Lessons from the City of Champions

In 2009, only months after the Pittsburgh Steelers won an NFL record sixth Super Bowl, the Penguins won the NHL Stanley Cup with players who–not too long ago–were teens themselves. The win came alongside news that The Economist ranked Pittsburgh America’s most livable city and that President Barack Obama hand-selected Pittsburgh to host the September G20 summit. Pittsburgh’s also been fortunate enough to be seen as a national example for recovery from media outlets like The New York Times and Newsweek.

Indeed, it’s been a banner year for the Steel City. But what does it mean for your library’s teen services?

Pittsburgh offers a number of potential lessons that you can use when revitalizing your library services to teens. So if you see your teen stats are in recession or you are looking to push yourself over the edge, think about these examples:

  1. Develop a distinct teen services “culture.”

    When people visit Pittsburgh, many of them probably have an idea of what they are visiting–a friendly, yet hard-nosed and resilient city with strong ties to its working class past. When teens stop by your library, do they have an idea of what’s in store for them? Giving teens a “take it or leave it” option when it comes to the tenor of your teen services might end up making your library more attractive. Promote your library as a fun place for dorks (and totally proud of it) or push a more academic, research and homework-fueled image. What’s important is that teens respect and promote that image, even if they don’t relate to it. Pittsburgh effectively transformed itself from the steel city to a leader in medical research and higher education without losing its image, so don’t think that developing a lasting image locks you into a specific set of programming, collections, or services.

  2. Build on teens’ competitive fire.

    While Pittsburgh restructured its depressed economy and dwindling populace, many of the residents invested their hopes in their local sports teams. The Steelers weren’t just carrying the ball, they were carrying the dreams of an entire city. You can also incorporate a “team” identity into your library programming to mobilize teens into investing in your library’s future. Face off against other libraries in online Super Smash Brothers Brawl tournaments or get together with other football cities for an upcoming Madden 10 online franchise. You could also search for comparable library systems for summer reading competitions or even assigning teens to intralibrary teams when they sign up. Posting the results on your website can also be a way to retain former teens as vested advocates as they track how their old team is doing in summer reading or read about their library’s online gaming league.

  3. Don’t be afraid to promote yourself!

    While Pittsburgh residents may have a cynical attitude toward all the attention, it wouldn’t be getting it if there wasn’t a concentrated city effort to promote itself. The city regularly sends out press releases to media, puts itself on billboards across the country, showcases itself in the bizarrely-named but popular Pop City blog, and sends its mayor on the Late Show with David Letterman. You can do the same (though maybe not Letterman)! Don’t feel awkward or intimidated about initiating conversations with teens. Don’t just wait for classrooms or official outreach opportunities. Hang out in general areas where teens congregate, armed with promotional postcards. Don’t just build a Myspace and hope they come, tell teens about it, in person, and ask them to friend you. Of course, you can be active without coming across as desperate. Pittsburgh tempers its self-promotion with a blasé attitude, which you can replicate even as you strive to be ever-present in the minds of teens.

    In spite of all this marketing, one of the best things Pittsburgh has going for it is being a city full of ambassadors. When somebody visits Pittsburgh, they are likely to share enjoyable times with generous people who want nothing more than to provide a fun, hospitable experience for their guests. When you see somebody new at the library, make sure you aren’t ever too busy to say hello, introduce yourself, and offer to introduce them to some of the things the library might have to offer. Or, you can let the teens themselves be an ambassador. Or consider sponsoring a teen “take your friend to the library day,” where teens and their otherwise library-avoidant friend are shown a good time at the library and each have a chance to win raffle prizes.

  4. Lower the barrier for teens to engage the library.

    Pittsburgh’s overall population decline and decades of struggle has allowed its housing costs to remain affordable and steady as other cities struggled to cope with their bursting housing bubbles. This has allowed many young people to stay in the city as homeowners and entrepeneurs, as well as provided lots of performance spaces and galleries for young people to showcase creative endeavors without ceding control of their environment to bureaucratic arts organizations or landlords. Before Pittsburgh knew it, it had a core of active, young creative people filling the city with fun, interesting things to do. You can replicate this success by opening the library for events that teens themselves organize and promote, setting aside gallery space that teens can take turns curating, or offering marker board walls where teens have free reign to express themselves. It’s also important that teens have opportunities to expressly transform their ideas and desires into reality. That means working with administration to build faith and garner pre-approval for how teens creatively make use of their library space.

So if you’re struggling with how to revitalize your teen services, consider these four lessons from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

~Joseph Wilk
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Teen

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Joseph Wilk

I'm a teen library assistant with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Main location. Here, I'm the graphic novel and music librarian in addition to running anime, music, LGBTQ, incarcerated youth, and video programming. I'm happy to serve YALSA as a blogger, member of the Teen Tech Week committee, and as chair of the Music Interest Group. Otherwise, you can find me in da club.

2 thoughts on “Lessons from the City of Champions”

  1. what a cute post!

    i’m not sure i agree with #1 but i see what you’re getting at. i’d rather market the library as a reflection of the communitys recreational and educational desires. whatever the teens want the library to be (what we lend and what programs we put on) that’s what the library should be (in reason, of course). we are an amoeba, in constant adaptaion to the ebb and flow of the town/neighborhood/institution that we serve! flexibility, my friend. not to say that there aren’t some standard, core bulwarks that do not change – promotion of literacy, esl classes, etc

  2. Thanks, Emily! You are correct. Point #1 is definitely a contentious one open to discussion, especially when I believe that some of the key tenets of library services are what you just described: to be reflective, responsive, and inclusive of just about everyone you could conceivably be serving at any point in time. I definitely tried to temper that message with some qualifications and a warning that by no means should building a lasting “culture” (or attitude, core tenet, or however we should interpret that word) make you inflexible in the actual services or infrastructure you provide. Pittsburgh has remained the “Steel City” without having a steel infrastructure for decades. This is similar to how I imagine the Ann Arbor District Library (aadl.org) to be the “Gaming Library” despite it offering far more than that.

    My feeling is that if a library is struggling to appeal to a broad base, it can try remaking its image to a specific message to attract teens who might not feel inspired by an amorphous entity. For example, I am thinking of the NBA. It’s a league with a very distinct, star-driven mentality with a simple message: “Where amazing happens.” That library could mimic that by focusing on its own circulation and library “stars” and the message “Where reading happens.” A lot of teens like to feel “part of something,” whatever that may be, and a clear message and attitude lets them do just that. It’s definitely not for every library, but something to consider if all else fails.

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