10-15 years ago we librarians got it wrong.
We were freaking out because we had programs for the elderly like book clubs, novel to film groups and other things they told us to do. We had programs for babies like storytimes and all the other stuff that moms and dads just bring their babies too. But what about the folks who weren’t babies or elderly? We were missing out on serving the majority of our populations!
The logical solution? Help the teens! People are scared of them! They’re vulenrable! What if they turn to drugs because they aren’t healthy/fulfilled/informed/in a library? It was a noble move, truly and not totally our fault. I mean EVERYONE was focused on this age bracket and how to help. We, naturally, threw our hat into the ring and devoted ourselves to teens and kicking butt in the process.
We formed teen advisory boards, ventured into high schools and gave reader’s advisory sessions, bought video game systems and hosted overnights. A lot of this was fun but then the ineviteable turnover took place. Folks aged out of jobs or moved on to other library systems and the teens lost out. Those of you who have entered a library as a Teen focused staff member following in the footsteps of the librarians who pioneered this programming know what this is like. Despite your efforts to win over new teen audiences and all the great advice out there (Just give them pizza! They’ll love you!) you couldn’t help but feeling like you were losing your teens. Like they didn’t like you. Like you weren’t good at your job. (Have I lost it? Did I ever really have it?!?)
The truth is that this happens because teens are maginficent and loyal creatures who are finally at and age where they’re able to stand up for what they believe in and will do so without calculating risk or reward. This is one of the things that makes them completely great. Think about it- teens will literally obsess over bands, athletes, shows or their crush. They will write poetry, create art and spend all their money on these obsessions. Their librarians are no different. Even if during my time in VT I heard a ton of flack for some of what I was trying to do I STILL have teens and tweens from that library who write to me looking for advice on books, girls, and bullies. The same thing has happened since I left ME too. These kids will always be “my kids” and if they’re reading this they know I’m if talking about them. You’ve gotta feel for anyone who steps into the shoes of the last Teen Librarian…
So how did we get it wrong? We focused on these elusive, loyal creatures assuming we could wow them and win them over instantly. By jumping from kids to teens we accidentally created a new barren wasteland of that now elusive group following our children’s programming audience – Our tweens. If we aren’t programming for tweens they’ll never become the kind of teens who will give us the feedback we need to create high quality programs teens have ownership over! You’ve gotta have BOTH to do your job well.
Fast forward from my gaming/TAB glory days and the landscape is totally different in Teen Library Land and I’m in a totally new city. What I’ve learned about the kind of work I do since I moved to Chattanooga is not in line with anything that’s worked before for me. I create a pop culture relevant program with a steady after school following? Everybody stops coming when summer starts AND NEVER COMES BACK. I create an intense program with homework about starting a small business that no teen in their right mind would sign up for? Massive hit and they want more. Any type of precipitation is in the forecast? The 2nd Floor will be a barren wasteland FOR THE WHOLE DAY.
The only thing that hasn’t changed is what teens want.
Money, Freedom, Driving.
Really, that’s it.
If you can host the local Driver’s Ed program you have struck gold, my friends. (Especially if you can work a little fun programming into their breaks!) If you can show teens how to get a job or earn money you’ve got a winner. If you can schedule your programming around when your teens are there, not when it’s convenient for you then you’ll do just fine.
The one program that’s able to cover all of these bases really well and that no matter where I am teens flock to is my volunteer program. I’ve set it up so that by working far (and I mean FAR) in advance I’m always able to give the teen who “needs 8 hours by tomorrow!” plenty to do. This kind of flexibility provides them with autonomy and Freedom.
I ask about their interests and simultaneously am able to flesh out my own programming by training them on how to lead a program, buying what they need to make it happen and letting go of control, only acting as support if they need it. This kind of training is actually mentorship and depending on the program various types of job training (large event management, program design & facilitation, customer service). All volunteers are offered a one page document when they’re ready that outlines their service and the impact it had on their community in bullet point sentences applicable to the job world. This provides them with meaningful work experience and creates a relationship with me they can use for college, scholarship or job applications. And you know what that leads to? Money.
Occasionally there are opportunities to hang posters for the library or collect donations using their cars. Depending on your policies you may or may not be able to give teens driving time to earn those hours. That’s right, Driving their cars can be a library program.
So I’m taking a new look at how we present the Volunteer Program on the 2nd Floor. It’s not just us doing the right thing and creating high quality volunteer experiences for our local teens, it’s job training. It’s job shadowing. It’s a mentorship. It’s work training. And our two teen employees on the 2nd Floor were once volunteers so it’s also a job creation program.
As such, I’m not only counting the hours that teens give us each month so we can show an in-kind donation with a serious monetary value from the very audience we aim to please, I’m counting the weekly number of participants in the volunteer program (as in working a work, week). I’m also kicking myself because this is a powerful stat I should have been collecting for years!
So go forth, re-examine the way you utilize your teen volunteers. Giving them more will get you more. I promise.