Summer Reading and Social Distancing

By Patrick Maloney

The time of year every library professional either waits in anticipation or (depending on how much they enjoy their job) absolute dread all year for is almost upon us. The time of year when swarms of patrons free from the confines of their academic shackles descend upon the public library hungry for knowledge and Domino’s Pizza BOGO coupons. Sure it’s going to be a little different this year, but nothing can stop this juggernaut. Ladies and gentlemen, Summer Reading will soon be upon us.

Summer Reading is already a big enough deal at your average public library that there’s a very good chance I would have written an article about it regardless. But there’s no denying that with the state of the world being what it is today, a lot has changed in library land. At the time I am writing this, most libraries in Illinois are still completely shut down, although most will be opening to some degree in various stages over the next month. When this pandemic was still in its infancy, very few people would have predicted that we would still be in the thick of things come late May and June, but here we are. While libraries may start opening their doors soon, the threat of Covid-19 is still very real, and social distancing will likely be a necessity for quite some time now. This may mean restrictions on how many people can be in the library at once, and interactions with patrons may be limited altogether. Summer Reading still remains the focal point for the next few months, but some changes will be necessary. Many of you have probably already started planning what this means for your library and your programs, but after attending several zoom meetings with my colleagues at two different libraries as well as a myriad of webinars on the topic, I’ve managed to compile some of the best ideas I believe will help both staff and patrons alike navigate this new uncharted landscape.

For starters, prizes are probably going to need to be downsized a bit. A great deal of businesses…especially local businesses…are going through tough times right now and are going to be less likely to donate to the cause this year. Depending on your budget you can offset this a bit by buying prizes, or buying more than you normally would, but it would still be wise to downsize a little bit. Perhaps in lieu of prizes, patrons can choose to defer their winnings to a donation to a charity helping people in need during these trying time. It’s also probably in your best interest to simply have everyone pick up their prizes all at once at the end of the summer rather than every single time they reach a milestone. It is an unfortunate reality this summer that the less people in the library at any one time, the better.

Challenges will need to be repurposed for social distancing as well, and what that means will differ between children and adults. A “visit the library” challenge can now simply be “check out a book from the library online”. Kids can collect points for being read to by their parents or FaceTiming with an old relative who has probably been more isolated than the rest of us and welcoming to any visits with open arms. Adults can be challenged to learn a new hobby, or try out a new recipe, all from the comfort of their own home.

Most in person summer programming will likely be cancelled, but that will vary from library to library. Again, large groups of people are wholeheartedly discouraged, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find other avenues. Many presenters are now ready and willing to present virtually, and there are almost endless online programs library staff can perform themselves, like book clubs, arts and crafts, even cooking classes. My library is even starting an online vinyl swap, where patrons bring vinyl records and discuss their favorites with other music lovers following a little listening party. There are plenty of worthy activities out there, you just need to get creative.

Finally, the one aspect of Summer Reading we’ll all have to ramp up rather than ramp down is promotion. Summer Reading t-shirts won’t go very far if there’s no one in the library to notice them, nor will we be able to casually mention Summer Reading to every patron that stops by the desk if there is no one coming to the desk to begin with. This means we’ll have to spread the word more in our daily lives. It shouldn’t be too hard to get people on board with reading these days when for the first time in what seems like forever they really don’t have anything better to be doing. Online promotion on your libraries website, newsletters, etc are still very important, but word of mouth is key!

In conclusion, we’re all about to embark on a journey unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. It’s going to be different, but never lose sight of the most important aspect of Summer Reading, and that is the reading itself. It may not be as extravagant as years past, but as long as we keep our eyes on the prize and keep our communities reading, we’re doing our part, ready to come back next year bigger and better than ever.

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