We know that getting teenagers into the library, getting them readings, increases their quality of life. Now the question is, how do we get teenagers into the library? Or, more importantly, how do we get teenagers who don’t currently use the library to read for pleasure?
One of the many answers: we meet them where they are.
I have only recently realised the importance of delivering library services outside of our hallowed public building. This past week I visited a local youth centre and spoke to teens who use it regularly. The youth centre is beautifully equipped with a media center, a music production lab, art spaces, a garage for working on cars and bikes, a careers advice office, a volunteer outreach programme, gym and sport equipment, a cafe, and caring adults.
The one thing it was missing, however, was reading material. There was nothing to read: no books, no graphic novels, no manga. There weren’t even magazines.
It was clear that young people in the local area felt safe and comfortable in the youth centre, and enjoyed being able to access its excellent facilities. Why, I began to wonder, would they consider regularly going to the library when they already had a local space outfitted with interesting equipment, and where they were able to spend time with friends?
Thus, the idea of bringing library service to the youth centre, rather than making the youth leave their safe space and come to the library.
Portable or pop-up libraries are by no means a new concept. Book exchanges and library outreach programmes – to youth centres, sports clubs, juvenile detention facilities, workplaces and schools – have been going on for decades. However, with a couple of exceptions, few of the portable library projects target teens.
When I asked teens at the local youth whether they’d like to have reading material (or a portable library) available, the group got quiet. After a few moments, they began to nod, and then begin to give tentative comments and suggestions. In truth, they had never considered that the library could meet them where they were. For most of them, the library was a last resort, when the Internet, parents, friends, and at-home reference books failed them. It had never occurred to them that the library could not only maintain a presence in a space they already used, but might also supply reading materials they were interested in (such as magazines and hand-selected books and manga).
The value of this type of outreach is two-fold: first, it gets teenagers reading for pleasure. Second, it familiarises them with the library and puts a human face on library services. For the time being, they may not be interested in visiting the library. After some time, as they become familiar with members of library staff who visit the centre and work with us to access material they like, they may eventually begin to feel curious about the library, and comfortable visiting and exploring the other types of materials offered.
This type of partnership can be brokered not just with youth centres but with any place teenagers congregate, such as schools or clubs. The most important thing is to first establish contact and broker a respectful partnership with an adult in that organisation. Find out what the needs of that particular teen community are, both by exploring the currently available resources and by speaking to the teens there. For example, a secondary school that has a library may not be in need of additional reading materials, but might perhaps be interested in partnering to offer a lunchtime reading club. A sports club might appreciate a frequently changed selection of athletes’ biographies and sport magazines. Partnerships could be brokered with Jobcentres to allow teens out of school and looking for work to access collections about careers, further education, and varied material for pleasure reading.
Of course, librarian participation and visibility is also important. Introducing yourself to teens, asking their opinion and gauging their needs can put a friendly, human face on the local library service.
Getting teenagers reading is paramount. Once they are reading, and feel comfortable with the idea of library services, they are far more likely to venture into the building. Reading and learning start with small, simple steps. Meeting teenagers where they are and putting reading materials in their hands can make all the difference.