AL Live: The Kid and Teen-Friendly Library

July 23, 2014

The July 10 episode of American Libraries Live (AL Live), “The Kid and Teen-Friendly Library,” featured a discussion on getting children and youth involved with the library and library services. Jennifer Velasquez, coordinator of teen services for the San Antonio (Tex.) Public Library System and a lecturer in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at San José (Calif.) State University, moderated the following panelists as they shared their insights on the topic:

  • Amy J. Alessio, teen librarian, Schaumburg (Ill.) Township District Library;
  • Lana Adlawan, supervising librarian for teen services, Oakland (Calif.) Public Library; 
  • Heather Booth, teen services librarian, Thomas Ford Memorial Library in Western Springs, Illinois; and
  • Amanda Foulk, youth services librarian, Sacramento (Calif.) Public Library.

The panelists frequently referenced The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services (2014, ALA Editions), of which Booth is coauthor. To begin the discussion, they agreed that an important starting point is to see the library from a youth perspective. “When a teen walks into a library, how do they feel? What do they see? And what can they expect from us?” Adlawan asked.

Alessio added that flexibility was the key term in making a library friendly to children and teens. Foulk agreed, saying it was important that youth know the library is “not a place where they’re going to be shushed, they’re going to be welcomed just as they are.”

Adlawan emphasized how the interior design of a library can still welcome youth, whether that’s with bright colors for children’s sections or having little nooks where teens can have their own sense of privacy. Libraries without a lot of cash to spare can rethink existing design. Booth’s library reallocated a section of the library where the reference collection had been housed and created a dedicated teen section.

When it comes to ensuring that youth feel accepted at the library, being consistent in terms of patron service is important. “The expectation is that library staff is welcome to all age groups,” Adlawan said, adding that more often than not it’s not library staff members, but other patrons, who have issues with youth.

And if there is a teen event going on, it’s important to remember that it isn’t exclusively youth librarians interacting with various age groups in the library. Be sure to thank all staff members for their help when there is youth programming happening around the building, Alessio said. (She suggests passing out chocolate.) For patrons complaining about being disturbed by youth programs, Booth also suggested that library staffers point them to designated quiet areas or give them a schedule so they know when activity and noise levels are higher.

“You need to listen to people who complain but that doesn’t mean you have to change how your library is structured,” she said.

“If everyone is on board with teen programming, staff should never complain about the success of a program,” even if that means there is more noise at the library, Velasquez added.

Panelists also discussed the difference between children and teens. Whereas children are still being brought to the library, it’s often easier to get them into programs. Teens are a little more challenging, especially if they see people younger than them in the same programs. Speaking to the need to capture and retain teen attention, the panelists talked about the popularity of YA books and the need to add some to the adult collections since they interest a broader range of readers.

At Foulk’s library, the hot teen titles are front and center in front of the circulation desk in “adult space,” so that teen readers feel welcome.

“If we’re buying 30 copies of James Patterson, why can’t we add a few more copies of John Green?” Booth asked.

Alessio said that her library has had success with “Next Gen” programming, that targets readers in their 20s and 30s, many of whom enjoy YA titles.

Developing youth programming or services isn’t easy and doesn’t happen right away, so patience and flexibility are key.

“Be patient and let things build. Things won’t be the way you want right away,” Velasquez said. Booth agreed: “Don’t wait until you have the perfect program. It won’t happen. It’s okay if you try something that doesn’t work.”

Adlawan, whose library has a teen representative on its board, recommended finding teens (whether they’re in the library or in other places in the community) and getting their input. Booth stressed the need for librarians to be their own best advocates by promoting their programs and not being afraid to share their success with decision makers.

Foulk echoed this idea, suggesting that libraries use community partners for their built-in audiences and not being afraid to reach out to non-youth focused library staff members who may have expertise in certain areas (like gaming).   

“Youth services is everyone on staff’s business,” she said. “Let them help you.”

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