A Place of Their Own

Creating spaces where teens can thrive

September 1, 2016

Real-World Teen Services excerpt

Cultivating a space in the library that teens can activate and own sends teens a strong signal they are valued and welcome. Teens (defined here as those ages 13–18) are usually scrutinized closely because of expectations that they will cause trouble. They are often held to different behavioral expectations than other patrons—a group of toddlers or genealogists will be greeted with smiles and nods, but a group of exuberant teens is likely to get thrown out.

On an instinctive level, teen services librarians know that it is important to provide teens with dedicated space in the library. As their advocates, teen services librarians must be able to:

  • articulate why a dedicated teen space is important
  • make a case for teen space to managers, coworkers, and community members
  • express how space is a link to effective and efficient services, programming, and overall service equality

Teen services librarians should not focus on the physical features of a teen space but rather on the service reasons behind the library’s decision to offer dedicated space to teens.

The meaning of space

This is an excerpt from Real-World Teen Services by Jennifer Velásquez (ALA Editions, 2015).
This is an excerpt from Real-World Teen Services by Jennifer Velásquez (ALA Editions, 2015).

Space is power. The allotment of space in public buildings clearly illustrates which groups matter and which groups do not. In Transforming Young Adult Services (ALA-Neal Schuman, 2013), Anthony Bernier notes that although many library systems recognize the need for dedicated space for teens, there is very little research on young adult (YA) spaces in public libraries, despite growing interest in the topic over the past dozen years. Attention has focused on how teen spaces look and the features they include. However, without adequate grounding in research, the construction of new spaces and remodels of existing spaces often do not take into account the unique needs of teens and the way they desire to actively and naturally use space.

Designing teen spaces isn’t about tables, chairs, and trendy lounge seating; it’s about intention and usefulness. Because there are no best practices, practitioners must rely on convention. If there is no clear vision for the space beyond warehousing YA fiction or equipment labs without context, the result may be teen library space that is not sufficiently welcoming, or that discourages engagement, participation, and teen ownership.

Teen participation

A cornerstone of teen library services is the principle that teens must be actively involved in decisions about their library experience. The Young Adult Library Services Association’s (YALSA) Teen Space Guidelines suggest that teens be included in planning and be given decision-making roles in the development of their space. The active participation of teens ensures that their evolving needs and interests are being addressed and that they will play a key role in attracting peers to the library.

Teens who are enthusiastically engaged in planning and decision making are likely to develop a sense of ownership of the library that will enhance the quality of their experience. This begins with the space intended for teens in the library.

YALSA’s guidelines for the development of teen library spaces suggest libraries should:

  • create a space that meets the needs of teens in the community by asking teens to play a role in the planning process
  • solicit teen feedback in the design of the space and its use to allow teens to develop a sense of ownership
  • solicit teen feedback in the development of policies to ensure the space is representative of teen needs

Encouraging and cultivating teen participation in the development process begins by involving teens in focus groups and asking them what they want. Although teens are allowed to use public spaces like city parks, they are generally not allowed to direct their design, decoration, or use or to ultimately determine how the space is experienced. A teen library space can be a public space developed in partnership with the intended users. Providing a participatory space for teens offers them a tangible venue to begin to take ownership of the library—teens can plant their flags and mark territory within the public space—and to customize it in a way that is different from other public venue experiences and opportunities and that is uniquely theirs. Ultimately, it allows teens to achieve a more empowered conception of citizenship.

The analog display wall

In recent years, the idea of teen participation has primarily been associated with the use of technology and the web, but this participation can manifest through low-tech, low-cost means. Something many libraries are doing is displaying teen-created art in a teen space. Examining this practice through the lens of user participation can help teen librarians understand and apply a participatory context to such activities.

An analog display wall is a low-tech method that encourages teen participation. It is a wall in a teen space where any teen can display his or her artwork. There are supplies readily available for teens to create drawings, and they can choose to draw and then to display their artwork on the wall.

