This January, the’ Center for an Urban Future‘ released Branches of Opportunity, a report about New York City’s Public Libraries. Despite the important role they play in the city’s human capital system, libraries continue to remain undervalued by policymakers.
I spent some time on the phone this month with David Giles, the Center’s Research Director, who wrote the report . He explained his findings related to teens. The answers that follow summarize his words.
While this report was particular to New York public libraries and not exclusive to teen users, there are definitely some takeaways for our own library systems and settings and for the work that we do with young people.
Q: Can you summarize the major areas that the report highlights how young people have increased using the library in the past few years.
A: There are new approaches toward serving teens. For example, at Queens Library, â€œa staff of five youth counselors supervise everything from homework help and college counseling to fashion shows and gaming sessions.â€ (p.22) About 100 teens come through the door on a school day which is reflective of an increase in attendance numbers for programming throughout the city.
These â€˜new approaches’ include specialized rooms and programs directed toward teens. Before this, the report finds that teens weren’t interested in coming or were found to be more disruptive than productive. Now that there are activities and spaces targeted to them, their attendance has increased and they’re more engaged.
Q: What kinds of programs and/or services do you think libraries can have for youth that will help to gain stakeholders attention?
A: One of the most important things libraries can do is offer jobs for teens. Having a job history is incredibly important, especially in poorer neighborhoods where, oftentimes, youth don’t end up going to college. Giving them meaningful work and serving as a reference afterwards can support their first step into the employment world.
The report cites the example of the Summer Youth Employment Program. â€œ. . .the libraries are together the largest employer of teenagers in the city. Every year, all three (Brooklyn, Queens, and New York Public) hire thousands of teenagers to do part-time work at branches throughout the city,either as participants in the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program or independently. Among other things, teens commonly provide bilingual services and tech help to patrons.â€ (p.22)
Monies for these programs come through the state, as part of workforce investment dollars. Cities have an arrangement with the state to use part of that funding to employ youth in libraries.
Q: Can you name one or two successful models of service for teens that you saw that should be more wide spread?
A: In New York City, there are so many incredibly creative nonprofits. So much energy happening. Libraries need to take the lead and approach these organizations. There’s also no reason why libraries shouldn’t pursue for profit organizations such as Google. Many of the technology companies are interested in doing public service projects. Think outside of the box when partnering with others.
So much more could be done with community room spaces in libraries, which community capital projects could help fund. Many of the Carnegie branches have a custodial apartment sitting empty. A work-share arrangement with a tech company could serve as a kind of incubator to train librarians or patrons with different skills.
Note: p.38-46 is the Library of the Future section that speaks more about libraries having to break out of their boxes and form creative partnerships. Again, while this report is largely speaking to the public libraries in New York where the data was gathered, many of these suggestions will be applicable to other libraries as well.
Q: The report noted that specialized spaces and programs for teens have increased. Can you speak at all to the influence of the national organization (ALA and YALSA) on any of these trends?
A: I don’t believe these organizations have broken through into the general public to make the case that all of this (what the report demonstrates) is happening. That libraries are becoming dynamic, important spaces to make themselves more marketable. They have a lot of room to make the case at the national and local levels that these are viable human capital institutions and not just cultural organizations or amenities.
Note: Barbara Stripling, ALA’s president-elect is quoted starting on p.20 of the report about the role of libraries with the Common Core Curriculum.
Q: How can libraries position themselves to community movers and shakers as vital resources for teens and their families?
A: Libraries have to go out and actively serve and develop innovative programs. They really need to strategize around their approach to teens in a way they don’t have to with any other population. The central branch in Brooklyn, for example, has a multimedia center with radio podcasting and editing software for filmmaking. Teens love to use these resources in beneficial and interesting ways.
Q: As the researcher and writer of this report, do you often come in contact with or know if the report has changed policy makers minds?
A: Yes. Center for an Urban Future is a public policy think tank and it’s different in the sense that the reports are in-depth journalism, which is actually a strategy to elevate the issues to greater importance. There is a lot of follow-up work, such as presentations before library trustees, tech companies cited in the report,s and ongoing relationships with workforce development agencies. Staff are not hired by the library or paid with government money, but through an independant organization funded by non-profits.