Libraries Reach Out to Teens

Susan Phillips
May 2, 2005

My local branch library is a world populated primarily by the quite young and the decidedly older. Colorful waves of kids ebb and flow from the children’s section, stepping around retirees and job seekers.

But according to a recent report from Chapin Hall Center for Children, about 25 percent of library patrons these days are teens – even though libraries typically devote fewer resources to them than to any other age group.

The report, New on the Shelf, is an assessment of a four-year project of the Wallace Foundation that funded youth development programs in nine library systems serving predominantly low-income communities. The foundation hoped to find evidence that libraries could help prepare teens for success in school and work – while making libraries more responsive to teens and more connected to their communities.

Overall, the reports’ authors concluded, libraries do have the potential to be powerful partners in youth development – but that creating and sustaining successful programs is “complicated, time-consuming, and expensive.”

Baltimore was one of the nine grantees. I spoke with Deborah Taylor, coordinator of school and student services of the Enoch Pratt Library, about Baltimore’s experience with the project.

First, could you briefly summarize the Pratt library’s involvement in the Public Libraries as Partners in Youth Development program?

Pratt library was one of the nine library grantees. We ran a service learning project and leadership development project for teens. The funding was for three years. Since the funding from the Wallace Foundation ended, we have continued the program.

The program runs over three sessions: winter, spring, and summer. In the winter and spring sessions, we have about 15 or 20 teens working in various branches of the library. In the summer, when the kids are more available, we have 50 to 60.

Our interns do everything from helping out with programs for the younger kids, working in the technology center, giving directional help on the information desk, entering data for our summer reading statistics. We have a group that does a media literacy project – they learn how to create public service announcements on topics they care about.

We try to work with library staff to come up with things that are not just busy work, jobs that mean something.

Are these paid positions?

No, they’re not, the students receive service learning credit. In Maryland, students need to perform 75 hours of service learning in order to graduate from high school.

When we gathered data before designing our program, what we learned from teens was that there was a strong demand for a service learning program that would provide opportunities for meeting the requirement in their neighborhoods.

Especially for middle schoolers, who can’t work in a fast food restaurant anyway, it’s a real benefit – here is a high school requirement that they can get done before they even go to high school.

I see it as being a kind of pre-employment training. We work on customer service, dressing appropriately, the importance of being on time, taking supervision.

How has your participation affected the way your library approaches youth development?

Before, we had some teen activities, we did some visits to schools, and we did some programming in partnership with other community organizations. But the Wallace Foundation grant was a major shot in the arm. This put us in line with the best thinking on youth development. We now have a program that is more appropriate for our urban environment, and it has helped us be more of what our clientele needed.

The report notes that libraries have traditionally devoted less of their space, personnel and resources to teens than to other groups. Why is that?

Part of the problem is that teens are a tough group to fully engage. Many of the things you’re doing in middle school are antithetical to being in a library. Kids think of the library as not being an active place, and as not being responsive to where they are.

For another thing, most parents of teens are not very vocal in demanding library services. If you don’t have services for preschoolers, you are going to hear about it. People will say that in general, there are not enough programs for teens – but they won’t target the library for that.

The Chapin Hall report warns that while promising, youth development programs in libraries can be “expensive, complicated and time-consuming.” Did you find that sometimes it was harder than expected?

Good youth development programs do demand a lot more attention than people might want to put forward. They require thinking about programming itself a little differently. People tend to think, “You put on a program, kids come and they leave and you’re done.” But youth development needs to be more intense and more sustained. You’ve got to have the kids around, you have to keep them engaged, you need to be interactive with them. One of the things kids said to us is they didn’t want to come to programs and be passive observers. There needs to be some learning going on.

Even when we have poetry slams, the poets need to do a little workshop with the kids too.

What do you think is the most successful aspect of the program?

The skill building -- we concentrate on that. Even if some of the kids are only with us for a short time, they come to trainings, they learn about customer service, how to dress for success. Even if they don’t finish their hours, they have developed some awareness and exposure, and they take away something that will help them later in life.

Were there any aspects of the program you felt were not successful?

Overall, I just believe people need to be realistic about it. One of the “Aha!” moments for me, in my training, was that this was a continuum. There are pieces you can work towards, steps that you can take, even if you can’t pull together everything you hoped for. What will happen in libraries, if you don’t understand that, is that you will never start moving towards the goal.

Libraries often seem to be beleaguered institutions, constantly short of funds and staff. Does that get in the way of efforts to take on new challenges like this, that are so demanding of staff time, energy and funds?

Certainly in urban institutions like ours, when you are helping people without a lot of resources, that’s a call for library administration to make.

During the time we were involved in the Wallace project, we also had branches that closed. We had to move one of sites for the youth project, because the branch closed. But even so, we didn’t say, “Oh, we can’t do this anymore.” No. That’s part of our constituency, that’s our future.

That decision came from the library leadership – from our director, from our board. We decided, we just have to figure out a way to keep doing it.

The most consistent finding in the report was an improved attitude among staff towards teens. Did your library experience this?

To a degree. It’s hard for one project to undo what rest of society pounds away at 24 and 7. People might say, “My intern was terrific, but the rest of kids are awful.” I wouldn’t be totally honest to say that suddenly people saw the light and said teens are great. People do establish good working relationships.

Did you find that by taking on a youth development effort, you connected with some new sources of support in the community?

I think it has made us be seen much more as part of the total network of folks who provide valuable services for children and teens, especially in a city where most adults want to improve opportunities for young people. That’s helpful. There are certainly some people who want to do something for kids in the community but didn’t want to do it through the schools – that can be sort of intimidating, and people don’t always feel sure they know how the money is spent. This gives them a way to support positive development for kids through a smaller institution, and through a specific program.