New on the Shelf: Teens in the Library

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 New on the Shelf: Teens in the Library

Given the increasing tasks facing youth and the complex skills they must develop for future careers, all community institutions and policymakers—not just public libraries—need to reexamine their roles in supporting youth. Local communities provide an important context in which children, youth, and families grow, develop, and function. People who are less affluent or less well-integrated into the larger society (such as children and youth) are particularly reliant on the local community to provide needed goods and services and for connections to opportunity and information. Public libraries, along with schools, youth-serving agencies, religious organizations, and other community-based organizations, represent a source of space, access, staff, materials, knowledge, and connections that can improve the well-being of children and youth and support their development.

The PLPYD Initiative demonstrates that public libraries can provide an important developmental support to teens, especially those in low-income communities. Public libraries provide free access to information, technology, and safe places to be during out-of-school hours. In addition, libraries have the potential to offer high-quality youth development and employment programs that include training in specific job skills and general personal and social skills. Because of their universal presence in communities and their function as providers of information, libraries may play a special role in the web of support communities provide for youth.

Working with youth requires time, financial resources, dedicated staff, consistent leadership, and the integration of youth programming with the library’s core mission and goals. Public libraries need to start by assessing their capacity for youth programs and services and then build their capacity in a systematic way. This suggests that the role of the public library in meeting the developmental needs of youth—and which needs—depends largely on its capacity and resources as well as the strength of other community resources like schools, parks, and other youth-serving organizations.

Not all libraries have the resources to provide large-scale programs without additional public or private funding. However, this does not mean that libraries cannot improve their youth services or interactions with youth. With supportive leadership, staff can develop knowledge and skills to work more intensively with youth and develop relationships with community organizations that might lead to the sharing of resources. As the PLPYD Initiative demonstrated, improved youth services and relationships with teens can benefit libraries as well as youth and communities.

One key recommendation for policymakers and funders is to invest in public libraries that serve low-income communities and have some institutional capacity to expand services for youth. There is a shortage of library staff who know about adolescent development and are experienced in working with youth, and the current professional educational system does not provide an incentive to work with youth or improve services for them. Staffing and staff development are critical elements of building capacity, which requires efforts to encourage library schools to devote more time to training professionals for public service in general and youth services in particular. It also requires libraries to provide more opportunities for their current staff to enhance their skills in working with youth.

In addition, non-library professionals represent an important source of potential staffing for youth programs. In the PLPYD Initiative, outside professionals with experience in education, youth development, and youth employment brought knowledge, experience, and community resources that library staff did not have. If non-library professionals are hired to run important youth programs, it is critical that they have the time and support necessary to learn the fundamentals of the library system.

Another recommendation is for public libraries to explore ways to better work with schools and other youth-serving organizations in their communities. Developing effective relations with other community organizations can help to strengthen the organizational infrastructure of a community. Although libraries have no mandated connection with children and youth as schools do, they have the potential to provide a neutral and accessible site for program delivery, are a valuable community resource for information and exchange, and can be a key partner in developing supportive communities for youth.

In the PLPYD Initiative, schools remained challenging to communicate with (especially when teacher turnover was high), but many local branch libraries discovered ways to connect on an individual staff level. Community arts organizations, youth media programs, and community health and counseling centers emerged as promising resources for libraries implementing new youth initiatives. Community development organizations and youth employment organizations were other natural partners for library teen employment programs. However, successful collaborations depended on mutual understanding of the needs, resources, and capacity of both the library and the community organization. As in all relationships, establishing clear goals and responsibilities and communicating regularly were critical to success.

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