Your Summer Learning Program Questions Answered

Kids doing science experiement with adult. Summer program planning and execution can be intense, and librarians are always looking for ways to make things simpler for their staff and patrons. Here we’ve pulled together some of the most common questions and issues and offer suggestions for how you can streamline your program and maximize your library’s impact.

1. School visits are burning us out. Is there some other way we could promote our summer learning program to schools?

School visits require a lot of time and energy for coordination, planning, and execution. Then, after you’ve made it to all the schools you can, your summer program starts. No rest for the weary, I guess. In order to streamline the process and cut back on staff burnout, try making a promotional video about your summer program. Here’s one example from Altoona Public Library.

Share your video on social media and on your library’s website and encourage your followers and patrons to share it too. Send it to your school contacts or share it yourself at your school visits. This cuts back on the number of staff who need to attend and it means you won’t have to prepare a presentation for each visit.

2. What kinds of tracking are people using? I’m looking for a simpler method.

Tracking can be overly complicated, but sometimes it’s due to the way your summer learning program is set up as opposed to the actual tracking. For example, if you have different goals for early learners, upper elementary, middle schoolers, teens, and adults, or some combination of those, the tracking can become overwhelming. Keeping the different colors of sheets and the incentives straight is tricky and can cause more work than necessary. So to simplify tracking, think about simplifying the program goals first. Here are some examples from other libraries:

  • Summer Spark at St. Paul Public Library in Minnesota is for patrons age 0–18. Paper logs are used to track participation in a combination of activities and reading, and incentives are given out each time a participant completes 10 activities and rates one of the books he or she read.
  • In Pflugerville, Texas, there are four color-coded teams for the summer reading program. When people register to participate, they are randomly assigned their team based on the color of the log they got, regardless of age. For every two hours read another point is given to the team, and the team who receives the most points by the end of the program gets to see their team color all over the library for the end-of-program party.
  • Kendallville Public Library in Indiana has a single community reading goal that everyone works toward. Tracking toward the goal is managed through circulations reports. Any kind of reading is counted and patrons get to vote on what the prize will be. The prize is always something the library will purchase for patrons to check out and use.

What kinds of incentives should we give out and for what kinds of goals?

There has been a lot of talk about using intrinsic versus extrinsic motivators for reading. Extrinsic motivators are external rewards given out for achieving goals. Intrinsic motivators are based on the individual’s behavior toward their own personal or internal goals. So how do you build intrinsic motivators into a summer learning program? The short answer is you can’t. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t affect patrons’ behaviors so that they develop their own intrinsic motivators. That being said, what you use as incentives for your summer program goals should relate to what your library’s goals are for the program.

  • If your goal is to instill a love of reading in your participants, giving away books reinforces that reading for pleasure is important.
  • Maybe you are trying to provide experiences your community members may not get on their own; giving away tickets to events or passes to other attractions fits nicely.
  • If family engagement is one of your learning program goals, set family goals for the program that all members can work toward. DeForest Public Library in Wisconsin created a “store” where families can use their “dollars” earned through activities and reading to purchase larger items they can all use, such as a telescope or stamping kit.

Make a Bigger Impact with Your Summer Programming

Learn how your library can boost excitement and reach a wider audience by making the switch to a summer learning program.

4. How do you manage group participation in a summer learning program?

While it is always nice to see lots of people coming through the doors of the library, it can be problematic if a summer camp or day care you weren’t expecting shows up for a program or activity. Limited supplies and small spaces can mean that the group has to be turned away or rotate through in smaller groups. To decrease the risk of being caught off guard, here a couple of things to try:

  • Post on your website, social media, and in the library’s newsletter that you have a group policy. Here’s one way to word it: “For groups of people with XX number or more people, please call or email to register for a program, as we cannot guarantee space for everyone. The library reserves the right to turn away groups who did not reserve their spots in advance.”
  • Have a day of the week or specific times that are set aside for groups to visit and participate in activities, and broadcast the times as widely as possible.
  • To count activity and reading participation in a summer program for groups whose kids might be registered on their own, have a group tracking poster with the same goals as the regular program. Count any reading the group instructor does with the kids as well as reading the kids do during the time they are with their group. Add spots for activities like group field trips and crafts.

5. I see the same people for all of my programs, and I am not seeing anyone new in summer either. I’m doing new activities, programs, and events all summer long — why aren’t different people coming?

In a recent poll done of public libraries in the U.S. and general U.S. citizens, it was discovered that while 98% of public libraries offer summer programs, only about 36% of the population knows about them or has heard of the one in their community. Ouch!

So how do libraries get the word out about their summer learning program? Here are some simple steps:

  • Think about where you currently market your program. Is it on social media? How big is your following? Do your followers share it? Is it on flyers in and around the library? Is it on the library’s website? Do you hang flyers in local businesses and organizations? Do you have contacts who could share with local parent groups?
  • Next, think about where you aren’t marketing your program. Why don’t you use those channels? Who could you reach if you did market there?
  • Brainstorm other creative ways to get the word out. Messages on bank statements or utility bills, promotional videos sent to schools and other organizations, and press releases for local news outlets are all good ways to increase visibility. Offer a “bring a friend” incentive that changes throughout the summer to get your regular patrons to bring folks who don’t already use the library. Encourage your social followers to share your posts.
  • Finally, track how people are hearing about your programs. Simple tally sheets at the information and circulation desks will give you a good idea of where your patrons and participants are getting their information. As your audience grows, it will be important to capture how they heard about the program so you know where to spend your resources in the future.



Erin Hoag

Erin Hoag

Erin Hoag is the Learning Content Manager at Demco. She has a master’s in library and information studies with a focus on child and youth services. For over 10 years, she has worked in informal education, developing and running programs in museums, libraries, and community centers.