Whose Space Is It?

A few years ago I was early for a workshop I was going to lead at New York Public Library’s Teen Central (when it was at the Donnell Branch). I knew about the Teen Central policy regarding adult use of the space. Adults can look for books and get help from a librarian, but they can’t sit at a table to work, read, etc. Yet, even though I knew about that policy, I also knew that I was friendly with several of the librarians that worked at Teen Central and thought they would waive the rules for me. (Which really wasn’t appropriate at all.)

When I arrived at Teen Central, of course, none of the staff members that I knew were working. I took a chance anyway and sat down at a table, took out my computer, and started to work. The staff person on duty walked over to me pretty quickly and told me that the library’s policy is that adults can’t “hang out” in the teen room. Adults are welcome to browse the collection, get help from librarians, and when their browsing and information gathering is done they need to leave.

The staff member did her job. I told her that I was leading a workshop in about an hour but that I did understand the rule and I was definitely willing to pick up my stuff and leave. She was right, I wasn’t. (By sitting down I really put her in a bad and unfair position.) And, I did leave because I did understand and agreed with the rule.

I’m writing about this because recently there’s been some discussion on Twitter about teen only library policies and whether or not they are fair to the non-teens in the community. Some things perhaps to consider when thinking about these policies as they relate to space:

  • Do teens need a space of their own that they feel comfortable in – space where they can hang out and be themselves without lots of adult eyes perhaps judging them and complaining about the noise levels and what can seem to some adults as inappropriate library behavior.
  • Adults often find that teen spaces in libraries are really comfortable and they tend to take over. Sitting in the chairs, listening to the music, etc. As a result do teens end up having to give up the space since it’s no longer their own?
  • Adults should be able to browse through materials in the teen collection, and get help, but if they sit down and read and do work then there is less space for teens in the library. There is usually a lot of space in libraries in which adults can sit. Not so much space for teens. Once adults get what they need from a teen space, can’t they take their materials and information and go to all of the other spaces available to them?

Once I got to know the teen librarian that spoke to me about my attempt to work in Teen Central, I asked her if it was difficult to come up to me and ask me to re-locate. She said it wasn’t and the reason was that she knew the library administration supported the policy of teen only space in the library. And, she supported the policy as well, knowing that teens deserve and need library space that they can all their own.

So, whose space is teen space? What do readers think?

You can read the blog post that started the Twitter discussion on this topic- Part 1 and Part 2

14 thoughts on “Whose Space Is It?

  1. For programs, limiting to teens? I agree with. If your 20somethings want to go to the YA book discussion, or your tweens want to go to the Duct Tape Craft program, or your seniors want to play board games, plan those programs for those audiences.

    For space? How this is done has to be sensitive to the needs, etc., of the community — the existing library space, footprint, use of the building. I understand why teens should have their own space, & I’ve seen the issues of the tweens hoping to be cool take over (teens don’t go there because it’s now the 11 year old hangout) or if the adults reading papers & using laptops take over (teens don’t go there, & are also now given a dirty look whenever they get “too loud”). Ideally, libraries have enough space and comfortable chairs to make everyone happy. Some libraries will be able to have “teen only 24/7″ spaces, others will have flexibility (that is, if its school hours and no teens use the library during the school day, the area is open to all.) If the only place you have comfortable chairs/music is the teen section, and other users want those two things, start thinking of how you can have comfy chairs in other parts of the building.

    For materials? I cannot agree with a policy that prevents any library user, regardless of age, from accessing that collection, including browsing. In library school, we were told that most in-building users find what they want via browsing, so that ability is critical. I also don’t want to put any user, regardless of age or reason for using the collection, into a position where they must ask a librarian to assist them.

  2. I think it’s up to the library and how they feel they can best serve the needs of the community. If they have a difficult time drawing in and retaining teen clientelle, then this can be one way of improving that.

    Also, it can be just as necessary to keep teens safe from predators as it is to keep younger children safe. I don’t think anyone objects to the ‘child only’ bathroom idea in the kids section, and this type of policy can serve a similar purpose.

  3. Personally, I think a teens’ only space make sense in order serve the needs of the teens. Often teens are not made to feel welcome in other parts of the library — sometimes by library staff. Adults can easily and comfortably go anywhere in the library. So yes, I am okay with teen-only areas as long as adults are able to browse the collection and check out materials from the teen section.

    That said, it’s pretty clear in the ALA Library Bill of Rights that such a distinction is not okay:
    “A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.”
    This provision was put in to make sure teens and children could have access to library resources, but doesn’t it cut both ways?

