Dollars and Sense #13: When Not to Skimp

I’m thinking about this topic from the perspective of someone who is building a new teen program…although, with the one-year anniversary of the inauguration of said program fast approaching, I’m not sure how much longer I can call it “new.” I do think, though, that my advice applies to librarians managing any kind of teen program, new or established. In my experience, here’s where you shouldn’t skimp:

  • Prizes. These come in many forms — cold hard cash (i.e. American Express gift cards), New Moon merchandise, or even, as we did for our Summer Reading finale party last year, an XBox 360. Why spend the money? Because prizes attract teens and give our program credibility–prizes make us run with the big dogs. We put the XBox raffle on the party invitations and got 60 kids to show up, a record for us at the time. We gave away $350 for first place in our talent competition and thirteen acts performed. And we’re giving away AmEx gift cards once more when we run our very first town-wide writing competition this spring. Yes, there are ways to attract teens without prizes, and yes, there are prizes out there that are free or cheap. We often give away signed galleys from BEA (which, oops, costs money to go to) and you can always give away privileges as prizes, or smaller gifts like iTunes gift cards or new books. But for me, spending on prizes is totally worth it because it makes teens sit up and pay attention. And even when programs start attracting teens just because we’ve got a huge following, I don’t know that I’ll stop giving away nice stuff, because it’ll still attract teens who haven’t been in the library yet.
  • Technology. If you can afford it, sweet tech makes a difference. And I say this in a town in which I thought every kid had their own MacBook Pro at home. Well–they don’t. The iMacs in our teen lounge are maybe our number two draw, behind the gaming consoles (which I’ll get to in a second). It helps that iMacs are just naturally really flashy, with their big, sleek screens. Teens use them for four things: using Photo Booth to take pictures of themselves and their friends, playing music, video chatting (sometimes with their friend across the table), and playing Plants vs. Zombies or similar. No flash in the pan, the after school crowd makes a bee-line for them every day and they’re full from 2:30 PM til we close. Even splurging on one for your teen area would be awesome. They’re great for structured programs, too — we edit podcasts, make animoto videos, and run writing workshops on them.
  • Gaming. If you decide to have games in your library, you decide not to skimp. There is no such thing as a cheap alternative, and video games can be $60 a pop. While many libraries opt for Wiis, I think the 360 is your best bet. It holds larger appeal for older teens and has lots of multiplayer games. And if your library will allow Halo…ta-da! Instant crowd. We’ve got a Wii as well, and it definitely gets use, but it’s often coveted by younger children. We just started circulating video games and they’ve taken off like crazy–and there, it’s the Wii games that go. I think more people have Wiis at home than XBoxes, which is another vote in favor of choosing the XBox for your library. And if you’re really going to splurge on one game, I’d say get Rock Band. It’s not new, but it’s always popular and is great for programs.
  • Free programs. I don’t think we should ever make kids have to pay for programs, or even give us a program “deposit.” Yes, buying a lot of Hanes undershirts for a craft program costs money, but do you really want to turn away even one teen because you’re charging $5 to tie-dye them? In my opinion: no. I know it’s frustrating to buy lots of supplies for a program and then only three of the 12 kids who signed up really show. But hey, those supplies aren’t disappearing; you can use them again. Instituting a fee or a deposit feels more like a punishment than an incentive. Learn from the low turnout and try something different, or be psyched that three kids are there and do the program again next week. If you can’t do any of the other things I suggest, please do this one.

We all have to skimp–even librarians in the most privileged communities. We can never do everything we want to do. But if the goal is to reach as many teens as possible and to give them a safe, comfortable place to be, then think about what the teens want. Ask them. And then try to give it to them. The library shouldn’t be a fallback destination. Teens should look at the library as the best option available. Sometimes, spending a little money helps you get there.

About Sarah Ludwig

I am the Academic Technology Coordinator at Hamden Hall Country Day School in Hamden, CT. Prior to that, I was the head of teen, technology, and reference services at the Darien Library in Darien, CT. I started my library career as a school librarian at a small boarding school in Western Massachusetts.

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