A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Urban Youth and Public Libraries

by Carlos B. Crockett on January 5, 2015

I didn’t do much,” were the words of Chicago teenager Armani Harris when asked to describe his after-school activities before he discovered YOUmedia, a groundbreaking, multifaceted teen program infused with technology and housed at the Chicago Public Library’s Harold Washington Library Center.1 The program is located on the first floor of the library in a 5,500-square-foot room where teenagers can hang out, eat, play video games, and use the computers. At the YOUmedia center, teens can also attend technology workshops and use their library cards to check out cameras, laptops, and other electronic devices. Teenagers from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds can socialize at YOUmedia while learning new technologies in a safe, nurturing place. Participants interact with teen mentors, many who of whom are on staff and provide homework help and support networks for teens with social issues. A Chicago public school teacher is available for academic assistance and a security guard is present.2 Such community intervention programs are beneficial for students such as Harris because they promote academic achievement in urban youth.3

According to a report published by the Schott Foundation, the national African American male high school graduation rate is 52 percent compared to 78 percent for white males and 58 percent for Hispanic males.4 In addition, many urban environments have suffered a transition in their economies due to globalization. Many manufacturing companies have relocated to rural and foreign countries where labor costs are much lower. The collapse of the industrial infrastructure in inner cities has had a devastating impact on black males living in urban communities. Consequently, many inner city residents have increased hardships due to instability in employment, which adversely affects the black community.5 Research suggests that urban teens who are engaged with positive activities such as mentoring and who receive social support from family, school, and community are more likely to avoid juvenile delinquency, especially if they are from low socioeconomic communities.6 Public libraries can counter the negative social problems associated with urban youth, and with males in particular, by offering an environment that is safe, nurturing, and that provides positive exposure to “experiences, upbringings and literacies of urban youth.”7 Libraries can play an important role in countering the many challenges poor urban youth have to overcome to have the best opportunity to succeed in life.8

The Experiences of Urban Youth

Three urban public library systems in areas with large minority populations were studied to determine what young adult (YA) programs, services, and resources they  offer, and whether they have programs that promote resiliency, expose urban youth to other cultures, and provide mentoring services. The research focused on how the three large urban libraries accommodate (or do not accommodate) the experiences, backgrounds, and literacies of urban youth.

Libraries have a wonderful opportunity to provide services targeting at-risk urban youth. Such services would alleviate some of the enormous challenges that plague these young people and lead not only to problems for them, but also for the entire community that surrounds them. Providing specialized services for youth could also be seen as an expanded role for libraries in these days of radical changes in their services and a reevaluation of the role of libraries in our communities.

America’s minority population is increasing faster than its white population.9 This transformation will have a significant impact on our nation’s competitiveness if corrective action is not immediately taken to educate more urban youth, particularly black males. This article seeks to determine how library programs can take a holistic approach in working with urban youth and the structural challenges they must overcome.

Cultural Awareness

An African proverb that states, “Until lions have historians, hunters will be heroes,” is an excellent primer when working with low income, urban black males and providing them the encouragement and support needed to navigate through an environment that often makes them feel alienated and valued less.10 Black males should be able to read about the contributions of African Americans and their achievements.11 Books on African American culture should be a big part of a library’s collection development so that black boys can learn about their humanity. In his article, “Poetic Expressions: Students of Color Express Resiliency through Metaphor and Similes,” Horace Hall posits that “when adolescent males of color have a strong sense of cultural pride and awareness, they are able to construct a healthy self-concept that assists them in acts of agency and resistance against negative psychological forces in their environment.”12

Author Alfred Tatum makes it abundantly clear in his book Reading for Their Life: (Re)Building the Textual Lineages of African American Adolescent Males that black males are not involved in a great conspiracy to fail themselves; they are falling behind academically because educators have not refined their teaching instruction in order to connect with black boys.13 Tatum argues that if educators are going to get it right and improve the trajectory of black males, then they must change the way they view black males and how they provide instruction to them.14 Tatum advocates that educators can enhance the learning of black boys by subscribing to enabling text that:

  • advances a healthy mind and that uses literacy as a way for one to overcome poverty, drugs, and violence; is relevant to the real world black boys live in;
  • centers on the shared history of African Americans; and
  • serves as a guide for “being, doing, thinking and acting.”15

Not only does Tatum feel that educators and librarians should put enabling books into the hands of black boys, but he highly recommends having mediators such as male teachers or custodial guardians discuss topics treated in the book.16 Tatum argues that it is not enough just to have these books by black authors for black boys but they must serve a higher purpose and be enabling.17 Tatum writes, “We need to create opportunities for African American males to identify texts that mark their lives. Their opinion counts.”18

Building Resiliency

While much of the literature on urban youth speaks about the social and environmental factors that work to undermine urban youth, there is a growing focus on urban students who were raised in harsh environments but who managed to succeed despite the many obstacles.19 Thousands of urban kids defy the odds and avoid the pitfalls that trap so many urban black males into a life of poverty and hopelessness.20 What were the mitigating factors that allowed them to succeed? Was it an internal resiliency, or did external forces provide a springboard for them to make it out of the ghetto?

