Summer Reading Program

Working for a library this year has meant my first exposure to one of the biggest library events of the year, the summer reading program! Librarians work on these programs for months, planning and preparing. Many library systems participate in the Collaborative Summer Library Program, including the library system where I work (the King County Library System, or KCLS). This means that the themes for summer reading programs are often the same across the country. The theme this year was “Libraries Rock!” and the reading charts my system used embraced a retro interpretation with cassette tapes, vinyl records, and boom boxes. Even before the summer program began, I was excited to be participating on the peripheral from my role in circulation (I’m a Library Technical Assistant, which means I check out books, help patrons, and manage circulation tasks – I act to support library programs, but no work related to the building and developing of those programs). Listening to the librarians it sounds like all their planning and preparation left them exhausted by the time the program actually started. And, now that it’s all over? Relief!

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My favorite reading log design, although the elementary-aged children for whom it was designed probably weren’t able to appreciate the nostalgia of an unwinding cassette tape.

This year was a stand-out year (at least, I was told it was) for two reasons: first, KCLS was offering a summer reading program for adults, which they did not do last year (in the years prior, I am unsure). Second, the halfway finishing prize (for all age levels) had a pretty significant monetary value: two free tickets (per patron) to a popular local water park called Wild Waves. For an adult, these tickets are worth over $30.00 each (so two are potentially worth over $60.00). To participate and receive two free tickets, all someone had to do was bring in one of the tear-off coupons from a reading log stating that they were eligible for the prize. No registration, no showing identification, not even a requirement of proof that the individual possessed a library card – literally, just handing in a coupon from a reading log freely available in any KCLS library. Unfortunately, this “honor” system created an opportunity for the program to be exploited for valuable free tickets – and it was.

The date that patrons could begin redeeming halfway finishing prizes (or complete finishing prizes) was July 16th – and, on that Monday the 16th, the library system was flooded with patrons of all ages. The 50,000 Wild Waves tickets (which, according to KCLS, should have awarded more halfway finishers than they’ve ever had) were completely gone in 3 days. I vividly recall working the 17th (I was off the 16th) – many of the smaller branches had run out of tickets, which meant receiving phone call after phone call from patrons and staff seeking locations that still had tickets available. I literally had patrons requesting that I count how many tickets we had left at my location (I didn’t have the time to keep a running tally). On and after day 3 it because an issue of apologizing and offering Wild Waves discount codes to patrons (along with leftover prizes from last year’s summer reading program, which were obviously not nearly as popular). Needless to say, patrons (especially low-income parents redeeming for their children) were not pleased, especially when it was discovered that some enterprising adults were selling their free library waterpark tickets online.

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This is a cropped screenshot a patron posted to the KCLS Facebook page. Note “Complimentary Ticket” and the KCLS logo/website url.

The shortage of tickets added even more”excitement” to my first year experience with the summer reading program –  although the program is mostly over, we still have patrons coming in to redeem prizes who are not aware of the ticket situation (many just returning from long vacations). I am still explaining that KCLS ran out of tickets and profusely apologizing. Luckily, the patrons I’ve had to break the bad news to have (so far) been very understanding – I’ve witnessed my coworkers having much less pleasant interactions.

With all this in mind, I’m very curious to see how the library handles next year’s summer reading program and whether we lower the caliber of our prizes or tighten the requirements to earn them (require library card numbers, limit the amount per card number, restrict higher monetary prizes to children, etc.). Perhaps we’ll take things in a third, unforeseen direction. I can only wait and see.