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Hey! The Library Is Kind of Awesome! Current Trends in US Public Library Services for Teens

by Denise E. Agosto on November 29, 2016

DENISE E. AGOSTO is Professor and Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Libraries, Information and Society at
Drexel University in Philadelphia. Contact Denise at dea22@drexel.edu. Denise is currently reading Wasting Time on the
by Kenneth Goldsmith.

Editor’s note: This article is based on a lecture delivered at the Tenth International Symposium on Library Services for Children and Young Adults, in Seoul, South Korea, on June 28, 2016.

Public library policy in the United States is largely localized, with each of more than nine thousand public libraries and public library systems setting their own operational and service policies. Still, public libraries across the country operate in many of the same ways, and US public library services for teens exhibit many shared practices and emerging service trends. In thinking about the future of US public library services to teens, it is helpful first to consider the historic ways in which public libraries have served their communities. Evans and Carter suggested that there are four main historic roles of the public library:

Looking at library history, we see that libraries have served and continue to serve their publics, parent institutions, and society in four basic ways. First, libraries meet society’s information needs by acquiring the materials deemed valuable or useful to some or all the people. Second, they provide a physical location and an environment for storing and preserving those items. Third, libraries add value to the items acquired by organizing them in some manner to make access more efficient. Fourth, the library’s staff improves access by providing assistance to individuals in locating desired information.1

Each of these four historic roles is closely connected to library materials, and together they paint a picture of public library services as tightly focused on library collections. This is a largely outdated view of US public library services, as libraries are increasingly moving toward viewing their communities as their core focus, not their collections.

This ongoing shift is particularly evident in teen services. Over the past few decades, US public libraries have typically served teens in three main ways: (1) as information gateways, with a focus on providing collections and information assistance services; (2) as social interaction and entertainment spaces, bringing teens to libraries for active and passive library programs and social interaction with peers; and (3) as beneficial physical environments, providing physical spaces for refuge, personal improvement, and volunteer or paid work experiences.2

Within these three service roles we see a core focus on library collections as well as on supporting teens’ healthy and happy
lives. While these three roles continue to define many current US public library services to teens, over the past decade many public libraries have been broadening their teen services even more, with an ever-increasing focus on understanding and serving individual communities’ information-related needs. Moreover, the concept of “information” in public libraries is taking on an increasingly broader definition beyond just books, web-based tools, and other traditional information resources, leading to a wider array of teen library services than ever before.

I will describe this ongoing shift in US public library services to teens, focusing on six current trends. These include increasing movement toward:

  1. A focus on what the library does over what the library has.
  2. An emphasis on information and information services in digital forms and formats.
  3. A focus on the library as place.
  4. Broadening literacy and learning goals beyond reading.
  5. Greater teen involvement in service design and delivery.
  6. Increased outreach and collaboration with non-library agencies.

Each of these six trends is discussed below, with examples from library policies and programs to show how they are playing out in libraries across the country.

Trends in US Public Library Services for Teens

1. What the Library Does over What the Library Has

The first trend involves a growing focus on what the library does over what the library has. While the vast majority of the US public tends to equate “books” with “libraries,” leading teen services librarians think in terms of leveraging library resources and services to support teens’ healthy development as their primary service goal, as opposed to focusing on building great book collections.3 This means that cutting-edge teen librarians view positive impact on teens’ lives as the ultimate goal of library programs and services, first analyzing youths’ needs and then designing collections, programs, and services to meet those needs. They think of their collections as just one part of a broader set of resources and services together intended to improve the lives of adolescent community members.

This impact-focused conceptualization of public library services for teens can lead to dramatic changes in strategic planning and daily library operations. For example, in preparation for building a new library, the city of Richmond (CA) oversaw a community needs assessment that involved asking community members from all major community groups what they wanted from their public library. The needs assessment led to the formation of a new strategic goal for young adult (YA)4 services at the Richmond Public Library, that “the ‘whole teen’ is nurtured by library programs and services; [and] teens have a distinct area of their own in the library.”5 Note that the YA collection is not mentioned in the strategic goal.

