Are you struggling trying to find ways to engage teens at your library? Look no further! As part of our ongoing research relating to teen library services, we talked with teens across the country and have answers for you in “10 Questions to Ask about Your Teen Services.” (For details about the research, see our recent YALS article: Denise Agosto, Rachel Magee, Andrea Forte, and Michael Dickard, 2015, “The Teens Speak Out: What Teens in a Tech High School Really Think about Libraries…and What You can do to Improve their Perceptions.” Young Adult Library Services 13 (3): 7-12.)
10 Questions to Ask about Your Teen Services
- Can teens find quiet spaces for reading and studying in your library and vibrant spaces for hanging out, socializing, and creative activities?
It’s important to remember that teens use libraries for all sorts of activities – social interaction, quiet reading, collaborative school work, and hanging out with friends. Your library space needs to support all of these diverse activities. When asked why they use libraries, some of the teens we’ve worked with talked about schoolwork. For example, Kacie* (age 18), told us that she hadn’t visited her public library in years. Then she stopped in one day and realized that it was a great place to do her homework. She realized that: “‘Hey! The library is quiet. There’s everything I need [for studying].’… It was like: ‘Hey! The library’s kind of awesome!'” On the other hand, other teens told us about using libraries as spaces to connect with their friends or to engage in creative pursuits. As Jamie (age 18) explained: “People usually just go to the library to play music or just chill out, eat lunch, or read a game magazine. I have used it for that. They have cool magazines there.” Your library should provide clearly marked spaces to support each of these different activities.
- Do you avoid charging fines and other penalties that can keep teens away from the library?
Our work with teens has taught us that worries about possible fines and fees even as small as thirty cents can keep teens from using their public and school libraries. As Jenny (age 16) told us: “I used to [use the public library]. What ended up happening was a thirty dollar fine for a video that I didn’t even check out, so I never ended up going back and finding out how to solve the problem.” Patrick (age 18) explained that: “Personally, I know that I’m really bad at remembering due dates, or I’ll just be really lazy one day and be like, ‘I don’t want to return this book right now.’ So to save myself money and know I don’t have to worry about that, I don’t bother using real libraries.”
What’s more important: attracting teens to libraries, or collecting fines? We think you’ll agree that encouraging teens to use libraries is far more important. It’s time we work toward finding creative non-monetary alternatives to fines and fees. Possible solutions include providing volunteering options for working off fines and scheduling periodic amnesty days instead of insisting that teens pay up.
- Do teens help you decide what you stock in the library?
Some teens told us that the materials their libraries stock are irrelevant or uninteresting to them. For instance, Amani (age 16) said that libraries “don’t necessarily have the books you might be looking for,” so she prefers going to bookstores or looking for reading materials online. Public and school libraries should set up a communication channels to encourage teens to ask for the materials they would most like to use—not just books, but magazines, music, gaming equipment, and any other types of materials you consider purchasing.
- Are you fighting against the stereotype of libraries as just book providers?
Many teens we talked to expressed the idea that “library” equals “books”—and nothing else. This limited perception meant they would mainly think to use a library when looking for a paper book, not for socializing, for entertainment opportunities, for homework help, or to take advantage of the many other services that libraries offer. As Hannah (age 15) stated, she goes “to a school that doesn’t use books as much [for class assignments], so that’s another reason why I’ve never used [the library].” As librarians and other library staff know, libraries offer much, much more than just books, but this message doesn’t seem to be getting through to teens. As a field we must work to fight against the outdated image of libraries just as book providers and help teens learn the full range of services that today’s libraries offer.
- Are you going to where the teens are (outside of the library) to market your services?
Most library research takes place in libraries and uses library users as study participants. Our research took place in high schools with random groups of students who did not self-identify as library users. Sadly, the teens in our studies were largely unfamiliar with their libraries and were mostly infrequent public and school library users. Jamie (age 18) even suggested that “today’s youth have quit libraries,” in part because “usually everything is done online.” This finding highlights the importance of moving library marketing outside the physical library boundaries. After all, why focus your marketing efforts on teens who are already using libraries? Moving outside the library to other places where teens go, such as shopping malls, churches, community centers, sports fields, and online to social media and any other popular online teen hangouts makes for much more effective marketing by spreading the message of how great your library is to teens who don’t already know it.