In the article, “Resiliency and the Mentoring Factor,” Wain K. Brown states mentoring helped him overcome a difficult childhood and resist the temptations of the streets.21 The importance of mentoring is corroborated by author Baruti Kafele in his book, Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School & in Life, where he points out that teachers should inspire students.22 On the other hand, Jami Jones suggests that economically disadvantaged kids from urban environments can attain resiliency with the help of a caring and nurturing educator or librarian, who can help them to become strong readers and to learn how to find and use information correctly.23

Librarians working with urban youth should check their feelings about inner city youth so that they can remove any stereotypes. Kumasi states that, “It is important to not allow outward conditions such as dress, speech patterns and other cultural signifiers to shape how educators view and instruct students.”24 She also suggests that librarians treat urban youth with dignity and respect and have high expectations of them. Additionally, she suggests that librarians can have a more productive relationship with urban students by encouraging and supporting their cultural diversity and literacy capabilities. Kumasi recommends that librarians learn the environments that many urban youths have to live in so they can develop compassion for them and see them as regular people, not as problem children. She recommends that librarians should ensure that their teen collections are culturally diverse and refrain from promoting stereotypes about people of color.25

While Kumasi and Jones recommend building up resiliency skills in urban youth so that they can navigate the difficult environments that many come from, Elizabeth Hood suggests that schools should teach urban youth the social realities that govern their lives. She contends that urban minority students do not live in a vacuum and know that equality is elusive to those who are poor and don’t have connections.26 Hood believes students will not learn effectively until they are taught how to deal with the realities of social inequalities.27

Ultimately, libraries can play an important role in teaching resiliency skills to urban youth, but in order to accomplish this they must build trust with urban youth and understand the ecological environment many have to overcome to be successful.28

Research Method

The study described in this article was a comparative analysis of services and programs offered to urban youth and was limited to three large urban library systems in cities with large minority populations that are plagued by high levels of poverty, unemployment, and crime. The library systems of the cities of Memphis (Tenn.), Baltimore, and New Orleans were chosen because they share some of the same characteristics and are roughly the same size. Special emphasis was placed on programs specifically targeted to urban males.

It was assumed that the information gathered onsite and from each library system’s website was accurate and current. It was also assumed that the online public access catalogs (OPACs) in this study were indexed accurately so that relevant data could be retrieved.

The following research questions were considered when analyzing the three library systems featured in this article:

  1. What are the programs and services targeted to urban youth at each library as described on the library’s website?
  2. How many graphic novels are in the teen collection for each library?
  3. How many enabling books identified by Alfred Tatum and Sandra Hughes-Hassell are in the collection and can be identified in the online catalog through a keyword search or by the title of the book?
  4. How many Coretta Scott King award-winning YA books are part of the collection?
  5. How many books are in the collection by award-winning writer Walter Dean Myers?
  6. How many YA books are in the collection that can be identified in the online catalog through a keyword search for bullying? Are there workshops for single parents?

Data was collected by visiting the websites, online catalogs, newsletters, and other publications of the urban library systems. The data was compiled in an Excel spreadsheet and analyzed to address each research question.


The results from analyzing the websites of the three library systems indicate a variety of programs and services are offered to urban youth. Data was compiled by reviewing teen library programs for the month of October 2013. Many of the programs consisted of teen readings and book discussions, crafts, and workshops on college admissions. The information that follows describes programs and services offered at the three urban library systems studied.

Programs and Services

Memphis Public Library

Twenty three years after the Civil War, the city of Memphis opened its first library in 1888. The library was known as the Cossitt-Goodwyn Institute. Five years later a new library building was constructed in downtown Memphis and was named the Cossitt Library after its founder Frederick Cossitt. While the Cossitt Library is still in existence today, it no longer serves as the main library branch with administrative offices. In 2001 the city of Memphis officially opened its new library main branch in the Midtown Corridor East section of town. The new central building is named after Civil Rights icon Benjamin L. Hook, a native of Memphis. The Memphis Public Library consists of eighteen branches that serve the city of Memphis and an unincorporated area of the city.

