One of the most common questions I get from library staff is “How do I get teens into the library?” For many libraries, it may seem as if it’s feast or famine – either they are swamped by after school crowds or they never see any teens step foot in the door. The crowds can be dealt with, but how do you get teens into the your library?
My go-to answer for the above question is, “Don’t expect them to,” meaning don’t expect them to come into the library, with expect being the key word here. Why would they come into the library? There’s a lot working against it – whether or not they can get a ride, what their friends are doing, how many after school commitments they have – the list goes on. Going to the library has to be a conscious decision they make and then they must have the transportation and support to actually get there.
Some better questions to ask might be, “Why aren’t the teens in my library?,” “What are the barriers to service?,” “What is structurally in place that stops them from coming in?,” and most importantly, “What can we do to overcome those barriers?”
The answer to these questions will be unique to each system and branch. Start by taking a close look at the culture and atmosphere of your library. Do teens feel welcome there? If no, what is causing them to feel unwelcome? Do your co-workers or administration understand why it’s good to have teen patrons, rather than becoming frustrated by them? I do staff day trainings on this topic and am working with the Young Adult Library Services Association to offer more workshops on teen services. The short version of the message I share in these trainings is that we can help teens gain important life skills through our programs. Well-rounded teens make for well-rounded citizens, and teens with positive library experiences make lifelong library users.
If transportation or busy schedules is a major issue, consider going to them. Where are they gathering? Is school the best place to reach them in a non-pandemic year? Could you reach them during lunch or after school at an extracurricular? Of course, COVID-19 has created an even bigger barrier. The answer to “where are the teens” right now is hopefully “home.” Even schools that are opening this fall will likely limit who can enter their buildings and public library staff may not make the cut. So, what can you do?
Look for other community groups that might help you reach teens. Connect with organizations in your area, such as social justice organizations, church youth groups, YMCAs or Boys & Girls Clubs, to arrange for on-site book pick-up and drop-off services, kit lending or even virtual programming. They may also be able to put you in touch with teens who are interested in particular topics – like gaming or STEM – or those who would make great teen advisory board members.
Figuring out who to partner with in your community is your first step. Take a look around. Drive through your streets and make note of organizations and businesses you might contact. Ask co-workers with teens what their kids do after school. Does your library have teen shelvers or pages? What do they suggest?
If you are from a community so tiny that you don’t have any groups or organizations to work with, might delivery be an option? Come up with a project that will benefit a charity, like making blankets to donate to your county’s Humane Society. Then offer to drop blanket making kits off at the homes of your teens. If that’s not feasible, reach out to your school librarian, or any other teacher with whom you have a relationship, and ask them to recommend teens for the aforementioned teen advisory board. Make it an honor that requires a teacher recommendation and will look good on their college applications! The board can meet via Zoom.
If you already have a pre-COVID established group of teen patrons, this may all be *slightly* easier for you. Zoom meetings and book clubs, YouTube craft tutorials and using Discord for chatting or gaming with your teen crowd have all been common ways to reach out to existing teen patrons. One example of a library using Discord with teens come from the Pendleton Community Public Library. Their teen librarian, Matthew Stephenson, had an established group of teen patrons before the pandemic and has stayed in touch with them using Discord. See my interview with Matthew below and check out this Discord tutorial, recorded by Andrew Laverghetta, a librarian from Eckhart Public Library.
Ultimately, what you do will depend on your unique community and what it needs. What works at one library may not work at yours. This is a time to reevaluate our library services and determine what is essential, and to refocus on quality over quantity. If you can have an impact on the lives of even a few teens in the middle of the pandemic, that’s significant.
Interview with teen librarian Matthew Stephenson, Pendleton Community Public Library:
How have you been reaching teens during this time?
As we moved our teen programs and services to Discord, the teens who were already using Discord embraced the “new normal.” However, we have a significant portion of teens who rely on places outside of their home for high speed internet that makes Discord, Zoom and other resources possible. Because of that, I think some teens who would enjoy and embrace our virtual services are unable to find a time or place to do so.
Did you already have a pretty solid group of teen patrons?
I had a very solid group of teens who would be in the library multiple times a week. Some have made a similar commitment online since March. Others I haven’t heard from since then.
Have you reached new ones?
A few teens have discovered our virtual programs and services through our summer reading program, which incentivized joining the library’s teen Discord server.
What other methods have you used, besides Discord?
I have used Netflix Party to watch and talk about anime as a group. I’ve had a few teens who want to watch a whole movie that way. I’ve tried to use Zoom, but most of the teens who have attended are leery of being on camera. Lastly, I recently used Kahoot! to make a quiz competition. A few of the teens really enjoyed it, but thought I made the quiz too difficult, which I am, admittedly, prone to do.
Examples of any virtual programs you’ve done?
I’ve converted our in-library video and tabletop game programs to virtual versions done through Discord. They can get five to ten participating teens on a regular basis, but can accommodate up to 50. Our Teen Quiz had several participants and was asynchronous, which seems to be more popular with teens since COVID-19 and our building project began in the spring.
Is the library open to teen patrons yet?
Most of the library is currently closed for renovations, but we are offering essential services, such as copying, faxing and circulation of materials in our community room. All computer sessions are limited to one hour and patrons are encouraged to not linger in the limited areas open to them. We hope to open the library to next phase of reopening, which we call ‘Grab and Go,’ in August.
Thoughts on how you have/might work with schools this fall, pending your area’s school reopening plans?
We are launching our “One Card One Student” initiative at the beginning of the school year, which will give every student in our school system a special library card to use our databases and check out e-books. I believe that will place the library as an even more important complementary element to improve e-learning for our community’s students. This is in addition to offering Tutor.com to our residents and placing our Student Portal front and center on our library’s homepage.
This blog post was written by Beth Yates, children’s consultant for the Indiana State Library.