Ask An Agent: How Do You Get Teens to Participate?

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Question: This is the ultimate question when it comes to teens…how do I get them to participate? I just started as the Youth Services Manager of a library system with 8 branches. Apparently one of them gets some participation, but the others get nothing. It is a very low-income area, and I have been told that the only thing the teens are interested in doing is making babies. My staff and I are willing to try things, definitely would LOVE to have a TAG, but I don’t want to spend money until I actually get some kids involved. HELP!!!!

Caroline (San Antonio Public Library)

One of the most important things, I think, is making sure that the staff at those branches is welcoming to teens. Attitude and expectations can really set the tone of an interaction – if staff members regard teens with suspicion and expect them to cause trouble, the teens are going to feel that and respond negatively. If possible, it’s great to have a space for teens that is more than a couple of bookshelves and a chair.

Get into schools and speak with staff at other youth-serving orgs in your area. Speak to any teens you come across and ask them what they would like to do at the library, or more generally what their interests are. Maybe local schools have a volunteering requirement – that can be a way to get teens into the library, then you can groom them into the beginnings of a TAB.

Identify organizations that you can partner with to offer new things – we partner with our local Food Bank to give out after-school snacks during the school year and lunches during the summer. I imagine you have a food bank in your area, and I’m sure that the branches in low-income areas would qualify for some free food programs. Maybe there’s a local organization (arts, science, or writing-focused, perhaps?) that does community outreach for teens – look into partnering with them on some programs. They might have a built-in audience that could provide some initial numbers for programs as well as word-of-mouth after the fact.


Jake (Boone County Public Library)

Basically, be where the teens are, and a lot of that is getting into partnerships with the schools. What can you do to help the schools? Maybe run an after school group or book club that meets at the school. Most schools will allow you to get in there and hang out during lunches, get in there and advertise what you have to offer. You’re going to have to spend money. Offering food can work (Pizza party anyone?), but you don’t want to spend your entire budget on food (though, I’ll admit a sizable portion of mine does go to food for gatherings). My bread and butter right now is a group of teens that play Super Smash Bros. for WiiU constantly, and a small group that just likes having a place they can come and hang out after school. Find something the teens like (other than having babies) and offer it, regularly. I will say the teens like to know there’s something going on, so maybe a weekly hangout can work for you. They are creatures of habit (as much as we are) and if they start coming one day a week for a couple of hours, they may just start hanging out.

Jan (Moline Public Library) says: 

The first step is to ask them what they would like to do. Talk to the teens individually and/or put out a paper survey. Give them a few choices but also leave room for other options. Some simple, low-cost options might be a chess club, gaming club, or anime club. The teens will bring their own “stuff,” and all you really need to provide is the space. (But food helps too.) Also pay attention to what they are already doing when they are in, and see if it’s something you can develop into a program. Do you have teens knitting? Writing fanfiction? Are they fans of a particular TV show? Try talking to teens individually and making a personal invitation to become involved in a TAG or other group. And don’t worry so much about numbers, but about quality. Two or three dedicated teens IS a successful program.

Jenni (South San Francisco Public Library) says:

Perhaps you could visit the schools and ask in classrooms or send around a survey to find out what kinds of things the teens would want to do at the library? We found that most of our teens are really busy, so they come to the library to volunteer, but won’t really stay for teen-specific programs. Because of that, we amped up our teen volunteer opportunities, particularly in the summer, and that gives me a chance to talk to the teens about what programs they’d be interested in.

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