 years, book reports and required recitations were added to the list of activities needed to earn a certificate.
It wasn’t long before criticism of the summer reading clubs popped up. In the 1920s, some became concerned that the programs promoted rewards more than reading and stifled a love of reading for its own sake. Speaking out for the growing concern, one librarian offered this question in a summer reading editorial: “What does it profit them if they read many books and love none?”.
For the Joy of Reading
The goal of cultivating a love of reading, in addition to aptitude, began to catch on in the 1930s. While the practice was not widespread, several libraries began to allow children to select their own reading materials. Fun themes and activities such as end of summer picnics were built into programs and, in an effort to lessen competition, rewards began to be given based on personal effort and quality of books reported, rather than quantity. Another change of note is the age of program participants, which expanded to include students as young as 1st grade in some areas.
The1940s were an interesting time for summer reading programs. Not only did their spread widen, so did opinions about how they should be run. In an issue of Library Journal, two librarians offered conflicting opinions. The first stated the many values of summer reading programs, including heading off summer reading loss--one of the first mentions of something like the “Summer Slide”.
A second librarian, Pauline Ames, offered a different perspective. Not only did she feel that current summer reading programs were of poor quality and took valuable time away from the librarians’ other responsibilities, she believed they primarily rewarded good readers, who were already reading, and punished slow readers, who were already struggling. As the years went on, a middle ground was struck between these two sides. By the 1950s, libraries began to partner more closely with schools and educators to help leverage summer reading programs to boost reading skills over the summer. More room for choice in book selection also became the norm throughout the country and essay and recitation requirements fell more and more to the wayside.
Fun for All
The late 70s are well known as a time when old ways were thrown off and the world of summer reading programs was no different. Along with allowing more personal choice and widening participation ages, many libraries began to weave other activities into their summer reading programs in an effort to extend learning and take stories off the pages. Puppet shows, craft hours, and group story times are just a few examples of how librarians worked to draw reading into the everyday lives of their young patrons.
What was the response? Participation numbers leaped from 50% to 76%! In an attempt to shift focus to an enjoyment of reading, rather than competition, some libraries moved away from certificates and began entering anyone who participated in the program into weekly drawings. This is a system that continues to be followed in many libraries today.
The Digital Age
As computers and the internet became increasingly accessible, more information than ever before was placed at the fingertips of individuals. However, the question on the minds of educators, librarians, and parents was: “Will children stop reading books?”. As libraries planned for their summer reading programs in the 90s, they decided to embrace, rather than fight, the digital wave sweeping across the nation. The first shift came in the recording process. For the first time, program participants could log their reading hours on library computers, saving librarians countless hours of sorting paperwork and freeing up more time for valuable interaction with patrons.
Libraries were also able to develop websites for their programs, which helped to spread awareness and increase participation. Several websites also included book-related games and links to websites that complemented the program themes. Today, most libraries continue to embrace technology, allowing patrons to read digital books and even audiobooks for credit in the programs.
Perhaps one of the most significant changes in summer reading programs over the last 100 years is not their structure, reward system, or even activities. It is their inclusivity. The first recorded summer reading program spanned a small 9 year range. Today, most libraries open their programs to all ages, 0-100+! Parents may read to their non reading children to earn them credits in the program and parents themselves may participate. While some may argue that the focus on improving children’s reading has been lost, others could counter that it has simply been extended. After all, who has fewer opportunities or motivation to read than a busy working parent?
The Great Debate Continues?
Will the debate as to how to properly run a summer reading program ever end? Not likely. Articles continue to be written each year on the validity of summer reading programs, the pros and cons of reward systems, and whether or not the focus should be the joy of reading or the skill of reading. Though this adds friction to the library world, the positive side is that this friction spurs librarians and educators to continue working together to make reading programs the best they can possibly be.
After more than 100 years, through great social, political, and technological change, summer reading programs have endured and continue to encourage individuals of all ages, reading abilities, income levels, and interests to fall in love with book in every state in the nation and we, for one, think that is something to celebrate!
Does your local library have a summer reading program? Have you noticed it change over the years, or has your location done something particularly unique? Share your stories in the comments!
About Laughing Leopard Press
Hello! We are Laughing Leopard Press, an independent book publisher from Akron, Ohio. At Laughing Leopard Press, we’re interested in publishing works that contribute to our understanding of this wonderful world. Through this blog, we hope to add to that understanding with commentary on life, literature, and a few things in between. We hope you enjoy the blog and take some time to talk with us in the comments or on our social media sites. Happy reading!
This is A. Blob by L. A Kefalos. $14.95
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