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.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from realistic tween fiction it’s that being the new girl can be hard. Really hard. Roving bullies, countless social faux pas, missing friends and family, it’s really just a wasteland strewn with mortification and terror. Growing up I never exactly “fit in”. My clothes were different, my hairstyles were different, my sense of humor was different and the things I liked to do for fun were really different. (If you’ve just moved to a new town I do NOT recommend jumping straight into imaginary downhill skiing on your roller-skates in front of the cool kids.) When we moved to Maine I was nine and I had all of the aforementioned things going for me. It was like walking straight into one of those novels except there was no turning the page when things got too hard to read. I couldn’t finish the book and be glad I wasn’t in some other girl’s shoes. I embraced the strange though. I liked standing out as a societal rebel, I took pleasure in scaring the other kids with my sense of humor and while my lack of friends bothered me I didn’t want to compromise who I was. After about a year of this I found Rachel, another outsider, and we took solace in one another’s company. All of a sudden the world with bullies didn’t exist anymore, all that was real was the world we created for ourselves.
Some folks have been asking what my first week has been like since joining the 2nd Floor of the Chattanooga Public Library. There’s interest about having gaming equipment for teens available all day (even if teens are skipping school), there are questions about letting kids have access to expensive equipment like our 3D printer, there is wonder about the fact that we have 14,000 sq feet for JUST ages 8-18, and there are questions about what we’ve got up our sleeves, what big, crazy things we want to do next.
The fancy equipment is wonderful to have right off the bat, but it’s not the best part. I’ve always pushed to get games in my previous libraries and the responsibilities libraries have to reflecting our communities and bridging gaps makes it easy to justify the need for 3D printers or maker spaces in grant funding if you can’t find room for it in your budgets.
We have lots of space to grow, be noisy and even run around if we want to which is incredible but it’s also not the best part. This week we had the room to create music and a gigantic 20 foot jellyfish at the same time. When the kids excitement led them to get rambunctious they were encouraged to run, no, stampede to the other end of our floor to get drinks of water and burn it off. I know space is hard to come by for many libraries but even at my first library when we didn’t have enough space to run around we could go outside to burn off energy. At my last library when we needed to burn energy we occasionally just let the kids be kids and run if needed. There can be creative ways to deal with small spaces and locations that don’t have the great outdoors at your disposal.
The best part about working in the Chattanooga Public Library and specifically on the 2nd Floor is being in a building filled with people like me. People who have also had their programming ideas received with raised eyebrows, people who might not look like other librarians and certainly don’t talk like them. It’s like I’ve found a hive of Rachels and we’re just getting started in creating those big, crazy programs everyone is waiting to hear about. I am supported, I am inspired, I am encouraged and I am flourishing. That’s what it’s like to work here.