This type of display differs from a wall where only sanctioned or adult-selected art is permanently installed, or one on which a group of teens have created a mural, which becomes static once completed and which may give any teens who were not involved in the project a sense that they are visiting someone else’s space.

If teens are constantly creating and changing what is on the wall, will it look as an adult would like it to look? Probably not. But it will always reflect the users’ tastes, interests, and desires. This isn’t about adult aesthetics but about teen participation. When libraries set up teen spaces that look too perfect or pristine, they eliminate possible avenues for teens to explore, create, and participate in immediate, spontaneous, and unexpected ways.

Big picture models: affinity spaces

An affinity space is a place where people affiliate with others based primarily on shared activities, interests, and goals. The library can function as an affinity space where formal and informal activities are based on the interests teens bring to the library. These activities occur in a peer-to-peer manner, with teens functioning as innovators and experts in their areas of interest, and library staff functioning in the role of facilitators. Libraries that cultivate teen affinity spaces create venues focusing on the relationships teens have with information and one another, and on the creation of content, artifacts, and knowledge.

Teen services librarians should look at library spaces for teens in a new way. Many times, the teen services portion of the physical library is first to manifest changes in service delivery models and advances in public-facing technology for a given clientele group, as in Charlotte Mecklenburg (N.C.) Library’s ImaginOn and Chicago Public Library’s YOUmedia spaces. These groundbreaking spaces anticipated the shift in use of library spaces and functions that are only now beginning to manifest in adult, family, and all-ages spaces in the form of content creation labs, makerspaces, and fab labs.

What teen services should strive for is not a fab lab but a fab library. The key to a successful library teen space is not features, but experiences. This shift in the physical space offered to teens mirrors the way teens naturally use space. The affinity space should accommodate and foster activities that teens automatically engage in like socializing; working together in groups sharing ideas, resources, and content; group play; peer mentorship; and creating things like artwork and digital content. The teen space is a place where teens bring their interests to explore, rather than having sanctioned interests imposed upon them.

This affinity space creates avenues to teen participation in the development and implementation of teen programming for themselves and their peers. In this way, the physical space helps in the development of teen programming and activities.

Teens-only space

Teen services librarians may find that an existing teen space does not function well because it is not reserved for use by its intended clientele. Ideally, teen services space should be dedicated for use by teens. Teen services librarians may experience resistance when proposing that the library provide a space that is “teens only,” or that it change policy to reserve an existing teen space exclusively for teens. The desire to avoid confrontation may lead libraries to not designate a space “teens only” because they don’t want to have the inevitable conversations about why the library provides a space for this target age group.

YALSA’s guidelines are a good starting point that can begin a discussion about, and evaluation of, a public library’s success in providing physical space dedicated to teens. YALSA’s space guidelines describe the benefits of reserving a space where teens are the primary occupants and where they are buffered from threatening adult-initiated interactions. Use of the teen-only space should be limited to adults browsing materials for a controlled period of time not to exceed 15 minutes, tutors currently working with teen students, and library staff. Or a teen library space can allow adults to access the YA collection that is housed there.

A teens-only area sends the message that the library values teens by reserving a space in the library where they can take ownership.

Although YALSA guidelines suggest that adults accompanied by a teen should be allowed in the area, this suggestion is problematic. The presence of parents, for example, can significantly change the dynamic of the space. Parents should be advised that the area is for teens only, but they are welcome to drop in periodically to check on their teenaged children.

Beyond what is suggested by YALSA, a teens-only area sends the message that the library values teens by reserving a space in the library where they can take ownership. The library can further cultivate teen participation if it develops the space and allows it to evolve.

Teens-only time

The realities of square footage keep many libraries from reserving an area solely for use by teen patrons. The solution to offering a teen space might be to allow adults and children to use the teen space for a portion of the day. This way, during the times when teens are in school the area can be used for other purposes. This might be a solution for small library locations where the teen space is carved out of a general space—allow for general public use of the space during school hours and create signage and policy that define teens-only times in the space (usually after-school hours and weekends during the school year and most days during the summer).

