ContentsNew on the Shelf: Teens in the Library
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New on the Shelf: Teens in the Library
Library Youth Development Programs: Potential Benefits for Youth, Libraries, and Communities
The PLPYD Initiative provided a valuable opportunity for public libraries to test new ways to enhance their resources, programs, and services for youth. Participating libraries used the PLPYD funding to invest in a wide range of paid and volunteer positions for teens such as homework, computer, and general library assistants; members of youth advisory councils; library advocate and outreach staff; and copy and design center employees. They sponsored a variety of youth training experiences to foster personal and social development, job skills, knowledge of technology, and awareness of future career and educational opportunities. They also provided training, drawn largely from the ideas and practices of the youth development field, to library staff to increase their knowledge of adolescent development and skills in working with youth. In addition, the libraries attempted to engage a variety of community organizations, including youth development programs, youth-serving agencies, youth jobs programs, and schools, to assist with youth recruitment and training and program facilitation.
“I’ve seen kids just really mature, accept responsibility graciously, and I’ve seen their self-esteem go out of the roof. They are so proud of themselves. A lot of them really weren’t aware that they had the ability. This has really helped them to understand that they really can do anything that they want to do. I think it’s wonderful.”
“I think they leave with something... Self-esteem, becoming more dependable, more conscientious of the time, coming to work on time; how to call if you’re not going to be there; taking responsibility for your own actions, knowing that this is how the real world works.”
Findings from the evaluation indicate that the PLPYD Initiative had a number of positive impacts on participating youth, library systems, and communities. They suggested that public libraries have the potential to provide an important developmental support to teens, especially those in low-income communities, and that teens can make meaningful contributions within the library. Beyond providing quality collections and information, libraries can be safe and welcoming places and offer adult relationships and role models, and meaningful activities for youth. Library youth development and employment programs also have the potential to build the capacity of the library as an institution and strengthen its ties with the community.
Potential Benefits for Teens
Library-based youth development programs can provide both specific job skills and personal and social development. Interviews and surveys with youth and adult participants, as well as program observations, showed that the PLPYD programs provided contexts for a range of developmental experiences for youth. Although we could not measure changes in teens over time that might be directly attributable to their PLPYD experiences—as opposed to other experiences at home, in school, and in the community—they perceived their experiences to be beneficial.
“Helping the kids [gives me a sense of accomplishment]. I don’t like a boring job that you just sit there, doing paperwork. But if I’m up running around to keep my energy as well as having fun in doing it, it feels like I’m accomplishing something each day. Sometimes after school I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m ready for bed.’ But as soon as I get here, I’m up.”
“Working with different people and working with computers and learning new things... maybe that will help me out in the future.”
16-year old girl
For many teens, PLPYD activities seemed to be their first experience of working toward goals with adults who took them seriously and appreciated their contributions. Youth participants mentioned such benefits as learning technology and other job-related skills, developing such personal qualities as patience and perseverance, and experiencing feelings of acceptance, belonging, and contributing to a group. Youth also expressed their satisfaction in helping other people and in being recognized by librarians and patrons for their contributions. At the same time, program coordinators and library staff reported a range of outcomes they observed in youth, particularly increased self-confidence, sense of responsibility, self-esteem, and desire to be successful, and improvements in peer and adult relationships.
Reflecting the broad goal of PLPYD to expose low-income youth to new educational and career possibilities, some youth also reported that their work at the library made them more aware of what they did or did not want to do in the future—or simply encouraged them to think about their future. Some youth also recognized that they were learning skills that would transfer to their future desired careers, even when those careers were not the exact job they were doing at the library.
Library-based youth programs can provide opportunities for teens to develop positive relationships with adults and peers. One factor that stood out as critical to maintaining youth participation was positive relationships with adult program leaders and other library staff. The PLPYD youth programs initially attracted teens by offering them interesting and fun activities, a chance to serve others, monetary incentives, and, in some cases, a “real job” where younger teens could work at the age of 14. Once they were recruited, their relationships with program and library staff and their peers, as well as the quality of their activities, kept them involved. By most accounts, program and library staff treated them respectfully, valued their services, and tried to provide opportunities for them to take initiative and responsibility.