Analysis of data collected from community members as a part of the needs assessment further indicated that the library’s teen services priorities should be: “Services that support both the recreational and academic lives of predominantly middle school aged youth; a distinct acoustically isolated teen space with a teen-friendly environment; and constructive activities as an alternative to violence.”6 Again, note the absence of explicit mention of the library collection. This does not mean that the Richmond Public Library places little value on its collection. Rather, it means that the collection is just one aspect of teen services, with strategic goals guiding collection development and use, as opposed to aiming to collect the “best” available materials—those judged by professionals to be of the highest literary and artistic quality.

The needs assessment also led to identification of a suite of teen programs to offer, including “SAT preparation, computer instruction with emphasis on gaming and other topics of particular interest to youth, poetry slams,” and programs related to “all aspects of technology, music, writing, [and] public speaking.”7 Many of these programs will likely incorporate elements of the library collection, but regardless, all will be designed with the ultimate goal of supporting teens’ happy and healthy development and making positive impacts on teens’ lives.

2. Information and Information Services in Digital Forms and Formats

The second trend in US public library services is an increasing emphasis on information and information services in digital forms and formats. Both teen services and teen collections are moving more deeply into the digital world, with a strong emphasis on social media education and services. We know from the research that high school students use social media for collaborating on homework, organizing school club activities and sports practices, coordinating participation in civic organizations and volunteer activities, creative writing and other creative pursuits, and seeking emotional support from peers and family members.8 Recognizing the range of social and educational benefits that teens can derive from social media use, many teen librarians are incorporating it into their teen programs and services, offering homework help, leading book and other media discussion groups, and teaching teens how to be good digital citizens.

The Teen Zone Social Media Ambassadors program at the Lawrence (KS) Public Library (LPL) serves as a good example of a social media–based public library program for teens. The program was designed for teens to volunteer a few hours each week to promote the library via social media, performing tasks such as vetting book reviews, art submissions, and other contributions from teens in the community and posting them on the Teen Zone Tumblr; reblogging web content likely to be of interest to community teens; tweeting out library news and events; and taking and then sharing photos of library events online in any of the library’s various social media accounts. The program was intended to generate publicity to benefit the library, increase interest in the library among community teens, and benefit participating teens by giving them volunteer work experience that they could use as they build their college and career resumes.9

LPL recently completed the first year of the new program. According to Molly Wetta, collection development librarian and Ambassadors program supervisor, results from the first year were mixed:

We promoted the program to our older teen library users and reached out to the high school journalism and English teachers to pass it along to potential volunteers, but got zero applications except from one longtime volunteer who I knew was involved in journalism. She did well for a while but then got busy with school and other projects and had to leave the program. We are still contemplating ways to try it again next year, because in principle, it can be a great opportunity for both libraries and teens to have user-generated content. . . However, it really wasn’t a time saver for staff as we had intended. And we thought teens would respond better to teen-generated content and that the ambassador would promote the library’s accounts to peers, which did happen. We were better able to connect with high school social media accounts and got new high school followers because of it. So it wasn’t a total loss, it just didn’t turn out exactly how we had initially envisioned it.10

The Ambassadors program highlights the importance of creativity, flexibility, and persistence in developing teen library programs that use new and emerging digital information forms, formats, and environments as libraries explore how best to provide teen services in these new information environments.

3. The Library as Place

The third YA service trend is a growing focus on the library as place. Despite the emphasis on the digital world, US public librarians continue to stress the value of the physical library as a place for teens to gather and for individual use as well. Many librarians are thinking about the importance of the library as place even more strongly than in the past.

In one of my past studies, Kuhlmann et al. studied how US teens use public library spaces and why they value libraries as physical places.11 We found teens to use teen spaces in libraries for access to technology, for study space, as places for conducting leisure pursuits such as reading and game playing, and as places to socialize with peers. The emphasis on the library as place can be seen in the Richmond Public Library’s community needs assessment discussed above. In response to what they learned from the community needs assessment, the assessment team built the following service objectives into planning for the new library building:
The new library will have an acoustically isolated, visible, teen-friendly area with computers, lounge and table seating, and collections that are attractively displayed. Programs of all types will be offered regularly, including SAT preparation and computer literacy. A structured volunteer program will encourage youth to contribute to their community. Teens will be given an orientation to the Teen Center prior to using it to explain its use and expected conduct.12

