While providing excellent library service to teens is a constant goal, you’ve most likely discovered that the objectives for maintaining this goal are persistently changing. One month your online message boards are off the charts with teen activity and the next month not one discussion develops. You’ve finally given up trying to keep an updated email list for your youth advisory council after hearing from many of your teens that they just don’t use email anymore or even have an email address. Your objectives of keeping teen interest and keeping up attendance may feel elusive but here are a few of the lessons learned from two libraries—the Burke County Library System, a small town library, and the Pikes Peak Library District, serving a much larger teen population. These lessons include how to attract teens to and keep teens interested in your library, promote an atmosphere of inclusion for your teens and your library staff and develop successful library programs.
Get out of the library
Attracting teens to the library is no easy task, and to tackle this objective the Pikes Peak Library District takes an aggressive approach--by getting out of the library. The most valuable program that PPLD teen services offers the Colorado Springs community is book talking in the local middle and high schools. Each year, 8-10 library staff speak to over 4,000 teens in their classrooms. Staff go to the schools in pairs loaded with suitcases full of teen books. They usually book talk for two to three class periods to two more classes at a time. Let’s face it, to many students, the library just doesn’t enter their thoughts on a daily basis. These students are busy with schoolwork, social activities, extracurricular sports and clubs, Facebook, texting and dating. But, while in these classrooms, library staff have the opportunity to talk to students face to face. Not only do these book talking pairs advertise the latest hits in the book world, they also advertise the library. They tell teens about library services and upcoming programs and remind teens of all the materials available to them for free. They hand out promotional materials with library information and upcoming events. And perhaps most importantly, these staff give the library a human presence. Students who come to the library after a school visit recognize the book talking staff, say hello and chat about which books they are picking up. In fact, branch staff will often book talk in conjunction with the teen services staff at schools close to their library branches just so their teens will recognize them. This approach to library marketing takes time, staff and dedication but the response from teens make this service well worth the effort.
This extensive book talking program not only provides a human presence to the library and provides a way to advertise library events, it refocuses teen attention to books as entertainment. During these sessions, library staff are showing teens that books are interesting and have value far more than just for schoolwork or required reading. Staff get teens excited about books and reading and entice teens to come to the library not for the computers, video games or the promise of pizza at the next library program, but for the books.
In addition to PPLD’s book talking program, the teen services staff also partner with local teen-focused businesses to provide library programs outside of the library. The most successful example of this type of programming is library skate night. On a specific Friday evening, teens who show up to the local skating rink with their library card get in free. Those who don’t have a library card can get one at the library card table located in the skating rink lobby where library staff are waiting with library card applications as well as promotional materials featuring upcoming library services and upcoming events. Teen staff take turns out on the rink with teens, again, giving the library a human presence. Skating rinks, local skate parks, bowling alleys, malls, movie theaters and teen-centric cafes are all possibilities for partnerships. Finding a teen-focused business in your community may be a daunting task and you may experience a lack of interest from many businesses, but once you find an organization that is eager to partner with the library, don’t let their enthusiasm whither away. Keep up contact with the business. Let them know that you want to partner again and let them know just how much the library appreciates their community contribution.
Empower your staff—support your teens
Once teens are in the library, recognizing your staff and reading your books, turning them into repeat customers is the next objective to reaching that teen customer service goal. To establish a regular teen population we need to make them feel comfortable and the only way to do that is to make the library staff comfortable serving these teens. Has everyone on your reference staff been trained for the teen reference interview? Consider developing a teen reference training session that focuses on the reference interview from the teen perspective. Make sure your staff understands how teens, especially young teens, can be intimidated by the reference desk and how to put teens at ease. Discuss the development of the teen brain. The teen brain is experiencing a dramatic growth spurt and that makes teen decision-making impulsive and instinctive. Do staff members know how to explain the difference between databases and websites when teens say they aren’t allowed to research online? Do they understand teens’ need to take home materials right away? There’s no time for holds or interlibrary loans. Also, ensuring that library staff understand just how much teens are intimidated by adult authority figures and how scary library staff can seem will help make your staff more empathetic to teens and will empower them to confidently help these young patrons.
While the importance of a teen space in the library is not a new concept, it is pertinent to go over it here. Teens need a space within the library where they feel they belong. If teens are shushed everywhere they go by adult patrons and library staff never stick up for them, teens will leave and never come back. Teens need a place to sit with a book, chat with friends while studying or just play on their laptops without adult patrons lecturing them or complaining about them. This space doesn’t have to be a teens-only place. It can be any spot in the library as long as library staff are willing to protect them from other patrons and give them some room behaviorally to be teens. Usually, however, a teens-only space is the best solution.
Whether your teen space is physical or not, once you have teens coming to your library on a regular basis, it is a good idea to have a teen behavior policy. Chances are your library has a patron code of conduct, but this policy may not cover impulsive teen behavior. If your teens are being banned from the library for weeks or months for impulsive behavior (e.g. cursing at a computer game in the heat of the moment) they may never come back. Consider developing shorter banning periods for one time impulsive misdemeanors or consider inviting the teens and their parents to discuss their behavior with you, your manager and your security in order to shorten the banning period. Basically, let the punishment fit the crime—teens are impulsive humans. However you decide to enforce proper public behavior with your teen patrons be sure that all of your staff know which behaviors fall under your teen policy and which ones are still considered major offenses. Be clear about procedures for enforcing these rules. Teens will respect these rules if everyone is consistent.
Library programs for teens are as diverse as the teens themselves. Rather than discussing specific programs to try out in your library, here are some tips for meeting your objectives for program success.
- If no one on your staff is enthusiastic about hosting a specific program, don’t do it. Teens feed off of the librarian’s enthusiasm during programs and if the librarian is bored, the teens will be as well. Perhaps, there is a teen who is willing to host the program instead? One very successful program at PPLD, a writing group, is run by an older teen who grew up as a member of the youth advisory council.
- Find the right person for the program. Another successful PPLD program, teen chess, would not be as successful if not for a security guard who also happens to be a chess master. The teens get to know the security guard and know that he isn’t just an intimidating authority figure.
- Get your local teachers enthused about your programs. The first teen poetry slam at the Burke County Public Library was a success because one teacher encouraged her teens to attend and to recite their original poetry. She even gave extra credit to her students for participating and brought in extra snacks to supplement the library’s provisions.
- Give your local teachers field trip ideas. Encourage your teachers to bring their students to the library for research day to prepare for their annual science fair or National History Day projects.
- Use your youth advisory council as a sounding board for program ideas. The council may agree that a specific program is a good idea, but if no one on the council actually volunteers to help with the program, what does that say about their enthusiasm for it? Their lack of enthusiasm will mirror the rest of the teen community.
Providing excellent teen services to your community is not a simple goal to meet and there isn’t a single answer for every library. Excellence in service requires a constant renewal of staff energy and a constant review of successful/unsuccessful practices. The bottom line is, if it doesn’t work -- change it. And remember, what worked last summer may not work so well by December. And that’s okay. However, if you maintain an aggressive presence outside of your library, teens will not be able to forget you. If you empower your teens and staff with the tools to understand one another your teens will become a constant and lively presence in your library. And if you can find the best mix of staff to host, enthusiastic teachers and parents to advertise for you, and youth council members to support your programs, your library events will excite your teen patrons enough to come back for more. Develop these objectives into everyday priorities for your library and your goal to provide excellent customer services to teens will succeed.
See also the webinar with Jill Jarrell, Serving the Young Adult Population: It's not just about video games