The first item in YALSA’s Teen Programming Guidelines states, “Create programming that reflects the needs and identities of all teens in the community.” And the overview of this guideline goes on to say:
In order to ensure that library programming meets the needs of all members of the community and does not duplicate services provided elsewhere, library staff should have a thorough understanding of the communities they serve. Library staff must continually analyze their communities so that they have current knowledge about who the teens in their community are. They must also develop relationships with community organizations already working with youth. Library staff play a crucial role in connecting teens to the community agencies and individuals that can best meet their needs.
The part of the overview that I think sometimes is difficult for library staff working with teens is the “continually analyze their communities so that they have current knowledge….” It’s easy to get in a rut and not really notice how a community is changing and/or how needs and interests of teens change. For example, I live in a city that is going through a housing (and business) boom. Neighborhoods are changing in large and small ways. In some areas of the city where families never lived before families are moving in. In other areas of the city where teens were not a large population the age group in the area is growing, and in other areas it’s declining. As the ways neighborhoods are changing is fluid, census data can’t really help with continuous assessment as the data is older than you need it to be.
That means that the only way to continually check-on on teen populations and needs and interests is to connect deeply and continuously with the community. For example, At least three or four times a year (put it on your calendar) go out into the community and ask other agencies what they are seeing in terms of teen demographics and needs. Focus not just on schools, which is sometimes the easiest community partner to work with, but check-out Boys and Girls Clubs, youth employment programs, YMCA/YWCA’s, parks and recreation departments, out-of-school time providers, and so on. In your community try talking to at least two new agencies that work with teens at least every quarter.
Make sure that you don’t go in and say, “Here’s what the library has and does for teens.” Instead go in and ask questions about what the agency staff notice that teens need and what’s missing in what teens have access to. Make sure to ask what the demographics are of the teen population that the agency works with. Don’t assume that the demographic you see the most is what the rest of the community is seeing and working with. If you notice that there’s a difference that’s something for you to pay attention to and consider in terms of the best way to serve different teen populations.
I know that time can be an issue when working on a plan like this. It takes time to schedule a visit, prepare for the visit, have the visit, analyze the results of the visit, and then keep in touch with the community agencies that you talk with. However, if you do take the time to go out and hear what others have to say about teens in the community, you’ll be able to develop programs that meet the needs of actual teens in your area. As a colleague of mine says, “I learned not to program from the gut.” If you work with the community to continuously analyze your teen population you won’t program from the gut you’ll program for an actual need.