Thus, recognition of the role of the library as a physical gathering space led to care in making the new teen space comfortable and inviting to teens. The role of the physical library space is especially important in economically disadvantaged communities such as Richmond, where teens often live in neighborhoods with inflated crime and violence. Public libraries are public buildings, open to all and therefore not guaranteed to be completely safe spaces. Still, with library staff providing adult supervision and watchful eyes, often they are safer places for teens from disadvantaged communities than most other places in their communities where they can go in their free time.

4. Literacy and Learning Goals Go Beyond Reading

The next trend is a broadening of literacy and learning goals beyond reading. Traditional reading and writing skills remain fundamental to literacy, but the definition of literacy has expanded. Teens today must be able to read, write, and interact across a range of platforms, tools, and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio, and film, to digital social networks. Literacy is no longer viewed as a mechanical process, but is understood as the construction of meaning. This expanded definition of literacy impacts the types of services, programs, and collections that libraries provide, as well as the nature of the work that library staff perform.13

Again the connection to information and information services in digital forms and formats is key. While most US public libraries continue to promote books and teen reading as a core focus, many are moving toward equal emphasis on digital literacy and “making” (creation activities, such as those occurring in makerspaces and learning labs). As a result, the role of the public librarian is becoming more fundamentally educational than ever before. This movement positions public librarians as public educators and public libraries as public education institutions, with a focus on public librarians as digital literacy educators.

What exactly is digital literacy? ALA’s Digital Literacy Task Force defined a digitally literate person as one who:

  • possesses the variety of skills—cognitive and technical—required to find, understand, evaluate, create, and communicate digital information in a wide variety of formats;
  • is able to use diverse technologies appropriately and effectively to search for and retrieve information, interpret search results, and judge the quality of the information retrieved;
  • understands the relationships among technology, lifelong learning, personal privacy, and appropriate stewardship of information;
  • uses these skills and the appropriate technologies to communicate and collaborate with peers, colleagues, family, and on occasion the general public;
  • uses these skills to participate actively in civic society and contribute to a vibrant, informed, and engaged community.14

This focus on public libraries as digital literacy educators is evident in the Seattle Public Library’s Strategic Plan, which states that:

Beyond becoming the source for practical information, the Library must seize the opportunity to become the place where anyone can become tech-savvy. For instance, the Library will develop places where teens can edit and develop audio, video and text for multimedia projects using state-of-the-art technology. Teens aren’t the only ones who want to sample the latest technology, though they are certainly a good group to start with. We see the future Library as a learning lab where people can experiment with a variety of tools to see what might help them to turn ideas into reality and share them with others.15

Over the past several years, YALSA (the teen services division of ALA) has also made promoting digital literacy a core campaign. YALSA has introduced programs such as Teen Tech Week, which encourages teen librarians to focus one week each year on teaching teens about the ethical use of digital information and on providing high-interest programs that promote improved digital literacy skills. The wide range of the programs participating libraries have offered during past Teen Tech Weeks is impressive, including such programs as: “robotics demonstrations, a Hollywood digital sound effects guest speaker, geocaching, a technology petting zoo, digital photography and photo editing, QR code scavenger hunts, retro technology and gaming events, and teens making their own library memes.”16 Creative librarians around the country are working to harness teens’ interest in entertainment and technology to devise creative informal educational experiences such as these that can build crucial literacy and digital literacy skills.

5. Teen Involvement in Service Design and Delivery

Next, in line with viewing positive impacts on teens’ lives, as opposed to building high quality library collections, as the driving goal behind library program and service design, the fifth trend is an increase in teen involvement in service design and delivery. Many US public libraries are working toward a vision of including teens as partners in both the design and delivery of teen services. Probably the most current common method for including teens in program design is the use of TABs—Teen Advisory Boards. Increasingly popular in small, medium, and large public libraries across the country, “a teen advisory board creates a specific role for teens in the library and formalizes their inclusion into the decision-making processes.”17

