As democratic strongholds, libraries are open to all, serving as a space for community engagement, open discussion, and intellectual development. Not only does the library space serve as a civic forum and information hub, libraries are community conversation initiators and civic guides (Gutsche, 2012; Kranich, 2012). Often when discussing civic engagement, the focus is on adult participation. However, teens should be brought into the discussion as young citizens with powerful voices that can effect change on local, state, and national levels. Libraries provide teens with “genuine and meaningful opportunities to work with each other and with policymakers to impact issues of importance” (Center for the Study of Social Policy, 2011, pg. 2). Civic engagement is tied to healthy youth development, introducing opportunities for teens to become comfortable expressing themselves, learn to think critically, and hone empathy and compassion skills.
Teens must develop the skills necessary to fully participate as engaged and informed citizens. Librarians can, and frequently do, help by providing youth programming that supports the development of 21st century skills. YALSA’s report, The Future of Library Services for and with Teens: A Call to Action, highlights the essential literacies that youth need to acquire to be work, college, and life ready. Through knowledge and skill accumulation, teens are more confident entering a world where sometimes opportunities for personal and professional development are few and far between. Additionally, within the safe space of a library, teens feel liberated to share their opinions, thoughts, and concerns with willing, involved, and engaged peers and adults. Growing up in a small rural town in Georgia, my library became one of the few places where I could learn about cultures, belief systems, and opinions that were far removed from my tiny hometown. These experiences have had a deep impact on how I serve my local community, country, and profession.
While often not spotlighted as civic-minded programming, school and public libraries are already motivating youth to become civically active in the world around them. A look at YALSA’ Teen Programming Guidelines touches on the library’s role in aiding teens’ development of leadership and mentorship skills, partially through teen-lead programming. Whether these programs are book clubs, Teen Advisory Boards, or technology workshops, they give teens the room to feel a sense of ownership and self-confidence. Forming a TAB is an excellent way to encourage youth to learn more about and take part in civic activities. Teens build mentorship skills, collaborate with peers, find their voice, and learn about community outreach. Also, Board involvement (in a small way) introduces youth to the dynamics of governance. Many libraries have volunteer programs within the library that introduce youth to library community service as a worthwhile and positive expression of civic participation. Not only does the library serve as a civic space, it acts as an incubator to support and grow teen confidence, determination, and kindness.
Getting teens (and adults) more engaged in civic activities is part of the library’s role as a community hub, informal learning space, and “conversation catalyst” (Kranich, 2012, pg. 81). Right now, librarians can demonstrate how to advocate and campaign for important causes. The current political situation offers many ways library-supportive teens can become civically involved on a local, state, national level, including supporting libraries during YALSA’s District Days, in the fight for IMLS funding, and on National Library Legislative Day. There’s so much we can do and so much teens can do to support each other.
Braun, L., Hartman, M. L., Hughes-Hassell, S., Kumasi, K., & Yoke, B. (2014). The Future of Library Services for and with Teens: A Call to Action. Chicago, IL: Young Adults Library Services Association. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/yaforum/sites/ala.org.yaforum/files/content/YALSA_nationalforum_final.pdf
Center for the Study of Social Policy. (2011). Results-based public policy strategies: Promoting youth civic engagement. Retrieved from http://www.cssp.org/policy/papers/Promoting-Youth-Civic-Engagement.pdf
Gutche, B. (2012, August 31). The engaged and embedded library: Moving from action to talk. WebJunction. Retrieved from http://www.webjunction.org/news/webjunction/Engaged_Embedded_Library.html.
Kranich, N. (2012). Libraries and civic engagement. Retrieved from https://rucore.libraries.rutgers.edu/rutgers-lib/37218/
Young Adult Library Services Association. (2015). Teen Programming Guidelines (pp. 1–18). Chicago, IL: American Library Association. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/yalsa/sites/ala.org.yalsa/files/content/TeenProgramingGuidelines_2015_FINAL.pdf.