For many public libraries in the United States, the cornerstone event of the year is the annual summer reading program. Prizes and special events organized by librarians help prevent the Summer Slide for kids. Summer reading also gives kids and their caregivers a chance for social interaction and a sense of community.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown libraries for a loop this year. Many libraries do not yet have a timeline or a plan for reopening. Assuming physical buildings do open, we don’t know yet if our patrons will come back right away.

So now, many libraries must pivot to an online summer reading program — and fast. That means rethinking every aspect of this annual event without much time for planning… a daunting task. But it can be done! Here are some tips for figuring out how to take summer reading online.

Share information about free internet with your community. The digital divide will have a real impact on the success of your summer reading this year. One way to combat this issue is to publicize the use of your parking lot as a Wi-Fi spot. If that’s not an option, use this updated list of internet availability compiled by digital divide experts. Look for the service providers offering free internet in your state and find ways to share that information with your community through direct mail campaigns, signs at your local grocery store, handouts at the farmer’s market, or through word of mouth. If your library continues to have a call-in question and answer service, librarians can ask callers if they have internet access.   

Make participation super simple. Try a very easy set of requirements… participants read for a certain amount of time or a certain number of pages and get a prize. No complicated levels, no hoops to jump through. The easier it is, the more participation you are likely to get. Pro tip: LibraryAware users can use templates to make reading recommendations for summer. Just type “Summer Reading books” in the LibraryAware homepage search bar.

Drop the library card requirement. It may sound counter-intuitive, but this move makes your program inclusive. It will open participation to more people, particularly in under-served communities, and those who may not be year-round residents in your service area.

Make prizes redeemable in the future. If buildings remain closed or patrons are worried about returning to the building once it’s open, giving them the option to redeem their reading logs later is a great incentive for participation. Or go completely contact-less — ask patrons to email you their reading logs and use online gift cards for prizes. 

Put your reading log online or allow participants to create their own paper reading log. The reading log is an essential part of tracking for participants. So how can you hand them out when your building is closed? Upload the log to your website and post the link to it on your social media accounts. Send the link in an email to your cardholders. Or ask parents and kids to find their own creative ways to keep track of their reading. Pro tip: LibraryAware customers can use one of our reading log templates to make this easy. Just go the LibraryAware homepage and type “summer reading log” into the search bar.

You can also use technology to help you put together a great online summer reading program in a short time frame. A good option is READsquared, which can help you manage your program. Programs customized for every age group are included, and if you have NoveList Select, you can add in our recommendations for a richer experience, allowing patrons to see series information, appeal factors, and reading levels. And if you a LibraryAware user and have a new app, you can introduce it to your community with a LibraryAware template. Type “Summer Reading tracking” in the LibraryAware homepage search bar.

Offer virtual programs. Many libraries have taken storytime online. Now it’s time to expand that to other program offerings. Virtual programs are valuable during social isolation. You can reach people who may have never set foot in one of your buildings. 

Explain a craft, do a STEM activity, or hold a cooking demonstration live on your library’s social media channels. You can do language lessons, book talks, gardening tips, and history lessons by video.

If you do your program live, be sure to post the video to whatever social media platform you are using. You’re likely to get more on-demand views of your program. Watch this recent microtraining to get tips about how to do live programming on social media. 

Offer credit for attending your virtual programs or interacting with your social media posts. If someone posts a video book review or a photo of themselves reading an e-book from your library, give them summer reading credit. If someone watches an online class or finishes a STEM activity taught by your librarians during a live-stream program, give them summer reading credit. You’ll boost attendance at your virtual programs, increase awareness of your library's online offerings, and increase engagement on your social media channels.

Offer personalized reading recommendations. The closing of physical library buildings is a barrier between libraries and readers in every sense. Your book-loving patrons likely feel disconnected from your collection. They can’t browse shelves for their next favorite book. Summer is the perfect is time to launch a form-based reading recommendation for people of all ages. Get ideas and tips from the panelists in this recent Novelist webinar.  

Ask participants for their email address. Email will be a vital part of communication for libraries during the summer (and going forward). Don’t be shy about asking for email from participants and add a “Summer Reading information” subscriber interest group on your newsletter sign-up form and. Pro tip: LibraryAware customers have access to lots of summer reading- themed eblasts. Just type “Summer Reading” in the LibraryAware homepage search bar and then refine formats by “eblast.” 

You can upload the emails of your summer reading participants and send them information to keep them engaged with your library’s summer offerings.  

Angela Hursh is a Senior Engagement Consultant for NoveList. She is currently listening to The Hidden Power of F*cking Up by Keith Habersburger, Zach Cornfeld, Eugene Lee Yang, and Ned Fulmer (better known as “The Try Guys”).