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Teen Programming – Who Comes and Why

by on October 6, 2014

On August 7, I took part in the KidsLib Camp, an unconference in Darien, Connecticut.  One of the topics of discussion was teen programming in the library.  In some communities there is a growing desire to create more focused programs, such as Geek Girl Camp at Fayetteville Free Library, which is catered specifically to girls in grades three to five.  At smaller rural libraries events are often much less focused, with a “teen” program being open to tweens (originally designating ten to twelve years old, though sometimes now extending to as young as eight).  This might sound like, and in some cases be, a good thing.  For library assessment, attendance is generally measured by a number, but what was discussed at this session was what this number might not be revealing.

At the outset, I would like to point out that there is value in working with different age groups.  A teen may actually benefit more (both educationally and with regards to self-efficacy) by tutoring a tween in a particular subject than by being taught the information by an adult.  In creating activities, however, a librarian needs to consider if opening an event up to a wider public will alienate some of the potential participants.  An example might be creating a coding class that is open to everyone ages 10-18.  If there are teens ages 15 to 18 with some coding experience and then younger attendees with no coding experience, the instructor is going to have a difficult time keeping everyone engaged.  In this instance, there might be greater value in creating both a beginner and an intermediate class.  Will teens engage differently in a book group that is more selective or more inclusive?

To some extent this is about knowing the community you serve.  Some communities find it impossible to reach those between the ages of 15 and 18. If that age group comes into the library at all, it is only to checkout a book and be on their way.  In these communities it makes sense that a teen event might be catered to those between the ages of 10 and 14, because that’s the population who attends.  It can, however, be difficult to determine whether these older teens are not attending because they feel the library does not cater to their needs, or because they simply do not wish to be involved with the library.  For this reason, it is incredibly important for teen librarians to reach out to local high schools and other places where teens are and ask how they can best support what teens want.  Increasingly the library is becoming a place where teens can learn about vocations, college, and other educational opportunities, but that does not mean that they will naturally be drawn to the library.  “Teen” events that do not speak to their interests will reinforce this devaluation of the library.

I am not advocating for every program to have a very specific community in mind, with a different book group for those aged 10-12, 13-15, 16-17, and 18-25 (the growth of “new adult” programming is another topic that was brought up and whether or not this group should be under the direction of young adult or adult librarians).  Firstly, there are very few libraries that would have the space, personnel, or budget to make this a viable option. Secondly, not all programs would benefit from this exclusivity.  Yet, seventeen and eighteen year-olds may face very different issues from younger teens as they get ready for college, leave home, and/or start a vocation.  Focused outreach to this group might not only be of benefit to them, but could also create events that are well attended and future supporters for the library.  Similarly, a program bringing together incoming freshman with those entering their sophomore year could help first year high school students make a smoother transition.

Perhaps my greatest takeaway from this session was that none of these changes happen overnight, but if we can achieve even moderate success, some of these changes can last generations.  Teens have friends and siblings, and if a librarian can convince a few teens that the library can be an ally to them, this can have a rippling effect.  Perhaps, the libraries that have teens attending their events are the ones who listened to the needs of their teen community five or ten years ago and have been flexible enough to meet their changing needs in the ensuing years.  Successful programming is not about what we create, but how we respond. Particularly with teens, we only get a response if we can grab their attention.

Cover image credit: SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget

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