- Are you working to ensure that all library staff exhibit positive, welcoming attitudes toward teens?
We learned that some teens perceive libraries as having unpleasant, unwelcoming staff members—people who don’t seem to like teens all that much. For example, Meghan (age 17) noted that the previously pleasant atmosphere of her school library was ruined by a new “librarian that was like, ‘No food! No drinks! No talking!’ [After she was hired] people were no longer interested in going there.” Once the library gets the reputation of being unwelcoming to teens, it can spread quickly throughout the teen community and keep teens away.
- Are your policies framed in positive language?
We also learned that negative language in library policies can send the message that the library views teens as potential troublemakers. A sign that says, “No cell phone use in the library!” sends an angry, distrustful message. A sign that says, “Please take all phone calls to the lobby to avoid disrupting others who are working” means the same thing but sends a message of trust and mutual respect. Library staff members’ actions when enforcing policies can also have a major effect on teens’ perceptions of the library. Kacie (age 18) described returning to the library after having a positive experience with library staff waiving a fine: “Yeah, the one time I had sixty cents [in fines]. One book was late, but they forgave that. That was very nice. That’s why I keep going. I’ve been at least five times in the last two months.” Framing library policies in positive language can go a long way toward promoting the image of the library as welcoming to teens.
- Are you matching your services to your teen community’s unique needs?
We all know that community needs and interests should drive collection development and programming, but it’s a rule that bears repeating. For example, there has been strong push in the library literature to think of public and school libraries as technology providers, but in economically-advantaged or technology-saturated communities, teens are likely to have reduced needs for technology access. As Maisha (age 15), a student in a technology magnet school, told us: “I really don’t need to go to the library because I have everything at home,” including several digital devices and full access to a range of online tools and resources at home and at school. In these types of communities, the more effective approach to teen library services might be to focus on providing community engagement opportunities, civic participation outlets, social activities, recreation, information literacy education, etc., instead of focusing on information resource provision and on technology access. For more disadvantaged communities, however, public and school libraries might better serve teens by focusing resources and energy on providing technology access, infrastructure, and education, and by providing information resources teens can’t get elsewhere.
- Do you provide opportunities for teens to demonstrate their knowledge and accomplishments, such as avenues for displaying teen fiction, teen photography, teen computer game designs, teen music compositions and performances, etc.?
Libraries are perfect places for celebrating and encouraging teens’ creativity and their creations. Teens in our studies described deep levels of engagement with creative endeavors like writing, photography, and music. Taahira (age 14) explained that, “I just take pictures, because I want to be a photographer when I grow up.” She went on to detail her photography and to describe her efforts to find good outlets for sharing her work others. Isaac (age 16) explained that he plays “drums, guitar, and bass…. We started a [music] club, too.” Libraries have the opportunity to provide community spaces where teens can share their creativity and knowledge with other teens and with their community at large, both in the physical library and online via the library’s website or social media accounts.
- Do you work hard to bring the teens in your community together at your library, either face-to-face or online?
The teens in our studies told us that the social support aspects of libraries are key to engaging their interest, especially for those with limited transportation options or limited access to places where they can safely or easily hang out and socialize. Public and school libraries interested in increasing teen participation should look toward providing services that facilitate social interaction and focus on promoting libraries as social organizations. Victoria (age 16) described a successful program at her local public library: “They have these things every Tuesday, these teen programs that they have. And all these teens from different places come and meet, and they play all these games, and eat, and just hang out. We actually started going on Tuesdays, because it was really fun.” That’s what teen librarianship should be about at its core: bringing teens together and providing them with a wide variety of opportunities for positive social, intellectual, and personal development.
Were you able to answer yes to all 10 questions? We hope so!
Please tell us if you found this information useful by completing a short, three-question survey at: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/GRN5PMQ. For more information about our research with teens, visit our homepage: Drexel University’s Youth Online Research Group.
By Michelle Purcell, Rachel Magee, Denise Agosto, and Andrea Forte
*Note: All teens’ names are pseudonyms. Quotes come from our interviews and focus groups with high school students, conducted between 2013 and 2015 in U.S. public high schools.
“10 Questions to Ask about Your Teen Services” is based on research conducted by Drexel University’s Youth Online Research Group, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services [IMLS], Award #LG-06-11-0261-11, and the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship under Grant No. 2011121873.