New on the Shelf: Teens in the Library

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 New on the Shelf: Teens in the Library

Several trends have come together recently to intensify interest in how public libraries might best support the development of youth in their communities. First, more and more teenagers have been visiting public libraries because they are safe, comfortable, and affordable places to do homework, use computers, and socialize after school. In turn, parents, communities, and policymakers increasingly view public libraries as part of a network of supports for youth that includes schools, churches, parks and recreation centers, museums, and youth-serving organizations.

Libraries, publicly funded and present in most communities, are viewed as a promising resource for low-income youth who have less access than their more affluent peers to the educational and career development services they need to become productive adults. However, most libraries have limited resources and staff to work with youth. Although nearly a fourth of library patrons are teenagers, public libraries traditionally have devoted less of their space, personnel, and financial resources to services for teens than to any other age group. 1

At the same time, public libraries also have been grappling with questions about their mission and relevance in the age of the personal computer and Internet. In response, they have sought to define themselves as multifaceted institutions that not only provide printed and digital resources and expert guidance to these information sources, but also serve as cultural, educational, and social hubs for communities. Such a broad vision opens up new ways for thinking about how public libraries might work best with youth to broadly support a range of needs—intellectual, vocational, personal, and social.

Such an approach fits well with the principles of the youth development movement, which emerged as an important force during the 1980s and 1990s.

Increasingly influential with policy makers, legislators, and funders, youth development principles view young people as resources instead of problems, and stress the importance of community supports for youth development, including safe spaces, relationships with supportive adults, and meaningful activities. As the influence of youth development principles has spread, interested parties both within and outside the library field have come to view public libraries as institutions that can offer important developmental supports for youth, particularly in underserved, low-income communities.

Given these trends, The Wallace Foundation launched the Public Libraries as Partners in Youth Development (PLPYD) Initiative in 1999. The goal of the Initiative was to “support the development of innovative models for public library systems to provide high quality educational enrichment and career development programs for underserved low-income teenagers and children.” 2 Public libraries selected for participation in the Initiative were challenged to develop or expand youth programs that engaged individual teens in a developmentally supportive manner, while enhancing library services for all youth in the community.3 PLPYD libraries were encouraged to ground their work in youth development principles, and to develop partnerships with schools and other community institutions. Recognizing the need of low-income teens for affordable social supports located in their neighborhoods, Initiative funding was directed towards libraries that serve predominantly low-income communities.

This summary is based on the report from Chapin Hall Center for Children’s 4-year evaluation of the Initiative.4 The purpose of the evaluation was not to assess individual sites, but rather to derive lessons from the Initiative that are relevant to the library field as a whole. The evaluation focused on identifying which types of youth programs and implementation strategies were more or less effective in engaging youth and furthering the broad goals of the Initiative; the costs of developmentally enriching youth employment programs for public libraries and how they might be financed; the most important benefits of the Initiative for youth, libraries, and communities; and the lessons of the Initiative regarding the capacity of public libraries to provide services, programs, and jobs that meet the developmental needs of youth. Evaluation data included interviews and surveys of youth, library staff, and community informants, program observations, and administrative records at all nine sites. A study of youth participation was conducted at three sites, while programs at four sites were the focus of an in-depth examination of cost and financing issues.

The PLPYD Libraries:

Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn, NY

Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore, MD

Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, Charlotte, NC

Fort Bend County Libraries, Richmond, TX

King County Library System, Issaquah, WA

Oakland Public Library, Oakland, CA

Free Library of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA

Tucson-Pima Public Library, Tucson, AZ

Washoe County Library System, Reno, NV


This report presents key findings and lessons from the evaluation about the effects of the PLPYD programs on youth, libraries, and communities and what it takes to implement and sustain high-quality youth programs in public libraries. Considered as a whole, the PLPYD experience demonstrates that:

  • Public libraries have the potential to design youth programs that provide developmentally enriching experiences to teens and have a positive effect both on youth services and on the library more broadly.
  • Implementing and sustaining these projects is complicated, timeconsuming, and expensive.
  • The success or failure of particular programs depends on the library’s resources and the degree to which these programs are an integral part of the institutional mission and goals of the library.

Many library staff expressed the view that their libraries are understaffed and underfinanced, and, moreover, that teens are only one of many constituencies they serve. Thus, regardless of the level of financial and human resources, we learned that youth programming is more successful when the goal of serving young people well is embedded in the library’s mission. This integration is necessary in order to allocate funds; hire, train, and retain staff; and commit the time—that is, the intensive staff time in the short term to implement and manage good programs, and the period of time over the long term—for programs to reach maturity and show results.

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1 National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Services and Resources for Children and Young Adults in Public Libraries. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement (NCES 95-357), 1995.

2 Wallace Foundation (formerly, Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund). Request for Implementation Grant Proposals, 1999.

3 The nine participating libraries, which included both leading urban libraries and smaller county systems, received grants of approximately $400,000 each for a 3-year implementation period. The Urban Libraries Council (ULC) was engaged to provide support and technical assistance to the sites throughout the Initiative.

4 Spielberger, J., Horton, C., & Michels, L. Findings from the Evaluation of Public Libraries as Partners in Youth Development, a Wallace Foundation Initiative. Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, 2004.