Outcome-Based Summer Reading Programs
Summer-reading programs are staples in libraries across the country, and while the themes change from year-to-year, the approach can often feel routine. Much of what happens in summer reading programs comes down to numbers: how many individuals participated, how many books were read, how were circulation numbers impacted. While numbers feel vital when it comes to measuring success, they can also be misleading or only tell a part of the story. In fact, the lack of a story can be the missing piece.
For example, consider a summer reading program in a small town. Once the summer has elapsed, the reports collected, and numbers tallied, a final count may indicate that a greater volume of books was read by children in grades K-5 than the previous year. On its surface, this appears to indicate success. Yet, what if the majority of those titles were read by a handful of children, those who regularly frequent the library? What if those books were read not because they are favorites, but because they are familiar, easy to get through and the fastest route to the free ice cream rewarded for filling up the “completed books” sheet? Do the numbers give library staff any sense of the experience children had with their summer reading? Do the numbers show that reading over the summer made a difference? What about children who struggle to read and learn best through experiences (ie. programming and activities)? Should their learning and experiences count less because they didn't contribute to the total number of books read?
Outcome-based summer reading programs are not limited to numbers; they are about experiences and impacts. What was meaningful about your reading experience at the library this summer? How did you grow as a reader? What did you learn? What was exciting? What bored you? What was missing? What would you like to see in a reading program next summer?
Measuring Results: Qualitative vs. Quantitative Data
Quantitative data is all about the numbers. Because of the seemingly concrete nature of this type of data, this can feel like the most effective approach to determining the impact of a summer reading program. Measuring inputs such as the number of volumes in the children’s collection, the number of available computer stations, laptops and tablets for loan, or craft kits available for pick-up are all valuable pieces of data for a library to consider. The outputs are numbers that also have weight; you can consider how many of those kits and tablets were taken out, how often the computers are used, what the circulation numbers are like in the children’s department. These quantitative numbers do mean something, but not necessarily what they seem to mean. Are the same three people using the computer stations in the library every night? Are the craft kits being utilized or do they represent a parent’s wishful thinking? Are the books in circulation reaching a vast audience or the same few patrons? Are there people in the community who are not being reached by the library and its resources? What are the reasons?
Qualitative data includes figuring out the stories behind the numbers, how they correlate to what is actually being accomplished (or not) by a reading program and putting information into valuable context. Qualitative assessment does not have to take place at the end of the program; it is best utilized when occurring throughout the project, as this type of feedback can help library programmers make meaningful adjustments to reach a greater number of people and create experiences that have a lasting impact. Outcome-based programs are designed to for a world with qualitative data to get authentic feedback from those who would like to participate in programs as well as those who have. This can help in matching the type of programming to the individuals who it is designed to serve.
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