Library-based youth programs can increase knowledge and use of the library by teens. The PLPYD programs not only attracted the attention of teens who had been regular users of the library prior to the Initiative, but also succeeded in engaging teens who did not usually come to the library. The PLPYD programs attracted both boys and girls. Although a higher percentage (59%) of the participants across the nine sites was female, some sites found the number of boys who expressed interest in PLPYD activities encouraging. Many youth said they learned more about the library and viewed it differently than they did before the PLPYD Initiative. Youth said they now know more about the resources at the library, have a “behind the scenes” view of the library and have a greater appreciation for a librarian’s job. They also viewed librarians as more friendly and saw the library as a place they can be social and have fun—instead of “quiet and boring.”
Potential Benefits for Libraries
Library-based youth development programs can improve the skills and attitudes of library staff in working with youth. One of the most notable benefits of the PLPYD Initiative was that it fostered more positive attitudes towards youth among library staff. Staff attributed improvements in attitudes towards teens to both staff training and direct experiences working with youth. Staff reported they learned more about adolescent development, got to know teens better as individuals, and learned to be clearer in communicating expectations. These findings were consistent with reports from youth, who noted that although library staff were often unfriendly when they started working at the library, as time passed they became more friendly and were more willing to listen to their ideas.
“You look at kids differently after you’ve worked with them and get to know them. Sometimes what they look like is not who they are. You see a great big kid with his pants falling down, and slouching, and you may think certain things about him. But once he’s worked in the library for a day or two, and you see him, you think, ‘This is such a good kid!’”
“The library staff have gained greater understanding and respect for what young people can contribute to an organization... over the last two years, they have realized that youth are a viable work force for them, that they can be very responsible, that a lot of the youth are better workers than some of the adults, and that they are really open and want this opportunity.”
“Knowing about youth developmental assets and putting our library programming into that framework has really lifted our position to another level with funders and our community. It’s lifted our profession to another level.”
“Most of the children in my area can’t afford a computer at home, so having computers at the center will give them the opportunity to be involved in the computer, learn all the different things, and when they go back to school, they can talk to their friends about being on the Internet... It will really enhance them and build their self-esteem.”
Changes in staff attitudes and interactions with teens can influence the broader culture of the library. An improved attitude among staff towards teens was the most consistently reported positive impact of the PLPYD experience across the nine sites. This finding is important because it demonstrates that staff attitudes towards teens can be changed through new or expanded youth programming, greater opportunities to develop personal relationships with teens, and staff training in youth development principles. This change represents an important step because more positive staff attitudes towards teens generally have a positive impact on a library’s ability to attract youth patrons and interact with them in developmentally appropriate ways. Moreover, principles such as “doing with, rather than for” youth and asking them for their ideas became recognized as a valuable approach that could be applied in working with other patron groups and other library staff.
Teens employed by library-based youth programs can provide valuable services to library staff. The PLPYD Initiative proved to staff that teens could be entrusted with a wide variety of tasks and could be genuinely helpful to library staff. According to the executive director of one of the libraries, “The focus on high school kids as employees who do things other than shelving books has been sort of a breakthrough concept.” Another executive director reported, “We’ve learned to value the contributions that teens can make. We’ve come to trust them with tasks and job responsibilities that are far beyond what we had traditionally allowed them to perform. Staff are learning that youth can accept those roles, perform them very well, and can be real contributors.” Not surprisingly, youth enjoyed performing a wider range of work. (Shelving books, in fact, was their least favorite task). And, when they were well structured and well supervised, these expanded work roles for teens provided a much broader range of developmentally positive experiences.
Learning the language of youth development helps to connect public libraries to a larger network of youth organizations and policy discussions. Staff credited youth development principles with changing the general culture of the library by providing an important “new language” for library administrators to work with and helping the library establish a new leadership role for itself in the community—one that connected them to a broader public discussion and policy discourse. “The phrase, ‘positive youth development,’ is a great handle to put on what we all are trying to do,” explained one senior administrator. Another noted that being able to speak the language of positive youth development “gives me confidence that I can talk about this in a way that’s credible to politicians. I can speak to the fact that this is a national effort in libraries and other institutions. It’s documented and researched that this is an important and worthwhile thing to do.”