For example, at the Cherry Hill (New Jersey) Library, my own local public library, Teen Librarian Melissa Brinn runs an active TAB. Teens interested in participating must complete written applications, and interviews are held once each year to select TAB members. The TAB meets about two times a month during the school year to plan library programs and promote the teen department, to play book- and writing-related games, and to socialize as a group. TAB volunteers receive public service (volunteering) hours in exchange for their time. Many local schools have public service hours requirements, making service on the TAB particularly attractive to teens looking to fulfill volunteer work requirements. In past years, Cherry Hill Public Library TAB members have designed and delivered a wide array of library programs, from children’s storytimes to interactive murder mysteries. (See here for a sample TAB application form)

However, TABs and other similar groups only enable small numbers of community teens to play a role in program and service design. Subramaniam, among others, has argued that to meet the needs of more teens, especially teens from disadvantaged backgrounds,

surveys, interviews, and forming a teen advisory council [TAB] are no longer sufficient when designing teen programs. Instead, it is time to involve teens themselves as co-designers of programs and services. Teen services librarians need to apply interdisciplinary approaches to establish equal partnership and learning opportunities that facilitate discovery and use of digital media.18

As of yet, however, few US public libraries involve teens deeply enough to meet this ideal, and deep and lasting teen partnership in library services remains mostly a future vision.

6. Outreach and Collaboration with Nonlibrary Agencies

Lastly, there is a movement toward increased outreach and collaboration with nonlibrary agencies. To maximize service impact and efficiency, teen librarians are increasingly looking to offer joint services with other agencies that serve teens, often moving library services outside of library buildings to places where teens can be more easily reached. Katz discussed public library and school collaborations, suggesting that there are four characteristics of successful collaborations: communication, cooperation, respect, and practical ideas.19 Schools are probably the most common agencies with which US teen services librarians tend to form lasting collaborations, but some teen librarians collaborate with a range of agencies, such as local businesses, religious organizations, government agencies, and more.

For example, the Richmond Public Library community needs assessment described above establishes plans to collaborate with several community agencies to achieve their new vision of teen library services:

In developing a Volunteer Academy, the library will work with local middle and high schools that require students to do community service, to publicize the program and develop volunteer opportunities that meet school requirements. The Arts & Culture Commission and the Recreation Department will partner in providing programs for teens.20

Each of these community partners—the schools, the Arts & Culture Commission, and the Recreation Department—shares with the library the fundamental goal of improving teens’ lives—a shared mission that leads to a natural partnership. In collaborating with the library, the other agencies can increase the impact of their services by sharing staff, knowledge, and other resources, and together with the library they can reach more teens more efficiently than on their own.

Bringing Teens into This New Library Scene

Although these six trends in public library services are occurring in many cutting-edge libraries across the country, there are challenges to implementing them more broadly and to helping teens move beyond the persistent view of libraries just as paper book providers. Indeed, my own recent research with high school students in a technology-focused public high school showed students to have “a widely held perception that libraries represent an outdated past, whereas technology represents these teens’ everyday reality. Few saw libraries as relevant to their daily lives, yet most saw social media as relevant.”21 More effective marketing to teens and adults is needed to make the public aware of these changes. The lack of public awareness of the full range of available teen services is compounded by an ongoing emphasis in the professional writing, which focuses predominantly on the discussion and promotion of books.22 The library field itself must embrace this future vision of broader, impact-based library services before we can hope to convince the public of its significance.

Moreover, these trends are occurring during a period of ongoing tight funding for most US public libraries. In the wake of the 2008 recession, many libraries have experienced multiple years of local and state funding plateaus or even cuts. The recession may now be over, but most public library budgets have yet to rebound. Now more than ever we must work to help the public understand
the changing nature of teen services to ensure future public support for stronger funding of our public libraries and to enable more libraries across the country to meet the powerful potential of public libraries as a fundamental social structure and beneficial influence on teens’ lives.

