Friday, June 17, 2005

Youth Space/Youth Library - can it work?

In our quiet coastal town, a potentially revolutionary experiment is about to take place - the creation of a combined Youth Centre/Youth Library. Not a youth centre with a library corner or a bulk collection, but a TRULY integrated service with the Library Service and Youth Service as full and equal partners. Not attached to the main library which is several streets away. But in a highly visible shopfront location in "Main Street". With hours that suit young people (as surveyed, after school/evenings/weekends). And staffed by youth workers AND library staff who will either have or acquire cross disciplinary skills. And I'm as excited/frightened as hell. Can it work? Can it attain both the wanted outcomes of the youth workers and the library service? What are the similarities/where do the tensions lie? These are all being worked out and will continue to be learned and modified as the experiment progresses.

The youth/human service workers are challenging our (ie librarians) assertions that libraries are truly inclusive. And certainly challenging our skills in managing challenging behaviours. Their perspectives are confronting at first and evoke defensive reactions (Of course we're inclusive! Everyone is welcome! And it's a library, people know how to behave in a library, if they don't they're asked to leave! If they cause trouble we call the police!) But as they quite correctly point out, a proportion of the population don't relate to libraries at all. (What a timely post - thanks Ivan for blogging this:

To cater for this we have decided very consciously not to call the space a library. Maybe by using this strategy we will reach those young people who will be using a library service without being conscious of it. And once it's not called a library, a lot of the built-in expectations that are carried in that word go out the window. Even more daunting, when you designate a space that is especially for 12 -25 year olds, you have to have a whole raft of "risk management" strategies in place that are significantly different or at least more intense than those needed in the institution we know of as "the library".

The youth workers are exceptionally concerned that young people already on the edge of the mainstream and suffering from disengagement from society are not tempted into the space with all its goodies (music cds, DVDs, computers and console games, premium bookstock and magazines), only to be told they are not "acceptable" in terms of their ID for a membership card, family status, or testing behaviour. It would be very easy to turn them away and boost our statistics with "mainstream" kids who we know will come anyway. The inherent tensions will either be resolved with mutual benefit or will split the services apart to go their own ways once more. I think public librarians everywhere may be interested in the outcome.

Eventually young people grow up. Part of the long term success will be whether the "non-traditional library users" make the transition to our main library services. Or maybe our main library services will never be a good fit for everyone. If the experiment is wildly successful, the logical next step would be to cover other age groups. Should we lose the moniker of "library" and integrate with community centres? Would our identity as librarians be too threatened by this?

How about the youth/human service workers? Will they be challenged and confronted too? I think they will. I think they are having to change their perceptions that libraries/librarians are rule-bound disciplinarians only catering to the middle class. And that books and even electronic media are all we're interested in. I try to explain that libraries are interested and actively promote person to person communication - or peer to peer information sharing if you like. It means shifting the definition of library that legitimates young people just "hanging out" without necessarily interacting with any library resources. And extension activities like workshops, art displays, etc etc. which of course we already engage young people with. And maybe, just maybe, switching young people onto libraries as essential parts of their lifestyle/survival mechanisms.

Will keep you posted.


  • Hello Deb,

    Perhaps this would be useful too: JRL.
    Look for the section "Verging All Teens", Teens Library Service.

    I think it's a good idea to give the youth library a different name, though I'd recommend a tagline with the word library. Something unobtrusive but yet a little reminder it's the "library". The library has to stay relevant from that viewpoint :)

    And you'd want to read this post too: Teen Volunteers. We found that it's more effective for teens to run programmes or sell ideas to teens. Our librarians are in the background facilitating the teen volunteers.

    Not everything will be smooth-going, but I dare say we adults worry more than we should. :)

    The results might surprise you. It did for me. Good luck, and I'm looking forward to more of your posts on this.

    By Blogger Ivan Chew, at 1:31 AM  

  • Wow. This is seriously cutting-edge stuff - thank you for blogging it and letting us into your experiment!

    I'm in two minds about the whole "not-called-a-library" thing. On the one hand I see exactly why the name needs to change, to get around people's ingrained expectations, to reach those who would otherwise run a mile because of assumptions, and to give you more freedom in designing and creating the space you need.

    On the other hand, however, I'd love to see our word re-defined on the run and become sysnonymous with "a place where I find out stuff that's relevant to me now now", rather than "an boring, intimidatory extension of school/uni/work that I only visit when I have to and not even then".

    I suppose we can just use "knowledge/information" instead and tuck the archaism "library" away in unexpected corners until people get used to its new&true meaning ...

    By Anonymous Fiona (infoaddict), at 3:03 PM  

  • Thanks Ivan and Fiona for your interest and encouragement. It is a delight to read about the Jurong Library. Funnily enough the JRL Teen Library is as big as our proposed new main library (and way bigger than our current main library)! Our Youth Space could be described as "boutique" size - but ideas can be scaled down - I love "Coolection". We do intend to include young people in managing the space and this is where the partnership with youth workers should really pay off.
    As for not using the word "library" I am reminded of the experience of the Ipswich Library which some years ago became the "Global Information Centre" - but the people kept asking where their library had gone! Ipswich has gone back to using and promoting its library as a library.

    By Blogger Deb, at 7:40 PM  

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