This solution works only if staff members manage the transition from “everyone’s space” to teens-only space at the designated time. A designated teens-only schedule will not succeed if there are no procedures in place, or existing rules are not enforced to ensure that adults or children aren’t occupying the area during the time periods reserved for teens only. If teens arrive and the space is filled with adults and children, they will be unlikely to use the space.

Pitfalls and bad habits: Teen space, not tween space

Older children ages 9–12 (sometimes called tweens) are aspirational teens, and they often want to emulate teen culture and engage in teen activities. Although older children may not feel at home in the children’s area, allowing them to congregate in the teen area is a disservice to the teens for whom the space is intended. A sign that reads “teens” or “teens only” may serve to attract older children and indicate to them and their parents that the space may be intended for their use.

If older children are permitted to congregate in the designated teen space, the library has, in effect, developed two children’s spaces: one for younger children and one for older children—with teens being marginalized. Just as teens will avoid a designated teens-only space if it is filled with adults, they will not use the space if it is filled with older children.

The same steps used to keep adults out of a teen space should be employed by staff to keep the space free of older children. Inform older children and their parents that the area is a teens-only space and kindly but firmly ask them to respect that the space is reserved for teens. Remind them that when they turn 13 the space will be theirs.

A space without staff

A library doesn’t truly have a teen space if it does not have a teen services librarian. Creating a space merely for the sake of having a space is not an end unto itself. It is what happens in the space that is important. Experience trumps the fancy stuff. Staffers are there to facilitate the experience regardless of any bells, gizmos, and whistles.

It is not uncommon for the library to build a teen space but not allocate funds to staff the space with teen services librarians and paraprofessionals. The most well-appointed teen space will turn into a wasteland if there aren’t appropriate staff members to activate it through programming or consistent engagement with teen users, but even the most humble teen space can function if there are staffers present to foster teen participation and engagement.

Don’t segregate the teens

A dedicated teen space is not an opportunity to enforce what Bernier refers to as “age apartheid.” It is not a license for staff to segregate the teen population or to keep them away from adults who may find their presence distasteful.

Providing a dedicated space for teens in the library setting may be viewed as a means to solve the perceived problem of teens being present in the library by relegating teens to a single area. So while the result is a teen space, the motivation for its creation may be a negative one—to segregate teens. A dedicated teen space shouldn’t be considered a way to segregate teens from the general population but as a place to showcase teens’ achievements and recognize their contributions.

There are situations where libraries have shut their doors during after-school hours because of teens or require teens to be registered by parents and to sign in and out of the library during each visit, sign in and out of a dedicated teen space, or attend mandatory orientation with their parents before accessing specific features of a teen space.

In addition to real privacy issues, these types of registration requirements serve as barriers to teen access to the public library or portions of the public library. If teens must attend a library orientation with a parent to gain access to a portion of the public library building, that becomes a real obstacle to teens who can’t seek or get parental buy-in for their use of the library.

When library administration paints all teens as troublemakers and threatens to deny them access to library services, it is a clear case of discrimination. Subjecting teens to a higher standard in order to access services or participate in activities—if they must attend an orientation, provide identification, register, or are otherwise subject to restrictions that do not apply to other population groups—constitutes a form of age-based discrimination. It is necessary to deal with individual cases of disruptive behavior. However, the library must examine whether its policies and procedures contribute to a situation where restricting access to an entire age group seems to be a reasonable remedy.

Shortly after opening, Chicago Public Library’s YOUmedia space dropped its original requirement that teens attend an orientation before using sound-recording equipment, because they realized that teens wanted to use it immediately instead of waiting up to one week to go through a scheduled orientation. The library realized that teens were eager to begin experimenting and tinkering with the equipment. Those teens who had more than a casual interest were likely to return to attend advanced classes. Today’s discourse about library service to teens emphasizes self-directed out-of-school learning, which requires dropping old attitudes about restricting resources to certain times or to an initiated few. The library must promote a teen services culture of yes.


In Practice by Meredith Farkas

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