These Alaska libraries are struggling to find students for summer reading programs

Big Lake Public Library has 12 brand-new bicycles to give away as prizes to students in its summer reading program and a problem: not many readers.

Three hundred students usually participate, but only 58 are registered for the new, remote version of the program, head librarian Anya Kean said.

The program is a part of the statewide summer reading challenge, which is aimed at helping students avoid the loss of reading skills during the three-month-long break, also known as the “summer slide,” Kean said. To spur participation, for every three hours a child reads they are entered into a drawing for a new bike and helmet.

“If we can encourage readers to read over the summer time, then their muscles will be built up,” she said. “When they go back to school, they can go right into the next year’s academic activity.”

The Loussac Library in Anchorage, along with the city’s four other libraries, is having a similar problem with participation. The library system’s program moved online and has less than a quarter of its usual participants. Normally it draws between 4,000 and 5,000 readers, but this year there are less than 1,000 registered, according to Youth Services Coordinator Elizabeth Nicolai.

Nicolai said that in addition to the usual concern about the summer slide, there is a new challenge this year, with the COVID-19 pandemic interrupting in-person school for students starting in March.

“People are talking about the summer slide partnered with what they call the COVID slide, and really the worry is that students will lose six months of academic progress,” Nicolai said.

In conjunction with the summer reading program, Big Lake and all of Anchorage’s locations are also offering new art and science activity kits for readers to pick up and do at home every week. These activities would normally be done in-person at the libraries but shifted when programs became remote.

“We want to make sure our readers are safe,” Kean said. “We really emphasize social distancing and at-home activities this year.”

Despite limited in-person interactions and an online program, Nicolai wants readers to know the library is still there to support them.

“We are learning a new way to library,” Nicolai said. “We want our community to remember that we are here for them, and we want to be a part of everyone’s new reality for academic and leisure reading and learning.”

The Big Lake Public Library program ends Aug. 13, and the bike drawing will be held on Facebook Live on Aug. 15. Readers up to age 18, including adults reading to children, can register at the library. The Anchorage Public Library’s program runs until Aug. 20, and readers of all ages, including adults, can register online or go in-person to any of the five library locations.

The summer reading challenge is a statewide program with more than 60 libraries participating. You can see if your local library is participating and join online at Alaska State Library.

Note: This story was updated to include that the Anchorage Public Library’s four other locations participate in the summer reading program and are experiencing similar issues with lower participation.

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