Even if you have a pretty successful teen program going at your library it is important to step back and ask yourself who is not being served and why. A number of barriers stand in the way of teen library use, and they vary widely by community. Here are five of the most common ones with a few ideas that libraries have implemented to reach more teens.
The Barrier: Time
Teens are busier than ever and many are overwhelmed with responsibility. School work, after school clubs, school and community sports teams, part-time jobs, and caring for younger siblings or other family members take up a lot of their time. This is time they just don’t have to visit the library or attend programs.
Passive programs available during all open hours, outreach to schools and other places where teens spend their time, some all ages programming that teens can enjoy along with their younger siblings.
The Barrier: Transportation
Those of you who have been driving your own car for a number of years may not remember the burden of merely getting somewhere outside of your normal routine. The cost, hassle, and time always has to be weighed against the event itself. If you are not close to the schools in your service area this can be a real challenge.
Work with the schools to offer a book club or other program during lunch, and look for other venues in better locations. Not every library program has to be at the library. Make programs bigger to make the effort worthwhile. A snowflake craft might not bring teens across town, but a winter movie marathon with crafts and food that lasts all afternoon might.
The Barrier: Fines
How many teens in your community have blocked library cards? How many of them feel like the library/librarian must hate them or they aren’t welcome in the library because of it? How many of them could even pay those fines if they wanted to? Yes, they need to learn responsibility, but I’ve seen enough parents ruin cards for kids before they could even reach the checkout desk that I’m all for paths to clear cards.
Don’t charge fines. Yes, this is possible. My former place of work didn’t charge fines on J or YA books, only lost items were charged. Some libraries gave up charging fines all together. If this isn’t an option at your library consider giving teens a way to reduce their fines through reading or service projects in the library. Consider a one time forgiveness, or 50% off program, for when students enter high school and are no longer beholden to parents for managing their library use.
The Barrier: Lack of Experience
Imagine you are a teen who has never been to the library before, or hasn’t been since Kindergarten. Imagine that you or your parents come from a country where anything related to the government is automatically met with fear and/or suspicion, or where no such thing as a free library exists. How intimidating would that busy building with huge rows of books, big desks, and strange numbers on the books feel to you? How would you feel about giving all your personal information to get a library card?
Work with schools to bring students to library in the upper grades and use the opportunity to give everyone a basic introduction to what the library has and how it works. Don’t assume any knowledge on their part. Create an easy to find “Library 101” webpage and handout that spells out the very basics of getting a library card, library privacy, and how the library works in an easy to understand way without library jargon. Lose the library jargon from your signs while you are at it. Find the trusted cultural organizations in your community and collaborate to reach their members. Pay to get quality translations of library materials in the languages relevant to your community.
The Barrier: Double Standards
You know what I mean, where there is one standard of behavior for everyone else and another for teens. The staff that would never give a second thought to adults catching up with a friend but glare anytime more than one teen are in the same place, or thinks that the rush to check out books after storytime is cute but after anime club it’s a hassle. The security guard that thinks teens should only be in the library to do homework. The list could go on forever and ever.
Administrator buy-in is essential here, as all staff need to be trained on library policy and be held accountable when they discriminate against patrons based on age. Consistency across staff of what behaviors merit a reminder, a warning, or removal is also important as is a unified front towards adult patrons who have unreasonable expectations for teens in the library. Teen friendly areas of the library, even if it’s just an open meeting room during your busiest hours can help. I am still thankful for the branch manager who would suggest to adult patrons that they might prefer the other six or seven hours the library was open as opposed to visiting in the two hours right after school if sharing the library with teens was a problem.