The “Activity Gap”: More thoughts on libraries and after-school programs

Back in October 2014, I wrote about a report entitled: “America After 3 PM.” The Afterschool Alliance was writing about how students spend their time after school. In it, I raised the point of libraries as hubs for after-school activities, a free spot for teens to come if they don’t have the resources or access to other after-school programs. At the end of January, Alia Wong from Atlantic wrote an article called “The Activity Gap,” which discusses the access issues students from various socio-economic classes face with participating in after-school and extracurricular programs.

Wong begins the article by comparing two different students, Ethan and Nicole, whose family backgrounds contribute to two different lifestyles and life paths. While their names have been changed, these two students do exist and were case studies in a study published in Voices of Urban Education. This national study was conducted by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute of School Reform.

Their results are nothing we didn’t already know. The article states the researchers were “alarmed” at the results, but we’ve been seeing and hearing about this growing income achievement gap for a while. I come back to the same question I raised in my October 2014 blog post: how can libraries help?

I can offer an example of a space happening in my community at the Urbana Free Library. Our library is able to offer a Teen Open Lab a couple days a week. The auditorium in the library is opened up and staff and teens set up essentially a mini-Fab Lab/makerspace/hangout area. It’s a spot where teens can come after school, hang out, or create anything from stickers on a Silhouette cutting machine, to using a 3D printer, video and audio production, or simply playing Minecraft or video games. The library has been able to provide another space for teens to go who might not have other after-school options.

Is this a great space? I think so. I visited there a few weeks back (my assistantship has a graduate student helping out at the Teen Open Lab so I went for a visit). The atmosphere was exciting. The teens seemed to be happy. They’ve reached a point in the Teen Open Lab where things are going well and they can keep thinking about where does this space go next. But, we can’t forget the process and time it took to get from point A (the teens had little space) to the idea of the lab, to the creation (and funding), and now the maintaining and sustaining. Perhaps what the Urbana Library Teen Open Lab teaches us is that we need to start having those conversations. If we look out at our community and see that our teens need a free space, we can start having those conversations about what a space for them might look like. I think it’s fine to say, “Look we have this income achievement gap and need to do something about it” but we need to do more than just say it. And maybe libraries aren’t the spot, maybe this conversation is meant for a broader audience, pulling in our education system and college admission process (which places value in extra-curricular activities and involvement outside of the classroom). What I’ve been thinking about in my community engagement class this semester is that libraries are the hub to have those frank conversations. We can open up a space to bring a community together to talk. We’ve been doing it since we first began as public institutions.

The Atlantic article does not offer many solutions and I am not sure I have many to offer either. I still think this is an important conversation to have, but we need to continue to think about the broader context and how we can help or at least provide resources to help. For additional resources on this topic, make sure to check out YALSA’s Professional Tool page on their website. Additionally, you can look at, Cool Teen Programs for Under $100, resources on YALSA’s Wiki page about Maker and DIY Programs, Making in the Library Toolkit, or A Librarian’s Guide to Makerspaces.

Do you have any ideas about how we can bridge this activity gap? I would love to hear your thoughts (or great articles to read and resources to use) in the comments below!

About Hailley Fargo

Hi, I'm a new professional working as the Student Engagement Librarian at Penn State University, University Park campus. As someone who provides reference to undergraduate students and teach information literacy to primarily freshman, I'm curious about the intersections of the work of YALSA and academic libraries (and how we can collaborate and work together to help our teens). In my spare time, I like to bike, read memoirs, watch TV shows, and consider myself an oatmeal connoisseur.
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One Comment

  1. I think Strategic Planning at libraries is a great time to start these conversations. Often during Strategic Planning we’re discussing who our patrons are, what they need, and new things we want to do. We’re also talking about if we’ve been successful in our endeavors in the past. Often there are new surveys done while doing SP. However, not all the librarians or staff who work with teens get to be involved in SP. It’s so important for those people to show their supervisors that they are interesting in the Strategic Planning process, they want to know what’s going on, and their supervisors need to know why they’re interested in it.

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