Potential Benefits for Communities
Library youth programs can provide needed services to the community. The PLPYD programs provided a variety of services to the community, including homework help and other activities for neighborhood children and assistance with computer technology to patrons of all ages. Staff of community organizations expressed gratitude for the steps the libraries were taking to provide jobs and better services for youth in their communities. Although most programs were located in library buildings, one county library placed computers, printers, wiring for Internet access, craft materials, and youth employees directly in local community centers in addition to branch libraries. In another county library system, teens produced a Spanish-Dial-A-Story program that attracted an average of 700 calls a month, testifying to the popularity of this service in the Spanish-speaking community.
Some providers, such as community arts and educational organizations and neighborhood development organizations, said their connection with the PLPYD programs allowed them to reach youth they had not been able to serve previously. Staff sometimes described their teen participants as “ambassadors” for the library because they had learned about the many resources that the library offered and communicated that knowledge to their families and friends.
Library youth programs can make the library a more comfortable place for other community members. Of the seven PLPYD sites that started new youth programs as a result of the PLPYD grant, four believed that the Initiative had helped to increase teen patronage of the library in their community, and three believed that the Initiative had increased adult patronage as well. Notably, these three sites employed teens to provide computer assistance and other help to library patrons. Library staff reported that many adult patrons liked the help that their teen employees were providing, as well as the general fact that local youth were working in the library. Relatedly, three sites believed their teen employees had helped to diversify its staff and improved the library’s ability to serve diverse ethnic, racial, and/or national groups in the community.
“The project is changing the face of youth in our community. The public comes in and sees these helpful, knowledgeable teens, and that’s the opposite of what the media is presenting as the image of local teenagers.”
Libraries, through their youth development programs, can become more visible in the community and provide leadership on youth issues. Although all of the PLPYD libraries were highly regarded in their communities when they began the Initiative, three sites believed it strengthened their leadership role, particularly with regard to youth issues. For example, in one of the urban libraries, staff reported that the Youth Empowerment Summits that were organized as part of its PLPYD Initiative helped strengthen the library’s connection with community organizations, schools, and businesses. As the library’s reputation for providing high-quality after-school experiences and training for youth grew, the city’s Recreation Department and other organizations sought help in training their youth workers. This helped to strengthen the library’s connections with the community and build relationships with other city agencies concerned with youth.
Making Youth Programming Work
Library-based youth development and employment programs have the potential to produce important benefits for youth, libraries, and communities, but these positive impacts are unlikely to be sustained without an infrastructure of support. A key factor in sustaining the PLPYD programs was leadership, as reflected in an executive director who valued flexibility and innovation and strongly supported youth programming, and a high-level youth services administrator to facilitate the assimilation of the new youth programs into the larger institution.
Thus, if other public libraries are to follow the path forged by the PLPYD Initiative, they need to systematically build their capacity for youth programs and services in a way that is sustainable and compatible with their institutional goals and mission. Based on the experiences of the PLPYD sites, we offer the following lessons in three areas for public libraries to improve their youth services and resources for youth in their communities: the staffing and support of youth programs, youth engagement, and institutional capacity.
Staffing and Support of Youth Programs
Dedicated staff are essential to effective youth programs. Across the PLPYD sites, program staff, senior administrators, and librarians agreed that youth programs require a staff person whose priority is to manage the program on at least a part-time basis. Typically, this person is needed to oversee the program on a day-today basis, communicate with senior administrators and branch staff, recruit youth, develop staff and youth trainings, and work with any program partners. Another consistent finding was that the program coordinator needed the active support of at least one senior administrator in order to do his or her job well. If this support was not provided, the coordinator was too isolated from the larger structure of the library, which had a negative effect on the overall program.
