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Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Ann Arbor District Library serves over 160,000 residents from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. In addition to offering access to borrowing books, DVDs, and educational materials, the library hosts hundreds of events per year and a summer reading program for kids.
The summer reading program has long been a staple summer activity for children, but a few years ago, library staff found that the program wasn’t keeping kids engaged throughout the summer. Eli Neiburger, Deputy Director at the District Library explains, “Kids only had to read 10 books and then they were done reading for the summer. Some kids were completing the program in just a few days. The program was having the opposite of its intended effect - it was encouraging less reading and engagement.”
Reimagining the Summer Reading Program
Neiburger and the team at the library decided to reengineer the summer reading program and expand the program in an effort to engage the entire community, including children, teens, and adults. “Everyone in the community pays for the library,” says Neiburger. “Our mission is to reach as many people as possible to increase engagement, increase library services and get more people emotionally invested.”
The District Library turned the reading program into an interactive scavenger hunt using Twilio Programmable SMS. Now called the Summer Game, participants explore areas of the city, including parks, local businesses, and the District Library itself in search of clues to solve riddles.
Game play takes place over text message, with each riddle and the associated point values tagged in the Library’s database. Points are awarded when users text specific keywords into the library’s Twilio phone numbers. After completing challenges, participants earn badges, points, and prizes. Children, teens and adults all participate in the Summer Game and it’s quickly become one of the most popular summer events in Ann Arbor, with over 16,000 city residents participating annually both online and offline.
Building the Right Communications
According to Neiburger, the District Library choose Twilio to power text messages for the Summer Game because they needed a text messaging solution that could integrate into their existing IT infrastructure, was straightforward to build, and cost efficient. “Many libraries pay for complicated, expensive, turnkey SMS systems that can cost upwards of $25,000,” says Neiburger. “These legacy systems aren’t easily integrated into library infrastructure. Whereas, Twilio was an affordable, easy way to integrate and achieve the same results - only quicker.”
Given the high engagement with Summer Game, the library also needed a communication system that could reliably handle text interactions during peak summer days when they received thousands of text messages. Eli estimates that on busy summer days, the AADL Summer Game text line is the most used number in the entire Ann Arbor area. “Participation has experienced over 10% growth each year,” says Neiburger.
Engaging a Diverse Community
Using text messages also makes the game inclusive in a diverse community. Since every mobile phone has an SMS app built in, community members can play regardless of whether they have a smartphone or wifi access. Text messaging also opens up the game to people with different abilities. One young member of the community, who has limited verbal ability, can text in from his wheelchair. Interacting via text allows him to have a relationship with his local library and connect with the community through the Summer Game.
The library’s inclusive community approach is paying off. In a recent public opinion poll, the library received a 89% approval rating, and 83% of households reported having a library user. “We’ve been able to build so much good will, says Neiburger. “The game is driving people to explore new places and discover their community.”
At the end of the day, community engagement is the heart of the Summer Game. Neiburger attributes mobile communications as a key path to enabling this community development, and has a recommendation for other organizations seeking to increase engagement: “Embrace the closeness with your community that text messaging can bring.”