By Wade Coggeshall
INDIANAPOLIS — When a program’s been running for 94 consecutive years, chances are it’s big.
That’s certainly the case with the Indianapolis Public Library’s annual Summer Reading Program. It’s had more than 50,000 participants for several years now, topping out at 58,000 in 2012.
“It’s kind of amazing when you think about it,” said Jackie Nytes, CEO of the Indianapolis Public Library. “It may not be the longest-running program we’ve had, but it’s absolutely one of them.”
This year’s edition runs June 3 through July 27 at all Marion County libraries, including Beech Grove. The theme is “Read Together Right Now” and includes ’60s pop culture, notably The Beatles. The cover band BritBeat officially kicks off festivities with a free performance 2 p.m. June 1 at the Central Library.
Nytes gave credit to the library’s program development staff for coming up with the nostalgic association.
“They are the ones every year who try to gauge what it is that’s clicking with the kids, and try to connect that with some of the principles or concepts that we’ve been focusing on at the library,” she said.
That includes an international component. Not only can participants earn prizes through the number of reading points they accumulate, but they can redeem them to select and donate books through Christel House International Learning Centers and the Indiana Members Foundation. Both help needy children locally and in India, South Africa, and Mexico.
“We’re trying to raise a little sense of philanthropy with the kids too, and asking them to share,” Nytes said.
The Summer Reading Program is undoubtedly integral to the library’s overall mission. Nytes says it’s more important than ever to promote reading competency.
“Studies have shown there’s slippage over the summer (with reading),” she said. “Because of that we’re very invested in trying to reduce that slippage and try to make sure kids are continuing to practice their reading over the summer. Practice makes perfect, whether it’s sports or piano. The same thing applies to reading.”
One problem the library has continually run into is children who can’t use their cards because of accumulated fines and/or lost materials.
“Maybe because of the economy or parents not as engaged as we’d hope they be, these obstacles to children using their library cards were not getting cleared,” Nytes said. “We knew we had to find some way for these young readers to get back in the game. Otherwise our program doesn’t work.”
Last summer the library instituted the “Earn and Learn” initiative. Officials decided if children or their parents can’t or won’t pay their fines, they can work them off by reading.
“If they’re really willing to read enough books, they can wipe their fines out themselves,” Nytes said. “That’s the deal we’ve cut with them.”
So far results have been promising. Last summer just over a thousand children reduced or eliminated their library debt, resulting in more than $54,000 in fines being waived.
“Not all of those children have remained fine-free,” Nytes said. “Because of that we’ve decided to make a few changes. We need to get them back in the game for good.”
Aside from making Earn and Learn ongoing for the next 18 months, the library’s instituting additional steps meant to change patron behavior. They include limiting the number of items that can be checked out at one time and lowering the fines for children’s materials so they can’t get behind quite so fast. The library’s also increasing communication with children’s families, including providing calendars they can take home and note when materials are due. Nytes says the goal is to get at least 10 percent of young patrons with blocked library cards back in good standing.
“We’re hoping through this constant communication and reinforcement of good behavior, they’ll take responsibility for themselves,” she said, adding completion of the summer reading program wipes out library debt.
The program concludes with Library Night 7 p.m. July 29 at Victory Field with the Indianapolis Indians. Readers can earn buy one, get one free tickets. Registration for summer reading points cards may be done at any Indianapolis Public Library branch, the Central Library, or the Bookmobile.
Call 275-4099 or visit the website indypl.org for more information.