We’ve visited schools, contacted neighborhood organizations, spread flyers throughout our branch and the community— all in the hope of spreading the word about the library Summer Reading Club. And somehow, I think we don’t need to worry about poor turn-out this summer.
Although there are many valuable reasons we offer Summer Reading Club — to introduce children to the joys of reading for pleasure, to expose children to free cultural programs and events, to encourage children to read enough to keep their skills honed and ready for school in the fall — one of the most important reasons, at least in my neck of the woods, is to entice children and their families who perhaps have never visited the library before.
Somehow, I suspect this will be a banner year for those first-time patrons. We’ve all heard how library use goes up as the economy tanks, something we’ve seen with our own eyes as our branches have seen record library card registration, circulation statistics, and computer usage. Folks are using our libraries to look for jobs as well as to borrow books, magazines, and DVDs for free and take advantage of our free wireless networks. We’re the best bargain in town.
We may also be one of the only games in town this summer. The massive school district that serves most of our kids has cancelled all summer school for elementary and middle school students, and our parks, pools, and recreation centers are cutting back on hours. Fewer families can afford expensive camps, private lessons, or even entertainment like the movies or the zoo. What’s left? The library!
We’re free, we’re air-conditioned, we’re full of wonderful resources — and boy, are we going to be busy this summer. Even though many of us will offer reduced hours this summer, the hours that we’re open will be packed with families seeking our books, movies, programs, not to mention our cool and comfortable children’s areas.
This might be an alarming prospect to branches that are already packed every summer. Will we have to keep an eye out for the fire marshal, who would not appreciate our overcrowded community rooms? Will the seating in our children’s area be filled to capacity? Will fights break out at the computer terminals?
It will be helpful to figure out strategies now that will not only help us deal with the crowds but turn them into wonderful opportunities for sharing books and information with kids — and simply getting to know them. For instance, it may well be that Big Programs (like a magician or live animals) just aren’t feasible this summer unless there is a huge room or auditorium to contain the crowds that are sure to turn up. If a Big Program has already been scheduled, maximize your space by removing all chairs except those against the back wall and seating your kids on the floor. Be sure to use masking tape to delineate aisles that must be kept clear for safety. And when the room has been filled to capacity, it may be necessary to turn people away. Give them a bookmark or stickers as a consolation prize and make sure to remind them to join the reading club.
And what about those kids who crowd into your children’s area every day and get squirrelly while waiting their turn for the computers? This is your captive audience, the kids to whom you can demonstrate the boredom-busting power of books. Become master of the impromptu program by stocking your information desk with books and art supplies. When the kids start getting antsy, bring over some drawing books, paper, and pencils – instant art program! Or bring over some scary stories or some joke books and start reading them aloud — instant story time (and one that is guaranteed to become an interactive book club as kids start sharing their own favorite jokes and scary stories)! Bring over some origami books and paper and encourage them to see who can make a paper frog that jumps the farthest — instant craft program! Sure, this takes a bit of your time away from the information desk and might create a little noise — but it’s much more constructive than having to shush bored, misbehaving kids or toss them out of the library on a regular basis. Getting to know these kids and encouraging their appreciation of books – whether it’s Newbery winners, graphic novels, or books about boogers – will make it more likely that these kids, many of whom are new to your library, will come back during the school year and for the rest of their lives.
We will feel stressed out and overcrowded this summer, no question. But we will also have a renewed certainty that the library is a vibrant and essential institution, one that not only survives but actually flourishes in hard times. Take a deep breath, put on your best smile, and get to know a LOT of kids this summer!