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Five Tips for Planning Teen Spaces

by on August 2, 2016

At fifteen, Emily Ellis didn’t see working in a library as a career but rather a better option than flipping burgers. As time went on, however, her opinions on librarianship changed, and she pursued her MLS, eventually landing a job as a high school media center assistant, where she discovered her passion for working with teens. Ellis became the “teen whisperer,” making connections with the students who stopped by her office when visiting the media center. Her talents didn’t go unnoticed, and Library Journal named her Mover & Shaker in 2012 for her work with teens.[1]

Ellis now works at the Greenwood Public Library in Indiana. Although her role has changed over the years, her enthusiasm for working with teens has not. Now, her office is no longer the teen hangout spot; instead, she has helped the teens at her library create a space of their own. Greenwood converted a former multimedia area into a teen room in 2012. Although the library had the space, they didn’t initially have the funding to remodel it. Ellis explains that this delay “in hindsight, [was] a blessing. While we lived with dirty carpet and unpainted walls for a while, it gave us the opportunity to really see how the space was used and could be used, leading to smarter decisions for our teens.”[2] Ellis shared her experience designing her library’s teen space with PLOnline and suggests the following tips when starting a similar project.


Courtesy of Emily Ellis

Ask Your Teens

Teens are more likely to feel ownership of a space that they help create, and they should be part of the brainstorming process whenever possible. Teen advisory boards are a great place to start getting some ideas. Ellis advises that librarians to not only talk to teens but to pay attention to how they use the library. Teens are more likely to share “big picture” ideas but might not be thinking about the smaller details that can really make the space more functional. “The more you know and understand the group you are building a space around, the more information you bring to the drawing board.” says Ellis.[3]

Visit Other Libraries

Take a road trip and visit libraries in your area that have recently remodeled spaces. Online pictures can be great, but nothing beats seeing a space in person. Be sure to schedule your visit in advance and for an after-school time, not only so library staff is available to answer your questions but also so you can observe how it is used by teens. It’s easy to start feeling like the “kid in a candy store” with all the cool new design elements for your own library, but just things that look great don’t always work great. Be sure to ask library staff what they don’t like about their new space. Learn from other libraries’ mistakes, and, hopefully, avoid some of your own.

Seek Out Community Partners

The budget is the most influential factor when planning a redesign, so you may have to reach out to your community for help in stretching it. “The Teen Room renovations were paid in part out of the library’s budget, and in part through grants and sponsorships from amazing community partners,” says Ellis.[4] Describing a specific need (e.g. a new seating area, 3-D printer) can help attract potential donors because they know how their money will be used.

Get Creative

A total remodel may not be in the forecast, but you can spruce up your space without spending a fortune. Even libraries that are able to remodel usually have to make budget-minded design choices. When they found out that one of their favorite design elements, a Lite-Brite wall, was way out of their price range Greenwood Library changed tactics and opted for a less expensive version using a black peg board and brightly colored golf tees, creating a similar experience for their teen patrons. Even small changes make a big difference. A fresh coat of paint, for example, is easy, inexpensive, and transformative.

Avoid Following Trends

Inspiration from other libraries is great, but you must ultimately choose a design for your community’s needs. While it’s always exciting to see what’s new in library design, keep in mind that the space will be used today and well into the future, and must-have items (especially technology) may be outdated by the end of your remodel. Make your design flexible so you can easily make alterations as your library evolves.


YALSA’s Teen Space Guidelines

More Thrifty School Library Design Tips

New Teen Spaces From Coast to Coast

Maker Space Guide from Voya

[1]Emily Ellis | Movers & Shakers 2012 — Community Builders,” Library Journal, March 13, 2012.
[2] Emily Ellis, head of Reference and Teen Services at Greenwood Public Library, in an e-mail interview, May 17, 2016.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.

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