Starting from Scratch: A Primer on Building a Teen Services Program

You did it!  You’ve gotten your master’s degree and you’re starting as a Teen Services Librarian on Monday.  The public library hasn’t had a Teen Services Librarian in 6 months, or maybe they never had one.  You took a class or two on Teen Services, you’ve read a lot of YA fiction…but how do you actually get started?  You might be thinking, “What programs should I start off with?  Who should I contact in the community to build partnerships with?  How do I find teens?  I mean, really – where ARE they, and WHY aren’t they at the library already?!  What about bibliographies?  A well-rounded collection?  AHHHHH!”

Right now, you should probably take a deep breath.  I’m going to try and explore a lot of these subjects, and remember – you don’t have to do EVERYTHING on day one!  If you’ve already been a Teen Services Librarian for awhile, a lot of this may seem old hat, but hopefully you can take something from this too.

I’m going to break this article up into three parts: Programming, Outreach, and Collection Development.  This won’t be a comprehensive guide, but hopefully it’ll be enough to get you started.

Part 1: Programming

While you can’t have well attended programming without teens, you definitely won’t get many teens in without programs.  Some may come in and check out books, but unless your office is right next to the YA collection you’ll likely miss them.  Four things that you need to know before planning any programming are what your budget is, what time frame you can run programs, what space you’re going to run them in, and what program you want to run.

Budget and space are completely dependent on the library, but the timing of the program is going to depend on your local teens.  How can you find out when would be good to run a program if you don’t have any teens to ask?  One way would be to check the local school schedules and see when they get out for the day.  Make sure to budget time for travel to the library, and consider that many teens likely have after school activities.  Some communities may have more after school activities on certain days of the week, such as church youth groups or football games, and you can contact school administrators, churches, and other local organizations to find out when you could run programming that maximizes chances of attendance.  Keep in mind that local schools will also have special events on occasion, so don’t schedule any major programs to overlap those!  Older teens may also have part-time jobs, making weekend programs less possible for them, but you may find that weekend programs work better for younger teens.  Part of this will be trial and error, but you can try to minimize potential failings by doing a little research before creating a schedule.

Individual programs can be as in-depth or hands off as you want, but I recommend running some easy, scalable programs early on in creating a new teen services program.  Gaming programs, whether it’s video games, board games, or both, scale easily from just a couple of teens to 20.  Movie nights also work well, and Throwback Thursday Movie Nights (think 1980’s and even 1990’s) have always been a sure win for me.  Craft programs can be a little tricky early on since you’re not sure how many teens to plan for, but if you make sure that the materials are reusable in the future you can always rerun the program when you have higher attendance.  Coloring/drawing programs can work well, and writing workshops can be a hit with only a couple of teens and some fun writing prompts.  Snacks and soda are always a good way to get teens interested, too.  Have you ever met a teen that isn’t hungry, especially right after school?  Neither have I.

Keep in mind that you don’t always have to stick to what you had planned for the program, either!  If teens aren’t too interested in the activity and just want to chat and hang out, that can be perfect for getting to know them and for them to get to know you.  When you have a thriving teen services program you may need to do more policing and ensure teens focus a bit more to ensure everyone is enjoying themselves (no talking during the movie, please!), but early on this won’t be as much of a problem and can facilitate rapport building.  Word of mouth is going to be one of your biggest drivers of attendance, after all, so getting to know your teens and them getting to know you is vital.

Something else to remember is that if no one shows up for your program, don’t freak out or get upset with yourself!  Libraries that have been doing programs for years and have great teen attendance sometimes strike out, and you’re just getting started.  It’s going to happen, maybe frequently, right at the start, and it’s not necessarily something you did wrong.  Think critically about why no one showed up.  When did you run it?  What was the program about?  How many teens have been coming recently (if any)?  You may be able to think of a reason or two that teens may not have come to the program, and there may not be any reason at all.  Don’t worry too much about it – it happens.  You didn’t fail.

Part 2: Outreach

So, we’ve got some programming in place.  Perhaps you’ve scheduled a couple of game days and a couple of movie nights for next month, but since you don’t have any teens coming in right now how do you let them know?  Outreach can be one of the hardest parts, especially if you’re new to the community, because you don’t know where teens hang out!  Should you make flyers?  Create a commercial?  Rent a billboard?  Do some skywriting?

Okay, maybe some of that is extreme, but flyers have always been one of my go-tos.  Outreach isn’t just something you do outside of the library, and strategically placed flyers inside the library can get teens’ attention if they’re obvious enough.  Tables near the YA section, space on the reference or circulation desks, or even an endcap of a shelf could work if you’re pressed for space elsewhere.  If you have a poster printer, printing a flyer with poster dimensions and putting it up on the wall in the YA section is guaranteed to get some visibility.  Encourage parents to take flyers home to show their teenage children and ask your other staff members to do the same.  Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to teens that you see in the library!  I ask individuals that look like they’re somewhere between 13 and 18 how old they are and then explain that we’ve got tons of teen programs that we’d love to see them at and give them a flyer.

Make sure that the flyer isn’t too cluttered and that it’s easily readable.  I personally recommend Canva for making flyers, and libraries can get free Canva for Work accounts, giving you access to a whole bunch of different features.  I don’t claim to be a great graphic designer, but below is an example of one I made for this month in Canva.