    It’s a very complicated issue, and I’m glad we’re talking about it.

  4. I’m the person who originally wrote the posts you reference. As I have stated many times, I do NOT have a problem with a teen only space in any way, shape, or form. Having teen-only furniture and computers in the library makes complete sense to me. This really isn’t what the conversation is about because I don’t think ANYBODY objects to those policies.

    However, what I had the issue with was not being allowed to browse the books themselves. I’ve heard that many libraries have a teen-only section, but allow adults to browse the books. Some of them locate the books outside of the teen-only area. These solutions seem much more reasonable to me than requiring adults to have a babysitter to look at books in a library.

  5. What is disturbing me about this conversation, particularly in the comments on the original blog posts, is the overwhelming sense of entitlement I’m hearing from adults, and the complete lack of attention to teens’ needs.

    The point of having teen-only areas in libraries is to create and maintain a space where teens, their interests, their needs, and their modes of interaction are valued and foregrounded. Almost never in this conversation about teen spaces is this referenced. What I see instead are adult commenters threatening to protest the rules by defiantly sitting in the teen area (nowhere does anyone address how this might affect the teens themselves), and adult commenters expressing outrage that their own access to young adult books might be impeded.

    Yes, I believe that adults and children should be able to browse books in the young adult area. But we adults need to remember that when we go into young adult areas, we are guests in teens’ space. That means respecting why the space exists, entering humbly, and expecting that we might feel uncomfortable when we get there—it’s not designed for us, after all.

  6. I don’t get it. Adults don’t want teens in their section of the library, but they want to spend time in the teen section of the library? It sounds to me like the teen section has been modernized and the adult section has not. Perhaps I should ask Linda – Why did you not want to sit in the adult section?

  7. Good question Nancy and I’ve been thinking about it for a little while before responding. I realize it’s slightly complicated. For me, I wanted to be in a place where I felt comfortable and for me at that moment a couple of years ago it was in Teen Central where I knew people and felt comfortable. I guess I also felt a sense of community. Hanging out/working in the adult spaces at the library didn’t provide me with that same sense of comfort/community.

    This has really got me thinking Nancy about how this does fit into the entire framework of library services. We are talking teens here but I think it does have some interesting implications for whole library services. Would be interested to hear what you, Nancy, and others think about this comfort/community aspect that I’m talking about.

  8. The questions Nancy raise are really interesting. We set up big comfy chairs and then decorate the with colors that stand out but still keep it from looking like a little kid’s section. When most of the rest of the average public library looks so formal with their big tables and tiny study cubicles, of course some adults would want to sit there.

    Many academic libraries are moving towards the concept of a “library commons”. While I don’t really like the term I think the concept is strong: create a welcoming, more casual area to entice people to just stay and read. People who stay and read will become more aware of all the things the library offers and will (hopefully) make use of some of it. The question for me becomes how casual can libraries become without negatively impacting those patrons who do prefer the more formal aspects (quiet study room, big reference desk, etc).

  9. I can understand why we would rather adults not hang out in the teen area. Unfortunately, the teen area is often the most inviting area in a library. However, I would never put a rule in place barring adults. If I had such a rule then I couldn’t really argue against a rule that barred teens from the adult area of the library. I don’t want that by any means. I want my teens to have their space but also to feel welcome throughout the library.

  10. In the two years that I’ve been head of the Teen Services Department in a large, active suburban library, we have actually relaxed the “no adults” rule that governed the teen area. Our reasons include:

    -Our Teen Area is fully staffed during all of our open hours. We are there to assist patrons, reach out to teens and other customers, and monitor behavior. It’s hard to say that it’s a teens-only space when it’s monitored and governed by adults.

    -We encourage positive adult/teen interactions, inviting in social workers to run programs in the area (crafts, games, etc), welcoming in tutors with their students, and allowing adults in to browse, watch tv (we had a big crowd in for some of the Olympics), etc.

    -Like Gail above, we want and need our teens to be welcome in the adult area of the library. Sometimes our area is too loud for the teens who need to work quietly or in small groups, so we count on the adult area to accommodate them.

    -I truly believe that one of the best ways to encourage reading is for adults to model it to teens – why would I discourage interested, enthusiastic browsers?

    -Our community is, on the whole, economically disadvantaged, which leads to specific issues such as a high drop-out rate, high school students up to age 20, low college admission/employment post-HS, latchkey kids who don’t have pickups until 8 or 9 at night, gangs, etc. So we have two challenges: serving young adults who are not ready or able to transition to adult services and providing positive adult interaction to offset the temptations outside our walls. These challenges mean that having a hard line about who can be in the teen area just doesn’t work for us – we need to be able to welcome in the 22 year old sister of the learning-disabled teen, the 17-yr-old’s 20-yr-old boyfriend who still games with the HS seniors, and the 35-year-old who still needs graphic novels.

