A Brief History of Summer Reading Programs

A Brief History of Summer Reading Programs

by Ellie Wilkie

For the Founding Fathers, literacy was democracy’s defense. America’s founders worried that if people couldn’t read, they would be dependent upon others for information, and the new nation would be susceptible to the kind of elite control that had run them out of England. According to James Madison “A diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.” But how to promote this literacy? 

The Library Company of Philadelphia 

Aside from schools, libraries were the key to success. Benjamin Franklin established The Library Company of Philadelphia just for this purpose. It is largely considered America’s first library and in 1731, the members of the company pooled their money and shipped over a set of volumes from England that arguably became America’s first library reading program. It was a sort of “pay-to-play” program that was open to any member of the public that was willing to pay a small subscription fee. Members would then read the prized English volumes. 

The Cleveland Library League 

In 1896 the first recorded summer reading program was developed. Linda Eastman, the head librarian at The Cleveland Library and an advocate of the importance of children’s literature, distributed a list of book recommendations through local schools, encouraging children to get as far down the list as they could during the summer recess. 

Eastman reported more children coming to the library than ever before and convinced the library board to support the creation of the Cleveland Library League. It grew to more than 12,000 members, organized into smaller book clubs. It was here that the idea of a reading log was popularized. Children would make lists of the books they had read and share their recommendations with each other. 

Interactive Reading 

It was librarian Caroline Hewins who identified that children needed to interact with the books they read, not just log their progress. She developed a summer reading program in Hartford, Connecticut that added weekly discussion meetings, prizes for children who reached  benchmarks, and even an oddly popular puzzle club. She pioneered the sort of interactive summer reading programs that are so pervasive today. 

Following the model established by Hewins, interactive reading spread like wildfire through libraries in the early 1900s. The Madison New Jersey Public Library Vacation Reading Club gave out certificates of completion. Georgia’s state library ran a vacation reading club that had children write opinion reports about the books they read. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh held readings at local playgrounds. Summer reading programs with an interactive edge had taken over. Not only did these programs promote literacy, but also the sort of critical thinking that was so integral to safeguarding democracy.  

The Summer Slide 

In the late 90s summer reading programs expanded rapidly. Research on The Summer Slide found that kids who didn’t read over the summer were losing as much as 30% of what they learned during the summer break. The “Summer Slide” also disproportionately affects lower income students, many of whom did not have the same access to books or encouragement that middle income readers did. “The Summer Slide” expands the literacy gap between middle and low income students by as much as 85%. 

Kids who read 4-5 books over the summer, however, retained on average more than two thirds of what they’d learned during the school year and many retained all, and even strengthened, their skills. Summer reading programs started popping up in libraries all across the country and today more than 95% of public libraries in the United States host a summer reading program. These programs encourage reading in an accessible and fun way, aiming to close that literary gap by steering kids into the library and away from The Summer Slide. 

The scope and types of summer reading programs that run in 2021 are vast and varied. The types of incentives and goals for any given local library reflect the community itself. If you were to survey 50 different libraries in 50 randomly selected communities, you would find 50 unique ways that libraries are interacting with their readers and communities.

Just like library leaders of the past, today’s librarians take great care to build programs that incentivize and encourage readers. Summer 2021 is especially vital for the Summer Slide as the 2020-21 school year resulted in lower achievement due to Covid closures and reduced instruction hours.

Public Librarians have the tools and motivation to rise to this challenge and are running better reading programs than ever. The future of our Republic and our children’s future is bright, in no small part because of our rich history of and commitment to literacy for every American. 


“About LCP – The Library Company of Philadelphia.” The Library Company of Philadelphia, 2021, librarycompany.org/about-lcp.

“ALA Annual in the Cloud: 2021 Preview.” Library Journal, www.libraryjournal.com/. 

“A History of Youth Summer Reading Programs in Libraries.” Stephanie Bertin https://ils.unc.edu/MSpapers/2977.pdf

“Before 1876.” About ALA, 2021, www.ala.org/aboutala/before-1876#:%7E:text=The%20first%20public%20library%20in,library%20and%20supported%20by%20members.

“A Brief History of Literacy.” UTA Online, 9 Sept. 2015, academicpartnerships.uta.edu/articles/education/brief-history-of-literacy.aspx.