If well supported, non-library professionals can make an important contribution to youth programs in public libraries. Outside professionals with experience in education, technology, youth development, and youth employment can bring knowledge, experience, and community resources that library staff do not have, although it will likely take time for them to learn the library system and develop working relationships with branch staff. Most of the PLPYD sites where youth jobs and programs were likely to be sustained beyond the implementation period had key leadership from non-library professionals. These individuals learned the culture of the library, how to communicate with library staff in their terms, and how to apply youth development principles to library settings.
Beyond a dedicated program leader, successful library-based youth programs require the involvement and commitment of branch staff. Branch staff need to understand the purpose of the program and how it forms a part of the larger mission of the library. They also need to have open channels of communication with the program director, and trust that their views will be respected and considered. Despite the time it requires, it is also important that some branch staff play an ongoing role in important aspects of program operations, such as hiring youth. If this does not occur, staff are likely to disengage from the program, depriving it of the support necessary to sustain it over the long term.
Other library staff who are not formally engaged in a youth program also may be important to it. For example, if security guards are unfriendly or hostile to youth, the library will not be able to develop a welcoming environment for youth regardless of particular programs. Alternatively, youth employment programs will probably require the help of human resource staff to review job descriptions, discuss union issues, manage payrolls, and so on. In general, the larger and more intensive the program, the more it will require at least some involvement from a variety of departments throughout the library.
Ongoing staff training to build knowledge of youth development and ways of working with teens is an important part of successful youth programming. Positive changes in staff attitudes towards teens are not likely to last unless they are reinforced with a youth service infrastructure, which emphasizes the importance of ongoing staff training and planned opportunities for staff to work with youth to maintain positive staff attitudes. Training is a critical means of educating staff about the nature of adolescent development, how to work well with teens in library settings, and the purpose and value of youth programming. To be effective, training must be relevant to staff and respectful of their time constraints. Emphasizing a youth development approach can be very helpful if it encourages staff to relate to teens in new ways and addresses their practical concerns about working with youth. Other effective strategies are providing training for other library staff—branch managers, adult librarians, and security guards—and holding joint trainings for adults and teens.
Working with community organizations can strengthen library-based youth programs but takes time and effort The organizations most frequently associated with the PLPYD Initiative were youth development programs, youth-serving agencies, youth jobs programs, and public schools. Other organizations included colleges, social service and philanthropic organizations, technology training centers, career and college preparation programs, churches, media outlets, banks and businesses, community arts programs, youth development programs, health organizations, and parks and recreation centers. Most partnerships evolved to accomplish specific PLPYD program goals. Community partners most often assisted with program facilitation, youth recruitment and training, and provided space, materials, and transportation.
The most productive relationships were ones formed with people and agencies that could extend the outreach, resources, and expertise of the library but also understood the goals and needs of the library. This required clear and ongoing communication to clarify goals, roles, and responsibilities.
Fostering Youth Participation
Even in the best of circumstances, it can be difficult for adults to get the attention of adolescents and engage them in structured activities. Many youth who participated in the PLPYD Initiative found their way to their library’s youth programs because they were in the library or had friends who were involved. However, outreach to schools and youth-serving organizations were essential to recruiting youth for the programs in the first year.
There were several challenges in engaging youth for the PLPYD youth programs, particularly in recruiting hard-to-reach teens and teens who had not been library users:
- Limits in the number of youth that could participate due to funding, staffing, and program content;
- Restrictive human resource policies within the library about the employment of younger teens, the number of hours teens could work, and the range of roles and responsibilities youth could assume; and
- Difficulties in identifying potential participants in the absence of demographic information about them (the collection of which public libraries traditionally have resisted).
Outreach to and fostering the participation of underserved youth is not easy for public libraries. Locating the PLPYD programs in libraries or community centers in low-income neighborhoods was an effective way of targeting low-income teens. However, special efforts still were needed to engage youth who do not usually come to the library.
Community organizations that work with low-income youth can assist in recruiting youth, but must understand the library context and program goals. In the PLPYD Initiative, there were advantages and disadvantages to using outside organizations to recruit youth for library jobs and programs. Schools, youth-serving organizations, youth employment programs, and occasionally, city or county juvenile justice departments brought in more “hard-to-reach” teens and teens who do not normally come to the library. However, the varied priorities and goals of outside organizations influenced which teens were identified for jobs, and they did not always fit well in the library environment. Thus, the success of referrals from outside organizations depended on clear communication between the library and the outside agency about program expectations and the ability of library staff to work with more difficult teens.