A review of the Memphis Public Library’s website shows that in October 2013 there were a total of twelve programs including teen readings and book discussions, crafts, and workshops for college. Analysis of the website also shows that the library offered a program entitled “Let’s Rap About It” where teens discussed social problems with mentors.

Enoch Pratt Free Library

The Enoch Free Public Library is the library system for the city of Baltimore and one of the oldest library systems in the country. The library has twenty-three branches covering the entire city of Baltimore. The calendar for the month of October publicized forty-five programs for teens consisting of teen readings and book discussions, crafts, and teen experiments. Two of the more interesting programs were “Baltimore Speaks Out!” where teens learn video production skills and are taught leadership skills while earning service hours, and the “Community Youth Corps Program,” which is a volunteer program through which Baltimore youths can volunteer at the library, develop work skills, and receive service credit hours. Another interesting program listed on the calendar in October was a discussion of the book Judging Thomas: The Life and Times of Clarence Thomas by Ken Foskett. The book is a story of how the Supreme Court justice overcame poverty and hardships by working hard and investing in his education. The book meets the definition of enabling by Tatum because it promotes a healthy psyche in that it advocates a positive solution to overcoming hardships in life.29

New Orleans Public Library

The New Orleans Public Library consists of the main branch and thirteen satellite branch libraries throughout the system. A review of the library’s calendar for the month of October 2013 reveals that the library offered eighty-one programs for teens. The vast majority of the programs consisted of book readings and discussions, craft and game projects, and movie nights. Additionally, the library offered a number of “Homework Assistance Workshops” for students and a “LGBTQ&A” session along with a “Girls Rap” session. There were no visible programs held in October that were specifically targeted to males, particularly black males.

Graphic Novels

A review of the three library systems’ websites shows that the Memphis library system had a total of 662 graphic novels in its young adult collection, Enoch Pratt had 998, and New Orleans Public Library system had 1,158 graphic novels in its collection.

Enabling Books

See figure 1 for books identified by Tatum and Hughes-Hassell as meeting the definition of enabling books.

Books by Walter Dean Myers

A search of the three online catalogs showed that Enoch Pratt Library had 125 copies, Memphis Public Library showed 112 copies, and New Orleans Public Library had 111 copies (see figure 2).

Coretta Scott King Award–Winning YA Books

A search of the three online catalogs showed that Enoch Pratt Library had sixteen copies, Memphis Public Library has fourteen copies, and the New Orleans Public Library had twelve copies (see figure 3).

Books on Bullying

A search of the three library system catalogs showed that Enoch Pratt Library had 55 books on bullying, Memphis Public Library had 53 copies, and New Orleans Public Library had 37 copies (see figure 4).

Single-Parent Workshops

A review of all three library systems for the month of October shows that there were no workshops for single parents at any of the libraries.


A website analysis of the three major library systems for the month of October 2013 indicated a variety of programs and services available for teens, but none specifically targeted to urban males. The analysis indicated that many of the library programs offered were mainly traditional library teen programs consisting of video games, crafts, and some book discussions.

When incorporating a successful program or service for urban youth, particularly males, research analysis shows that libraries should hire culturally competent staff that is caring and embraces urban youth as individuals and not members of a stereotyped group.30 Furthermore, librarians working with urban youth should set high expectations for them and advocate for quality library resources on their behalf.31 All the libraries studied had programs and services to help teens, but two programs stood out from the rest. The first was “LGBTQ&A” at the New Orleans Public Library and the “Baltimore Speaks!” program at Enoch Pratt. In the LGBTQ&A program, teens were monitored by library staff and were able to hang out, enjoy refreshments, and meet in a casual atmosphere and discuss social issues with peers. In the Baltimore Speaks! program, teens were taught how to use video production equipment, and how to resolve problems in the workplace.

Tatum advocates that if educators and librarians are going to make a difference in the lives of urban youth, they must put enabling titles into the hands of urban youth that build a positive outlook and that are relevant to their world, books that connect them to the struggle for equality in America, and books that serve as an atlas for achievement, thoughtfulness, and performing.32

One of the most important things that libraries can do to enhance the future success of urban males is to empower them with resources to help mitigate the disadvantages that they have to overcome.33 One way libraries can empower youths is to offer workshops on employment that teach urban males how to construct a résumé and how to dress for and conduct themselves during an interview. Youths that are empowered often have stronger self-esteem and resiliency.34 The Memphis Public Library offered several programs that young urban males could participate in such as JOBLINK and workshops on financial aid for college.

