Ode on the Bala Cynwyd Library’s Summer Reading Club

Reading for prizes

It’s July, which, if you work in a public library, means that the Summer Reading Club is in full swing. The SRC used to be just for kids, to motivate them to read when school wasn’t in session. But in recent years many libraries, mine included, have expanded the program to include grown-ups. 

"Step into my parlor," said Roz Warren to the library patron. (Photo by Pierre Vignau via Creative Commons/Flickr)

Booking 'em

I’ve never been crazy about the Summer Reading Club. I believe people ought to read for the sheer pleasure of it, not for prizes.   

Nevertheless, as a circulation assistant, my job currently includes trying to enroll as many of our patrons as possible.   

“Once you join,” I explain dozens of times a day, “you submit a review of each book you read on a card. Every week we have a drawing, and if your card is chosen, you win a prize!” 

“What kind of prize?” they ask. 

“It could be a Ferrari!” I joke. “Or a yacht! Or even a trip to Paris! But… Seriously? It‘s a gift basket filled with treats, like teas, and jams, and chocolate, and hardcover books.”  

Our library used to be pretty laid back about Summer Reading. We’d post a few signs about the club and if a patron asked to join, we’d sign them up.  Enrollment was minimal, and that was fine with us. 

Reading between the lines

But this year we have a new boss, and it matters to Carolyn that we sign up lots of people. (Why? Competition with other libraries? Patron involvement? The fact that she’s freshly graduated from library school and thus beautifully unjaded and uncynical about everything library related, including Summer Reading?)

Carolyn is a peach, so unlike prior years, when I could safely ignore the whole thing, I now have to take the SRC seriously. This means keeping my true feelings to myself and knocking myself out to get you to join.     

In the old days, I only bothered to ask folks I knew would say yes. If a woman in her sixties brought a stack of mysteries to the circulation desk for checkout, I‘d give her the pitch. But a dude in this 20s who only checks out DVDs? Why bother?     

Now, although I still didn’t want to ask any of them, I challenged myself to ask all of them. Cheerfully! Optimistically! No exceptions. No more patron profiling. For the greater good of the Bala Cynwyd Library, I would ask each and every person to join, even when I knew there wasn’t a chance in hell that they’d say yes.    

And guess what? Our patrons surprised me. 

A man checks out a stack of CDs, but not a single book. Clearly, he’s not a reader. And yet, when I ask, “Would you like to join our summer reading club?” his eyes light up. I get an enthusiastic, “Yes!’

But when I try to recruit a woman who has just placed a slew of bestsellers on hold, certain that she’ll agree, I get a firm “No, thanks!”

Clearly, I don’t know our patrons as well as I thought I did.     

Of course, some of my assumptions do hold true. Women are more likely to join than men, and seniors more likely than millennials. Still, far more millennials and men say yes than I would have expected. 

It almost makes me regret ignoring them in the past. 

Almost. Because still, at heart, I have little love for the SRC. If nobody joined, that would suit me just fine. And yet, I find myself not only selling the hell out of the thing, but taking pride in how many people I‘m able to sign up. Selling the SRC turns out to be something I’m very good at. In fact, I’m better at selling the SRC than anyone else in the library. 

Who knew?  

I’ve signed up dozens. By summer’s end, I plan to sign up hundreds! Why? Because it matters to my boss and I’m a team player. Our patrons enjoy participating. They like sharing their opinions about the books they’ve read, and they like the possibility of winning a prize. 

When the winner of the first drawing came in to claim her gift basket, she was so delighted that we could have been handing her the keys to a new Ferrari.  

Does this mean I’ve been wrong about the SRC all along? Call me a book snob, but I still believe that reading should be its own reward. Which doesn’t mean that when you come to my library I’m not going to do whatever it takes to get you to join.     

My pal, life coach Melissa Schnapp, is always encouraging me to “practice gratitude.”

“Don’t focus on how much you dislike the idea of reading for prizes,” she says. “Focus on what you’re grateful for.” 

I’m grateful for this job, which I love. I’m grateful for our fabulous patrons and my terrific new boss. I’m grateful that I’m smart enough to figure out how to con, manipulate, persuade, cajole, and/or entice people into doing what I want them to do.

And I’m very grateful that summer is half over.

Our readers respond

Anne Louise Bannon

of Altadena, CA on July 30, 2016

This reminds me a lot of the "Summer Reading" lists I was forced to endure, both as a child, then later with my own child. I did find a couple of faves, but largely Summer Reading lists were filled with books that did not interest me or my daughter— who by the way, read constantly, as did I. The same with the Summer Reading Club thing.

I totally have an unfair advantage in that I read a lot, so I always have the best chance at a prize. Plus, I really don't care about writing even short reviews. I do enough writing for free, dammit.

Kate Stone

of Wellesley, MA on August 03, 2016

Great piece! Summer Reading Club sounds really fun, but I have to agree with Roz. Reading is its own reward! SRC is an upbeat approach but also reminds me of those dire summer reading lists and, worse, the elementary school reading logs — the perfect way to turn independent reading into a homework chore for young kids, and completely ruin reading for pleasure! Every day, list your book title, the author, the number of pages you read and (for some teachers) have a parent sign the log. Why not ask for the publisher, copyright date and ISBN while you're at it? 

saw my kids' interest in reading drop to zero every school year when they hit the log (except for that fantastic, 26-year-veteran fourth grade teacher who threw out the log and gave them back a blissful year of books).

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