My Aunt Florence's living room was a showpiece.
Perfection: plastic covers on the sofas, protective runners on the carpeting, heavy drapes closed against UV rays. The room oozed DO NOT ENTER with everything but a velvet rope across the threshold. Standing there, toes not touching the plush pile, I'd take it all in and think, “Someday… I'm going to go in there.”

I hadn't thought about that room in years but recently, I visited a library with a teen room with a similar Do-Not-Enter vibe. Let's call it the Aunt Florence Memorial Library Teen Room: a pristine place possessing truly enviable state-of-the-art technology & equipment and completely devoid of teens. The machines displayed prominent signs - not instructions for use but information about the steps a teen had to take before they even got to the how-do-you-use-this-thing stage. The room was only open during ‘certain' hours and then only to those teens that had attended an orientation.

Sirens rang in my head but I managed to ask a staff member about this.
They hinted (strongly) that the space had seen ‘some trouble' after it initially opened – and ‘steps' had to be taken to ‘protect' the equipment. (Knowing glances were exchanged.) That's when I had the plastic sofa-cover flashback.

In a situation like this, I instantly suspect a couple of possible causes: first- and true in this case - there is not a dedicated teen services staff member present to “activate” the space. (and second, that the space is not truly dedicated to teens - but both older-children [tweens] and teens use the space. Another red-flag topic for another time.)

A dedicated teen space needs dedicated teen service staff. Period.
OK, OK I get it: funding for capital projects (building/renovations) is easier to find than funding for staff. If the library builds a teen space it is (theoretically at least) a one-time cost whereas staffing the space with teen librarians is a recurring cost (annual salary, benefits, etc.). Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for libraries to create a teen space and not have funds to employ dedicated teen services staff. This is where the Aunt Florence dynamic can come in to play - occasions where a well-appointed teen space turns into a wasteland (pristine or otherwise) because there isn't appropriate staff to “activate” it through programming or consistent engagement with teen users.

Without teen services staff to activate the elements and equipment of the space, the fanciness is offered without any service context – without an understanding of ‘the why' beyond trend and desire. This is a dangerous space to occupy – philosophically and literally.

So, just a reminder to the administrators and organizational decision-makers out there…the most important feature of any teen space is not the 3D printer – or the laser cutter or the egg-chairs or the whatever. The most important feature is the dedicated staff members present in the space – the professionals uniquely prepared and passionate about serving teens. Even the most humble teen space can function – if there is teen service staff present to foster teen participation, engagement and create a welcoming atmosphere. Activate the teen space properly – and plastic sofa-covers' won't be needed.

About Jennifer Velasquez

Jennifer Velasquez is a Lecturer at the San Jose State University School of Information (CA) and Teen Services Coordinator at San Antonio Public Library (TX) She’s a Library Journal Mover & Shaker (2011) and recipient of the New York Times Librarian Award (2005).

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