Both program factors and personal factors affect participation in library-based youth development programs. In the PLPYD Initiative, youth were attracted by the service opportunities in the library programs, financial incentives, and the desire to use and develop computer skills. Their decisions to participate were influenced, in part, by other responsibilities and after-school activities and family support. Although most of the PLPYD youth were able to make arrangements to get to their jobs, transportation was a significant barrier for some, particularly in rural areas. It was also one barrier that program and library staff tried to overcome, for example, by planning activities for times when teens could attend, scheduling them close to where teens lived, or providing bus tokens for use of public transportation.
The relationship between teens and their supervisors or program leaders strongly influences their connection to their library job or activity. In interviews, teens often spoke about the positive effect of a relationship with a project coordinator or a library staff member. Clearly, the longer teens were involved in an activity or job, the greater opportunity there was for them to develop positive relationships with caring adults. These relationships appeared to be critical factors in maintaining youth participation.
Positive relationships between youth and library staff did not happen immediately. It usually took time for both adults and youth to appreciate the skills and perspectives of the other, especially those not used to working together. It was not uncommon for teens to note that library staff were “unfriendly” when they first started working at the library but became friendlier over time. Similarly, it was not uncommon for staff to complain about some of the teens’ behaviors when we interviewed them in the first year of the Initiative, and later, during the second and third years, to extol their contributions and accomplishments.
Youth participation requires both structure and flexibility on the part of adult leaders. Flexibility on the part of project and library staff emerged as an important factor in retaining youth in PLPYD jobs and programs. Yet, this flexibility came at some cost to library staff. Libraries implementing homework help and computer assistance programs needed teens when they were busiest, that is, during the afterschool and evening hours. Because of transportation difficulties and other activities, teens were not always available at the times they were most needed. On the other hand, less-structured and less-intensive programs such as youth advisory groups tended to be less engaging activities for teens.
Providing a range of positions for youth of different ages and abilities and engaging older youth as mentors to younger youth are promising strategies in youth programs. In the PLPYD Initiative, a “scaffolding” or “apprenticeship” model that provided steps for teens to move up to more responsible, higher-level positions—and perhaps serve as mentors to younger and newer program participants— was one way to maintain interest among youth. High school students also responded well to programs that used college students as program assistants or “mentors.” College students served as role models of someone who was in higher education and had career aspirations. In addition, teens enjoyed working with them, and often saw them as having backgrounds that were similar to their own.
Intensity of participation affects the benefits perceived by youth. The quality of the experiences and benefits reported by youth tended to be stronger for those who were engaged for longer periods of time. Teens who had taken part in consistent activities (e.g., regularly scheduled jobs as homework helpers or computer assistants) for several months or longer were more likely to report benefits than those who had been involved for shorter periods or in less-frequent activities. In addition, teens who had been regular volunteers or users of the library before becoming involved in PLPYD were more apt to report positive effects than other teens for whom their PLPYD job or activity was their first substantial experience with the library.
Youth employment programs are very costly for public libraries to run. However, there is considerable variation among intensive youth programs that employ teens as providers of homework help and computer assistance. By far the largest cost component is personnel, including teen salaries and program and library staff. Employing youth in homework help programs typically will be more expensive than having them serve as library assistants because homework help programs generally require an additional layer of staffing in the form of adult program leaders to work with teen staff. In addition, these programs usually require more of a time commitment on the part of the program director, given the wider range of program elements involved.
Raising funds to sustain these programs over time is challenging. Although public libraries get the bulk of their funding from local government, special programs are typically funded through private donations. Sustaining programs over the long haul, however, requires public funding or a commitment within the library’s budget.
Although they are expensive, there are advantages to programs that engage youth intensively. Intensive programs are defined as those that involve regular youth participation over a substantial period of time: for example, employing teens as part-time computer help, homework help, and general library assistants at several sites, as well as in one library’s copy and design center. (Notably, all of the programs that produced intensive engagement involved paid teen positions. When volunteer positions were used, the tenure of youth involvement decreased substantially.)