Still, US public library services for teens are by no means doomed to fail. The single most important element for future success is the potential for teens to develop deep interest and enthusiasm in their libraries. Luckily, this potential remains strong. As the title of this article indicates, when shown the full range of services that today’s public libraries have to offer, teens will often respond positively and become eager public library users. The quote that inspired the title of this article (“Hey! The library is kind of awesome!”) comes from my recent study of high school students in a technology-focused public high school, which I referenced previously.23 The young woman who made this announcement hadn’t used a public library in several years and had assumed that they were outmoded and useless. One day she happened to visit her local library and realized that it had much to offer her, from leisure opportunities, to homework support, to social engagement, to a welcoming place she could frequent other than home, school, or commercial spaces. If we can spread this message of the broad range of available library services to teens across the country, we can ensure the continued healthy growth of the field, and more importantly, the continued power of US public libraries to enrich teens’ lives for many generations to come.

References and Notes

  1. G. Edward Evans and Thomas L. Carter, Introduction to Library Public Services, 7th ed. (Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2009), 3.
  2. Denise E. Agosto, “Why Do Teens Use Libraries? Results of a Public Library Use Survey,” Public Libraries 46, no. 3 (2007): 55–62.
  3. To read about the national survey that showed the US public to equate books and libraries, see: Cathy De Rosa et al., At a Tipping Point: Education, Learning and Libraries (Dublin, OH: OCLC Online Computer Library Center, 2014), accessed May 6, 2016.
  4. In US public library services, the term “young adult” most frequently refers to youth ages 12–18. This article uses the terms “teens,” “adolescents,” and “young adults” interchangeably, with a preference for the term “teens” since it is commonly used by youth in this age group to refer to themselves. For a discussion of these various terms and their use in library literature and practice, see Denise E. Agosto, “Envisaging Young Adult Librarianship from a Teen-Centered Perspective,” in Transforming Young Adult Services, ed. Anthony Bernier (Chicago: Neal-Schuman, 2013), 33–52.
  5. Richmond Public Library, Library Plan of Service: Needs Assessment for the Richmond Public Library, February 2009, p.0.1, accessed Apr. 22, 2016.
  6. Ibid., p.0.6.
  7. Ibid., p.3.7.
  8. Denise E. Agosto et al., “Teens, Libraries, and Social Media: Myths and Reality,” Public Library Quarterly 34, no. 4 (2015): 318–327, doi:10.1080/01616846.2015.1106892.
  9. Lawrence Public Library, “Teen Zone Social Media Ambassadors” (2015), accessed May 4, 2016.
  10. Molly Wetta, email communication with author, May 5, 2016.
  11. L. Meghann Kuhlmann et al., “Learning from Librarians and Teens about YA Library Spaces,” Public Libraries 53, no. 3 (2014): 24–28.
  12. Richmond Public Library, Needs Assessment, p.2.16.
  13. Linda W. Braun, et al., The Future of Library Services for and with Teens: A Call to Action (Chicago, IL: Young Adult Library Services Association, 2014): 4.
  14. ALA Office for Information Technology Policy, Digital Literacy, Libraries, and Public Policy (Washington, DC: American
    Library Association, 2013): 2, accessed Apr. 29, 2016.
  15. Seattle Public Library, My Library: The Next Generation, Strategic Plan 2011–2015, Feb. 23, 2011, p.10.
  16. Denise E. Agosto et al., “Getting the Most from Teen Tech Week: Lessons from the TTW Survey,” Young Adult Library Services 12, no. 4 (2014): 5.
  17. Natalie Houston, “Building a Foundation for Teen Services,” Young Adult Library Services 9, no. 2 (2011): 9.
  18. Mega Subramaniam, “Designing the Library of the Future for and with Teens: Librarians as the ‘Connector’ in Connected Learning,” Journal of Research on Libraries & Young Adults 7, no. 2 (In press): 3.
  19. Jeff Katz, ”A Common Purpose: Public/School Library Cooperation and Collaboration,” Public Libraries 48, no. 3 (2009): 28–31.
  20. Richmond Public Library, Needs Assessment, p.3.8.
  21. Denise E. Agosto et al., “Teens, Technology, and Libraries: An Uncertain Relationship,” Library Quarterly 86, no.3 (2016): 261.
  22. Agosto, “Envisaging Young Adult Librarianship.”
  23. Agosto et al., “Teens, Technology, and Libraries,” 259.

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