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Summer Reading Chaos: How do we balance the needs of our community with those of our staff?

As my teethingsineverlearnedinlibraryschoolns are counting down the days left in the school year, I find myself counting down the days until summer reading begin, but with very mixed emotions.

This is my 25th year as a YA librarian, which means that it is the 25th summer reading program that I have planned. I have worked in several systems and have experiences several different approaches to summer reading. And, of course, I have spent 25 years listening to my peers talk about their experiences in their library systems. I have to be honest with you, there is a lot that concerns me. I’m not sure we’re doing right by our staff when it comes to summer reading.

Many public libraries put a lot of emphasis on summer reading programs. It’s our bright shining moment. SRPs help prevent summer slide, a real thing. We spend a lot of time, money, energy and resources focused on this part of our programming. It’s stressful. It’s time consuming. It can be a make or break deal for a lot of library systems, which means its a make or break deal for a lot of youth services librarians.

A book with summer in the title

A book with summer in the title

There are, of course, benefits:

1. Helping with that summer slide issue is a real and true thing.

2. Especially during the beginning of summer, a lot of teens now have some free time so it’ can help them fill up that free time and get them into the library.

3. Parents are always looking for things to do with their kids during the summer to help fill all those newly freed up hours and it is no doubt good pr because it makes parents happy

But SRPs can be incredibly hard on staff.

Some libraries, for example, have really long SRPs and have a rule stating that youth services staff can’t take vacation during SRP. This means that if you are a parent of school aged children who also works with youth in the library, you can’t take vacation during the only time of year that your kids can take vacation. And this rule almost always only applies to youth services staff because most public library summer reading programs focus on children and teens (though, for the record, my current library system has a very strong and robust adult summer reading program as well).

Another book with summer in the title

Another book with summer in the title

I understand why libraries have these rules in place. Most libraries don’t have enough staff and trying to allow staff off for vacations during your biggest yearly event can be difficult. Of course, there’s also the flip side where you’re trying to beg your brother who lives in another state to please not get married in June because getting the time off would be incredibly hard. For the record, I did get the time off, but it was not easy and there were long lasting hard feelings. And goodness forbid someone have a serious illness or injury during the summer months because absolute chaos can ensue.

As staff begin to realize the very real limitations that come with summer and working in youth services, it can be one of the most reviled parts of the library system to work in. Staff starts defecting for other departments because everyone wants a summer vacation. Youth services staff become resentful because they realize that other departments are not subject to the same rules and restrictions. I know a lot of genuinely gifted and passionate librarians who have left youth services for other departments because of the stress and demands that are put on youth services compared to other departments. We have lost some of our best and brightest because of burn out.

I often wonder, too, about the amount of time and money that goes into summer reading program compared to the rest of the year. Some libraries spend literally thousands of dollars on summer reading and are forced to find ways to do programming throughout the rest of the year for little or zero dollars. There are, after all, only so many crafts you can do with all the toilet paper rolls from the bathroom. And I can’t help but think it has to be a let down for all those kids and teens to come out of an amazing summer reading program and then be asked to come back in September for a program where we make whatever it is we’re making with that discarded toilet paper roll. There’s a bit of an inconsistency in how we present ourselves to the public when we are pouring all of our time, energy and resources into only three months of the year and then trying to make ends meet the other nine months of the year. I’m not convinced that it sends the message we want to be sending.

Hey look, another book with summer in the title

Hey look, another book with summer in the title

And yes, I know not all libraries are the same. Some of them are better staffed, better funded, and are better equipped to do knock your socks programs all year round. Some are staffed in ways that allow vacation during the summer. But the reality is, for a lot of libraries, summer reading programs are where it’s at. But this presents some very real challenges for staff. They’re being asked to maintain a year round participation that is being elevated by an influx of money, resources and marketing for a yearly event. They are being asked to commit themselves emotionally and physically often in unrealistic ways for this three month period of the year. They’re being asked, often demanded, to forego family reunions and family vacations in the only time of the year when families can go on vacation. In many of our library systems, the stakes are too high for our youth services departments during the summer.

I am not here to question the need for or validity of summer reading programs. I understand their value and support all that they offer to children, teens, and local communities. I am, however, asking us to take a step back and evaluate their role in our year-round programming, the amount of staff time and money they take up, and the extra demands they put on our staffs. I’m asking that we evaluate how libraries can work to spread the burden out so that it’s not just the same staff being asked to sacrifice in the same ways year after year. And I’m asking if we are making youth services in some ways an undesirable department to work in and losing some of our potentially best people by the extra demands placed on youth services departments during these three months of the year.

I'm sensing a theme here

I’m sensing a theme here

I’m asking that we step back and find a way to balance the needs of our communities with the needs of our staff to find a way to better meet the needs of both, and year round.

All it takes is a few moments on Twitter or Facebook, or on a youth services discussion forum, to realize how stressed our staff are about summer reading programs. Maybe it’s time we asked ourselves if there was a way to make this better for them while still reaching our goals for our community.

Comments

  1. Such an important post Karen. Thank you!

  2. Christine Sarmel says:

    I wish public library systems (especially boards and managers who evaluate programs and assign budgets) would look at the research on turning kids into readers. Reading experts talk over and over again about NOT using prizes in exchange for reading, but yet the prize pack in exchange for reading hours remains a staple of summer reading programs. Meanwhile research about access and creating multiple access points for families, especially underserved populations, tends to go ignored. We spend money on a backpack full of pizza coupons for Joey Q. Suburbia, but give far fewer dollars to send a librarian to the local low-income housing for weekly story time.

  3. Thank you thank you thank you for saying something that is never acknowledged. I have been gaslit into thinking I’m “complaining” and “too weak” to handle a few months without a break. This year we had a FT juvi librarian retire, 2 FT adult librarians quit and I (FT YA Dept) am the last one standing. Every year since I’ve started this position (3 years so far) I’ve sunk into a deep depression starting in May and been hospitalized by August. Last July I survived a suicide attempt. I love my work but it’s not worth dying for.

  4. I can well understand the points you have raised regarding staffing for summer reading programs. As a teacher for 40+ years, I, too, was expected to put the needs of the students ahead of my own. Asking for time off during the school year for anything other than health issues was unheard of.

    Children absolutely need access to books during the months schools are not in session and libraries have chosen to take responsibility for providing those books and programs to motivate student participation. I believe schools need to share this responsibility perhaps by opening the school libraries to students during summer months or by financially supporting trained staff that could assist the library summer reading program. Perhaps one extra staff member would allow each regular librarian a week off during the summer.

    Until reading this article I had no idea the burdens placed on librarians to administer these programs. I hope you will find a fair solution.

  5. Christie says:

    One of the big things I have tried to do as a branch manager is make sure all of my staff can take summer vacations. I’ve worked for my library since 2006 and didn’t get to take a vacation during the summer until 2015, so I’ve tried to make sure my staff aren’t subjected to the same thing by being willing to fill in wherever I can during the summer (having worked in most departments in my tenure here I’m fairly versatile). The majority of my full-time staff members, including my youth services staff, are taking time off this summer

    For programming for teens, we usually will try new programs out during the school year (when we have less attendees) and then recycle those programs during the summer months. It gives us more bang for our buck.

  6. Another consideration is that public education calendars are not the same as they were in the past, and we have more families who choose a more nontraditional approach to education. Both of these issues should be considered by library leadership because we need to serve the current community… not the one from 1978.

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