The PLPYD experience suggests several advantages to intensive programs. First, because youth remain substantially involved over a longer period of time, they are more likely to reap the educational, vocational, and personal benefits found to be associated with library youth programs. Second, intensive programs allow library staff to get to know youth well as individuals, which seems to be one of the most effective ways to improve staff attitudes towards youth.
Continuity in teen-staff relations also allows youth employment programs in particular to become an important support to library staff, as youth have the time to learn to do their jobs well with a minimum of adult supervision. At the same time, when teens are employed in positions that involve substantial interaction with library patrons, longer job tenure allows them to develop beneficial relationships with those that they serve. (Children, for example, may form valuable relationships with teen mentors in homework help programs.) Taken as a whole, these factors tend to have a positive impact on the entire library system, as youth become well integrated into the institution and, in most cases, part of its public persona.
Public libraries need to assess and build their capacity for youth programs and services systematically. It is helpful to think of youth programs and services on a continuum that extends from establishing a good young adult collection to developing and sustaining intensive youth programs. Although the particular mix of programs and services that fit a given system will vary, all libraries must be careful to think about how to build their capacity in a systematic and sustainable way. A number of sites in the PLPYD Initiative attempted to implement ambitious youth programs that they were not prepared to sustain once the implementation grant ended. And, because insufficient attention was devoted to building a lasting infrastructure for youth services, several of these programs left a minimal institutional legacy once they were discontinued.
Only public libraries that have built a solid infrastructure for youth programs and services should attempt to move to a higher level of programs and services: for example, establishing dedicated teen space, providing volunteer opportunities for teens, or hiring a youth services coordinator to develop youth programs. And, in so doing, they should be careful to design programs that will build capacity in a sustainable way.
Youth programs work best when they are part of a strong sense of institutional mission. Having a strong sense of mission that permeates the institution—which typically requires a strong executive director—helps to create harmonious relations among different levels of staff, and boosts the energy and morale of employees throughout the system. This, in turn, supports the implementation of youth programs that require the support of both senior administrators and librarians and demand a substantial investment of time and energy.
It is critical, however, that the connection between youth programs and services and the larger mission of the institution be understood and accepted by both senior administrators and all members of the library staff. If the general purpose of a youth program is understood and accepted as an important part of the overall mission of the library—and this mission has been previously internalized and embraced by library staff—then staff are much more likely to support the program regardless of daily mishaps and its inevitable ups and downs. If the mission of the library is not commonly understood to include substantial investments in youth programs and services, this should be addressed before trying to make such investments.
The more expensive a youth program, the more it needs to show benefits that extend beyond those directly involved. Today, both public agencies and private funders routinely demand that institutions that receive funding to provide public or social services demonstrate that they are spending money in a cost-effective way. With regard to youth programs, this frequently involves requests to provide outcome measures or some equivalent documentation of program effectiveness. Although it can be difficult to provide clear data on youth outcomes due to the complexity and cost of the necessary research, it is important to have some clearly defined set of objectives that youth programs can reasonably be expected to accomplish.
For example, employing teens as homework help assistants is relatively easy to justify, as some staff will be needed to assist children with homework in such programs in any event. Given a high-quality program, having teens perform this role can be reasonably expected to produce positive outcomes for the youth involved, the children in the program, the other staff involved in it, and the community more broadly.
Well-designed, high-quality youth programs can help build library capacity in a variety of ways. Staff training, for example, is an important component of any quality youth program. Learning how to conduct regular staff trainings represents an important capacity building measure for the library, both with regard to youth services and more broadly.
Teen employment programs may also build capacity by providing staff with a source of flexible, multipurpose support. As several libraries that participated in the PLPYD Initiative found, simply realizing that teens could be productively engaged in a variety of tasks beyond shelving books represented an important breakthrough. In cases where youth employees interacted with the general public, several PLPYD libraries found that they played a valuable role in helping the library to better serve diverse cultural and linguistic communities. At the same time, these programs are believed to hold promise in terms of meeting future recruitment needs, particularly with regard to diversity.
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