Today we have a guest post from Andria Amaral from Charleston Country Public Library is talking about how she handles noise issues in the teen area.
The good news is we have a dedicated teen space. The Teen Lounge at the Main Library is 4,750 sq ft area where young people in grades 6-12 can “hang out, mess around, and geek out” with books, manga, video and board games, computers, art supplies and more.
The better news is the teen space is being used by real life teens and tweens. Every weekday afternoon, from 3:00-5:00pm, the room is packed with young adults exploring, engaging, and interacting at their own pace and interest level and it’s beautiful. It’s a YA Librarian’s dream come true.
The bad news is we have to share the library with grownups.
When we converted the Periodicals area into the Teen Lounge in 2012, I was thrilled to finally have a space young adults could call their own. But I was worried, because that space was on the second floor, which had been the unofficial “quiet floor,” and was adjacent to the Reference department and a bank of 35 public internet terminals.
You may already know this, but teen spaces and quiet areas go together like oil and water.
I was going to make this work, regardless.
There’s a middle school across the street, so we had a ready-made audience and it didn’t take long for word to spread. The small group who waited at the library every day after school until their caregivers got off work were soon joined by classmates. Students who usually got picked up immediately after school started hanging out with their friends in the Teen Lounge for an hour or so instead.
Parents came in to see for themselves. “I had to check it out, I didn’t believe they actually *wanted* to go to the library!” Of course they did – we had games and activities, special events, snacks, and let the teens talk among themselves in normal conversational tones. We encouraged them to have fun. We got to know them and we liked them.
Posters stated the rules: “respect the space, respect the staff, respect each other and yourself,” and we used these as a framework for all discussions about conduct. We only intervened when things got out of control.
At the beginning of every school year there was a period of adjustment as the new 6th graders did what kids their age are supposed to do, and tested the boundaries of acceptable behavior.
As the responsible adults in charge, we did what we’re supposed to do, and set clear and reasonable limits (no shouting, no running, no stealing your friend’s phone and hiding it in the trash can, keep your hands to yourself) and consequences (three strikes and you’re out for the day).
The Teen Lounge team had to educate some staff and patrons. We effused that we were thrilled older students finally had a library space of their own, and there was more room in the Children’s area for the little ones now.
We explained that for this brief two-hour period, one of the most important services the library provides our community is giving these young people a safe and structured place to be after school. “We really appreciate your patience and understanding, and if you need a quiet place to study, you may wish to move to the tables near Biography, or come back at just about any other time.”
We countered comments like “but this is a LIBRARY,” with a cheerful “yes, and this is what libraries are now: interactive learning spaces, isn’t it wonderful?! We’re so happy they’re taking advantage of all we offer.”
For the most part, we managed to coexist peacefully with the afternoon adult patrons. Faced with our unrelenting enthusiasm, most grudgingly admitted it was a good thing that kids with nothing to do after school were choosing to hang out in the library instead of “on the streets.”
A new middle school within walking distance opened, kids who live in the neighborhood but go to other schools discovered us, and new groups were added to the mix.
And things got complicated. More and more often, we heard complaints that noise from the Teen Lounge was disrupting the entire second floor. It was LOUD, even by “interactive learning environment” standards.
But usually it was the combined effect of many voices all talking at a reasonable volume; no one person was violating the conduct code. There wasn’t even one specific group we could give a pointed look, much less a strike.
And when we said, “hey, it’s getting loud in here, please bring it down a notch,” we would invariably be met with a chorus of “it’s not me, I’m not the one being loud, they’re louder than me, why are you always picking on me?!” That only made things worse and increased the growing tension between staff and teens.
When school started this year, I knew I had to find a solution. Too many teens enjoying the library is a good problem to have, and I didn’t want to discourage them from using the Teen Lounge exactly as I’d hoped they would. But we were getting a lot of complaints. And to be fair, grownups have a right to use the library in the afternoon too.
I thought about those noise-monitoring traffic signals some schools have in their lunchrooms. You know, green light means the noise level is acceptable, yellow means it’s reaching the limit and when the light turns red everyone stops talking or else. I started to look up how much they cost, then realized they only work when someone notices the light changed and I was pretty sure our teens would be oblivious. Plus, I’d much rather put the money towards a new gaming system.
But it gave me an idea. Using construction paper and wooden dowels I made two flags: one yellow, one red.
That afternoon, I waited until the Teen Lounge had filled with the usual suspects, and stood in the middle of the room.
“Y’all listen up.”
They know I’m the Manager, it says so on my nametag. They listened up.
“New thing in the Teen Lounge.” I presented the flags with a flourish. “There’s a lot of y’all coming here in the afternoons now, which is AWESOME and we’re glad you’re here. This is your space and we want you to have fun. But the reality is we have to share this building with other people and when there’s a lot of you, even when you’re all being good, the noise builds up and spills into *their* space. It gets in the way of them using the library the way they want to, and that’s not cool. We have to respect them because it’s their library too.
“So here’s what we’re gonna do. When you see one of us holding up the yellow flag, you’ll know it’s generally too loud in here and you all have to work together to bring the overall volume down. OK? And what do you think it means when we bring out the red flag?”
An 8th grader blurted, “we’re in trouble!”
I laughed. “Yep. The red flag means we’re about to start naming names and giving out strikes.”
The first strike informs a specific person or people that they’re being too loud. Second strike is their final warning and the third strike sends them out for the day with an invitation to try again tomorrow.
We’ve been using the flag system to control noise in the Teen Lounge for two months and I’m thrilled to report it WORKS. It’s a powerful visual signal that’s instantly understood. Because it depersonalizes the corrective action, no one gets defensive and proclaims their innocence. It encourages them all to be responsible for their own and each other’s behavior.
Sometimes we don’t even have to leave the desk. Just standing up and lifting the yellow flag is enough to catch the attention of one who will hiss to the others, “they got the flag out, y’all!”
Sometimes we have to be a bit more obvious and walk around doing a wacky sort of semaphore until they notice, but we keep the tone light and joke “flag on the play” as we do. Either way, it gets results and is stress-free.
It’s entirely possible this technique won’t be effective forever, but that’s the nature of Teen Services: you have to be prepared to change and adapt your methods constantly. For now it’s working and I’m loving it and recommend you give it a try.