Connect, Create, Collaborate: a perspective on the YOUMedia evaluation report, “Teens, Digital Media, and the Chicago Public Library”

At seventy-four pages, it’s taken me a month to find some focused time to read and digest the new three-year evaluation of Chicago Public Library’s YOUMedia space.

YOUMedia has been written about several times on the YALSA blog as well as in other places. If you haven’t experienced it, and you’ll be in Chicago for Annual this weekend, there are tours!

In addition to seeing the space, which is really great, consider reading the evaluation, too. There are so many things to think about with the latest report – I hope you can take the time to read the whole thing and feels very relevant for librarians working with teens in many different capacities – not just in new spaces or those with a connected learning focus.

What struck me most of all were the categories that the authors gave to the types of young folks using the space. On page twenty-six, you’ll find something I’ve never seen done in a public library before – the mapping of the types of teens they saw and how they use the physical space. Having experienced the YOUMedia space myself, it’s quite fascinating and made me want to do something similar with our library spaces.

The groups of youth the study identifies (and names) are:

• Socializers, who are throughout the space, primarily chatting with friends, playing board games or attending open mic events;
• Readers/studiers, who are found browsing books, talking with staff or studying;
• Floaters, who do a lot of different things in one visit, including playing video games, hanging out with friends, checking Facebook, etc;
• Experimenters, who are mostly interested in music and use the computers and keyboards to practice or write music. They rarely interact with staff; and
• Creators, who create music in the studio, work on art and graphic design and create and perform works.

There is something compelling about these categories – as someone that has worked in a number of different public libraries, I can think of individual kids that fit into each these categories. They seem true and relevant to other libraries beyond YOUMedia.

And yet there is also something fairly disturbing about categorizing our young people like this – implying that they don’t move around from Creator to Socializer in a given day or week. Or that the relationships they build in our spaces don’t impact their evolving role and the choices they make – that they are fixed categories with no change possible.

The full report, however, acknowledges the reality of usage and that it is unique for each young person. The evaluation is charged specifically with what YOUMedia was created to do – support digital media creation — and associating patrons with these categories has a purpose in identifying the wide variety of ways youth use YOUMedia.

It’s easy, perhaps, to dismiss these categories because we think very highly of our impact – who of us doesn’t have a story about the young person that used to just watch fight videos on Youtube and then we got him to join a program. But in my experience, that happens rarely – even with the most engaged, brilliant teen services librarian.

The report addresses the “choice factor” as one of the most integral – and challenging– aspects of YOUMedia. This is true of all libraries (a quibble is that the evaluators, all of whom are from the formal education sector, don’t seem to realize that choice is the public library’s main selling point during out-of-school time hours).

Choice is what libraries are about – and so we should look critically at these categories, which are really articulating the choices young people make our space in a different way and with different words. Youth can goof around with their friends in the corner, get a book recommendation from a librarian or work with a mentor on creating and sharing new content online.

One of the questions the evaluation asks, which we will have to continue to wrestle with, is if libraries’ commitment to choice and a drop-in setting can be balanced against significant, measurable outcomes for all young people –beyond the highly motivated youth who we more easily attract to our programs and resources. Do we value these categories of young people differently? Do we provide more or less resources to each type of patron? Should we?

Check out the evaluation for yourself and swing by YOUMedia to get a sense of the space or learn more about their program.

Are these categories of youth relevant in your libraries? What else have you seen in how young folks are using your spaces?

About Maureen Hartman

I am the Division Manager for Strategic Services at the Hennepin County Library in Minnesota and a former Board member for YALSA.

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