Outreach outside of the library can take a ton of different forms, but that flyer can still come in handy!  Earlier I mentioned contacting school administrators, churches, and individuals at other local organizations to find out when they run programs or special events, but you can also let them know what you’ve got going on at the library.  Ask them if they’d be willing to post a flyer for your programs at their organization or if they’d be willing to have extra on hand to give to teens that want a copy.  I recommend offering to print them out and bring them over.  This gives you the opportunity to meet other professionals in your community and start to build relationships that can be beneficial for unique programming possibilities in the future.  Perhaps you can get in contact with the middle school and high school librarians and schedule a meet and greet, or create a crossover program during Teen Read Week.  The local Boys and Girls Club (or similar community organizations) may like to have you out to do book talks and inform teens on what all the library can do for them.  Churches often have teen youth groups, and church leaders may be willing to provide flyers or promote events during these meetings as well.  Video game and board game stores may be fine with you posting a flyer in their window, and may even donate games to your library!  Local coffee shops, fast food restaurants…anywhere you think or know teens congregate, ask if you can put up a flyer!  Eventually teens will see enough of them around town and finally decide to try out a program.

Creating a commercial may have seemed a bit out there, but don’t completely discount the concept.  Some cities have local channels that may allow you to post a slide with your flyer, and while teens are not likely to see them, parents and grandparents may notice and mention the programs to their teenage children and grandchildren.  Local city channels often need content, and this is a low effort way to get your flyer in front of more faces.  Additionally, contacting your local newspaper and asking them about publishing your upcoming teen events in the relevant section of the newspaper could also get some adult attention!

Another outreach possibility (and outreach possibilities are endless!) is local conventions and expos.  All over the nation there are a staggering number of conventions for all kinds of fandoms, including anime & manga, comics, board games and video games, and more.  Asking conventions if you could have a booth spot at a discount to help promote the local library is worth a shot, and even if you need to pay for a booth you may find that the cost was worth it.  Teens and new adults are some of the most common attendees at these conventions, and these populations are some of the ones that libraries have the hardest time getting into the library.  As an example, I’m currently working on the logistics of creating a Manga Reading Lounge at a Japanese pop culture convention in my town for October after a staff member of the convention reached out to our library about a possible partnership.  Be willing to try new things and adapt, and don’t wait for the opportunities to come to you!

Part 3: Collection Development

I’m not going to go too in depth regarding collection development, but I do have a few tips.  Presumably you’ve taken a Collections Development course, and something you should do early on at a new library is familiarize yourself with your new library’s collection.  Is it leaning heavily on fantasy and science fiction but skimping in other areas?  Does it have way, way too many romance books?  Is the collection browsable, or could it use a good weeding?  Have the graphic novels been completely ignored for the last year?  Do you have manga?  From what I’ve seen, manga and graphic novels are universal teen lures.  These are some things to consider pretty early on in your new position.  Make sure to have a well rounded collection, but also keep in mind what the current trends are in young adult and ensure you’re on top of it.

However, something that isn’t always considered is how easily teens can find what they’re looking for in your collection.  Is your OPAC really good at finding relevant titles by subject?  Are teens comfortable using the OPAC, and if not, are they comfortable coming up to reference librarians to ask questions?  Simply put, the OPAC and reference librarians should not be the only way teens can find what they’re looking for in your library.  Some subjects are going to be too sensitive for teens to ask about (think abortion, GLBTQIA fiction, rape, etc.), and often OPACs are not particularly stellar at being user friendly and retrieving the best results.  Looking up this information on their own devices may be dangerous for them, especially if parents are monitoring their internet usage.

How can you solve this?  Create relevant bibliographies and keep them updated!  Put them on display in your teen area and make sure there are extras on a table for teens to pick up and look at or keep.  This seems like a simple solution, but when I explained it to the teens I work with they thought it was a brilliant idea and it hadn’t occurred to them that ‘old school’ ways of doing things could still be relevant.  Some of them hadn’t felt comfortable with asking librarians for suggestions for books on touchy subjects and believed that if a bibliography had been close at hand that they would pick it up and use it.  You can create laminated bookmarks, pamphlets, and more with any subject that a teen may want to look into without having to ask you about it first.

Another thing to consider is the creation of special collections for the YA department.  This isn’t something you need to focus on right when you start, but it can be something to look forward to in the future.  Perhaps a ukulele could make for an interesting addition to your collection!  Maybe you could check out board games or video games?  Special collections can help set a library apart and get a lot of buzz.  When you encounter something new in your personal life, take a moment and think, “Could I use this in the library?  How would it be beneficial to the teens I work with?”  Special collections take a significant amount of work as you need to consider new policies and procedures, how to acquire the items, how to train staff on proper handling, etc.  You may require that items be checked out and used only inside the library, similar to many libraries’ policies on reference items, especially when the special collection first launches.  Ultimately, it comes down to how much effort you and your administration want to put into a new collection.  Don’t feel like you need to do this right away, but it can be fun to think about in between all of your other work!

I hope that this quick primer for a new Teen Services Librarian is helpful in some way to you!  This can be one of the most rewarding positions in a library if you can weather the initial rough starts and occasional setbacks.  Teens are at that amazing age where many avenues are open to them, and you get to help them explore those potential futures!  If you have other suggestions for new Teen Services Librarians, please leave them below in the comments.

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