The results of the research indicate that while libraries have made strides in planning programs for urban youth, more work needs to be done. Many urban youth do not visit the library, because they feel that the library does not respect them and because the rules and regulations are too strict.35 One way for libraries to connect with urban youth is to remove any perceived misconceptions about them and to treat them as individuals.36

While this research focused on library programs and services for urban youth, further research involving the collaboration between libraries and community organizations already working with urban males could potentially provide libraries with information on how to connect with urban youth. Research analysis shows that libraries that successfully connect with urban youth are those that provide relevant services and that hire caring staff members who work with urban youth effectively.37


The challenges of working with urban youth are many, but they are not insurmountable. A survey of the literature concludes that libraries can play a productive role in the future trajectory of urban youth––one that respects urban youth as individuals, sets high expectations, and provides relevant programs and services for their development and success in life.38 Further analysis of the three library systems studied in this article reveals that while the libraries offered many programs and services for teens, libraries can do more to help urban youth by engaging these patrons and making them feel like they are a part of the library system.


  1. Karen Springen, “What’s Right with This Picture? Chicago’s YOUmedia Reinvents the Library,” School Library Journal 57, no. 2 (Mar. 1, 2011): 37.
  2. Ibid., 37–39.
  3. Joseph Williams and Julia Bryan, “Overcoming Adversity: High-Achieving African American Youth’s Perspective on Educational Resilience,” Journal of Counseling & Development 91, no. 3 (July 2013): 291–300.
  4. Schott Foundation for Public Education, The Urgency of Now: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males (Cambridge, Mass.: Schott Foundation, 2012), accessed Aug. 12, 2014.
  5. W. J. Wilson, “Being Poor, Black, and American: The Impact of Political, Economic, and Cultural Forces,” American Educator 35, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 18.
  6. Williams and Bryan, “Overcoming Adversity,” 291–300.
  7. Kafi D. Kumasi, “Roses in the Concrete,” Knowledge Quest 40, no. 5 (May/June 2012): 37.
  8. Ibid., 37–39.
  9. U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 Supplementary Survey (New York: U.S. Census Bureau, 2011).
  10. Raymond Winbush, The Warrior Method: A Program for Rearing Healthy Black Boys (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 57.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Horace R. Hall, “Poetic Expressions: Students of Color Express Resiliency through Metaphors and Similes,” Journal of Advanced Academics 18, no. 2 (Winter 2007): 237.
  13. Jennifer Boone, Casey Rawson, and Katy Vance, “Getting It Right: Building a Bridge to Literacy for Adolescent African-American Males,” School Library Monthly, XXVII, no. 2 (Nov. 2010): 35.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Sandra Hughes-Hassell and Casey H. Rawson, “Closing the Literacy Gap for African American Males,” School Library Monthly, 28, no. 3 (Dec. 2011): 16.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Janice Hodges and LaJuan Pringle, “Meeting the Learning Needs of African American Youth in the Library,” School Library Monthly 29, no. 6 (Mar. 2013): 16.
  19. Williams and Bryan, “Overcoming Adversity,” 291.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Wain K. Brown, “Resiliency and the Mentoring Factor,” Reclaiming Children & Youth 13, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 75–79.
  22. Baruti K. Kafele, Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School & in Life (New York: ASCD Member Books, 2009).
  23. Jami L. Jones, “I Build Resiliency: The Role of the School Media Specialist,” School Libraries Worldwide 9, no. 2 (2003): 90–99.
  24. Kumasi, “Roses in the Concrete,” 35.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Elizabeth Hood, “Motivating Urban Minority Group Youth,” Education 93, no. 4 (Apr./May 1973): 362–64.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Kumasi, “Roses in the Concrete,” 37–39.
  29. Hughes-Hassell and Rawson, “Closing the Literacy Gap for African American Males,” 16.
  30. Denise Agosto and Sandra Hughes-Hassell, Urban Teens in the Library: Research and Practice (Chicago: ALA Editions, 2010), 9.
  31. Hughes-Hassell and Rawson, “Closing the Literacy Gap for African American Males,” 16.
  32. Sandra Hughes-Hassell et al., “Librarians Form a Bridge of Books to Advance Literacy,” Phi Delta Kappan 93, no. 5 (2012): 18.
  33. Agosto and Hughes-Hassell, Urban Teens in the Library, 9–13.
  34. Jones, “I Build Resiliency,” 48.
  35. Agosto and Hughes-Hassell, Urban Teens in the Library, 9–24.
  36. Kumasi, “Roses in the Concrete,” 18.
  37. Jones, “I Build Resiliency,” 48.
  38. Boone, Rawson, and Vance, “Getting It Right,” 35.

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