    All of this means that we focus more on behavior than age, per se. Our staff are hawks about bullying, sexual predation and exclusion – we work all the time to make sure that our area is a safe space for teens. We have a large and vibrant (and LOUD) teen population who help us keep it that way. We also have security guards who come in to play checkers with the teens during their break, parents who establish good relationships with our staff because they’re not hounded out, and teachers and tutors who know they can count on us to help out.

    When I see a glassed in teen-area where “only teens” are allowed, I see a space that is denying some of the developmental needs of teens – to be part of a community, to learn to share and work with others. And I worry that the library who walls off teen services thinks that they’ve “solved the problem” of teens – hey, put ‘em all in that room and close the door.

    Our teen space is very, very teen-focused, but it’s not teens-only, just teen-centric.

  11. Sorry to make a long post even longer, but I just wanted to say:

    I know that there are many “glassed in” teen areas where the library has built a full complement of teen services and continues to work hard to serve teens and others throughout the library, so I didn’t mean to tar everyone with the same brush. I just wanted to point out what I see when the “teens only” area is the beginning and end of the “teen problem”

  12. Hi all, I very much like what Lorraine had to say about the teen area being teen-centric, not teens only. I do not really agree with segregation in any form. I think we all need to get along together and if we segregate, then we are supporting a focus on difference as opposed to similarities. Perhaps, as you noted with regard to your own preferences Linda, some adults are just more comfortable in the area identified as the teen space. I suppose, if you really wanted to keep the area separate and you had a lot of adults using what you’ve identified as the teen area, then you would want to survey those adults to find out why they didn’t use the other area. On the other hand, if you have a lot of teens using the other area for quiet study (as Lorraine does), then it is clear that both areas meet a certain need. Public libraries are, as you noted Linda, community spaces. And there is something about everyone in them, regardless of age, that brings them together as one community. So I think some overlap between services and spaces is not only appropriate but necessary. Think about seniors residences, for example, that have daycares attached to them. Yes, there are problems – children spread colds quickly and seniors are more susceptible than most adults – but both the seniors and the children benefit from coming together and sharing the space through story, song, crafts, or just by being there. They both have their own spaces, but there are times when they share their spaces.
    I hope my earlier comment didn’t come across as confrontational Linda. The possibilities of tone hit me when I re-visited the blog to see what new comments had been posted. Please accept my apology if it did.

  13. I’ve been thinking about this blog post for a while; I work in a library space that is designed to be a teen-only hang out space. Adults/kids can come in and get books, etc, but the computers and seating are only for teens (unless the adult/child is accompanied by a teen). The area as a whole is supervised by a Teen Specialist at all times.

    What most YALSA blogs posts come down to for me is, what is the library lesson here. And, IMO, the good and valuable library lesson from this is that we have to remember that we’re ambassadors to everyone we speak to when we’re serving the public.

    Knowing of course that I only have one side of the story, I have to think that if the library employee had explained the policy a little better, it might have turned out more positively. Instead of the author feeling ‘babysat,’ she might have felt like she had the opportunity to gush about YA fiction with a fellow bibliophile for a few minutes while she looked for interesting reading. In fact, this strikes me as THE perfect opportunity to make a few really cool recommendations to a real supporter of YA literature. Successful public service — as we all know — centers on a positive attitude.

    I don’t meant to hate on the library staff at all; like I said, we do only have one side of the story here. However, I feel confident that if the library employee had explained the policy in terms of supporting the 40 Developmental Assets, and in terms of best providing excellent service to teens, this author who is writing for teens might have transformed herself into an ally for teens and teen services instead of feeling ‘supervised’ and resentful. The letter from the library makes it clear that they DO allow extended browsing for adults, so I don’t think that they are unreasonable, or enforcing an unreasonable policy. But these kinds of things so often boil down to how you ask, how you present it — how you go about enforcing it.

    Without having been there, and really knowing any of the particulars, that’s the library lesson I’m taking away.

  14. I think everyone should feel welcome in all parts of the library but still have their own spaces. I actually think we should have more “teen space-ish” places for the adults and children who come to browse. Everyone needs a place to relax no matter what age. If there were quiet study places and more casual spaces for all ages I highly doubt we’d have these arguements anymore.

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