Thursday, August 17, 2006

Youth in libraries - are you really ready to welcome them in?

This is a post a long time coming because I have been pondering the issue very deeply over the last few weeks. It's about the challenges and opportunities of offering a totally inclusive youth library.
I have heard and read a lot of librarians say that their ideal youth/young adult/teen space would be a place where young people are welcome to "just hang out". In many cases attention is focussed on the resources needed in existing and new libraries to attract youth - funky furniture, some electronic resources, the Internet, maybe some music listening posts - these are thought to be some of the necessary ingredients for a successful "hang out" space within the library. Let's just say that these things are achieved - and you throw your doors open to all young people. And they come in their droves. Wonderful! Even lots of kids who never used the library before (in fact wouldn't be caught dead in one). And they DO hang out. For hours. And hours. In fact they hate to leave. They hang around outside after you close, making a nuisance of themselves (haven't they got homes to go to?) and they are there next day half an hour before opening time, hanging around in the street waiting for you to open, even banging on the doors begging you to let them in early. They are noisy on the street and swear and jostle and make adults who are passing by quite uncomfortable.

When you are open, there are lots of young people in the space, and they are in high spirits. Everything is new and wonderful and interesting. They are boisterous and noisy, loud and often use "expressive" language, and are sometimes a bit careless about the equipment and the furniture, but basically everyone is happy. Uh oh. Some young people are not happy. Some young people are intimidated by all this noise and rowdiness. Some young people just seem to be unhappy with the world in general. Some young people arrive sad, or anxious, or depressed, or scared, or angry, or intoxicated. Some young people are aggressive and obnoxious. Some young people's behaviour is so poor at the time, you have to ask them to leave.

Over time a pattern emerges. A core group of young people are hanging out at your library for very long periods of time. They are not content to play computer or console games or read or talk quietly for hours (indeed, they may have trouble concentrating on any activity for longer than a quarter hour). Most of the activities offered in the library are of a cerebral nature, and they have physical energy to burn. There is a lot of running and jostling, mock and quasi-mock taunting of friends and other young people that they don't even know. There may be incidents of petty and not so petty stealing and bullying, even physical fighting.

Who are these young people?

They can be variously described as the "disengaged", or "disadvantaged", or "at risk". They typically will be from dysfunctional family backgrouds, or have made some poor choices in the past with ongoing consequences. They may be younger than 15, but not going to school - because they have been expelled, or their parents don't care, or they have simply made a choice to stay away from school. They may have few models of successful relationships in their lives. If they are older than 15 they will probably be un- or under-employed, typically with little academic success and few employment prospects. They may suffer from mental illnesses or substance abuse. They are at risk of offending or have offended, typically for stealing, assault, or illicit drug use. If they are girls, they have a higher than average chance of early (and single) motherhood. They may be estranged from their parents and may be in precarious situations with regards to accommodation. Some of these young people show little regard for adults or authority. Some of these young people are downright scary. In fact, the complete opposite to the traditional teenage user of the library that you are accustomed to, ie the "good" ones.

If you get to this point, you are at a crossroads.

A. Do you decide that certain behaviours cannot be tolerated, and those displaying those behaviours will be excluded/discouraged from entering your very desirable space? (But you said all young people were welcome...)

B. Or do you decide that the young people displaying these behaviours have an even greater need for the care and understanding of their communities, of which the library is one part? Perhaps they hang out for so long because they have few alternatives?

I would suggest, if you go for A. , that's OK. Just be honest with yourself and young people about it. If you go with A, you will be giving a very good service to young people who would be inclined to be your customers anyway, and just needed that extra push to attract them. Feel free to enforce strict behaviour rules such as no rowdiness and no swearing. The "undesirables" will soon get the message and exclude themselves, the "good" kids will get to enjoy the facilities in peace without harrassment. And parents will approve too.

If you go with B, however, you will need some pretty stiff convictions. You will need to really believe that all young people have a right to equal opportunities to access information and cultural product of importance to them (like books, Internet games, music); that librarians can encourage and nurture all young peoples' literacy and information literacy skills (not just the bookish ones) ; and that librarians have a real role to play as significant adults in the life of the youth of our community, with positive personal and social outcomes.

What about the very real situation where the "good" kids are too intimidated by the "at risk" youth to share the same space with them? What good is a space inhabited only by "problem" youth? If they do not see and experience models of "acceptable" behaviour, will they not be in danger of disengaging even further from their communities, of more anti-social behaviour? Community disapproval may also be high, if parents and other adults perceive that "bad" kids are somehow getting a bonus that "good" kids are missing out on.

So the ideal is to maintain a critical proportion of "mainstream" kids to "at risk" kids who are using the space...

So you need to be fighting on two fronts - tempering the behaviour of the "at risk" youth, while at the same time fostering understanding, tolerance and resilience by the broader youth community and encouraging them to keep coming. You may have to face the harsh reality that some mainstream kids will not feel sufficiently safe or resilient enough to want to use the space under any circumstances. At this point you have to ask yourself, do the "good kids" have alternatives? Can they use other parts of the library or the main library for instance? Do they have access to cultural product at home or information at school? How critical is your service to them?

How can we help the "at risk" youth? After all, we (as librarians) are not social workers. Nor should we be. I stated in a previous post that youth work is not an amateur activity. That's why you should really be clear about whether you are really ready to welcome all youth. That means all youth with all their problems and manifestations. If you want to go with model B, you need the serious help and commitment of human service professionals working with you. In fact it takes the efforts of the whole community to help these youth, and there are incredible opportunities for librarians to make a significant contribution.

While this post has been very hypothetical (partly of necessity to protect privacy), I hope to bring some illustrative anecdotes on future posts about the strategies, policies, tactics, insights and experiences we have had in offering a truly inclusive library service for youth. And I would love to hear from colleagues who have had similar experiences.


  • I found your blog posting on Youth in Libraries very thoughtfull indeed, and it resonates with the work I do on helping librarians to design welcoming physical spaces for young adults. There is more on this at:


    By Blogger angela dove, at 9:39 AM  

  • This is one of the MOST important issues in Libraries today.

    If we do not engage the youth of today, we will have no customers tomorrow.

    Good luck - look forward to more posts on how you go.

    By Blogger Andrew, at 1:00 PM  

  • Good stuff, as always. I'm behind in reading, clearly, but I look forward to your next posts on the topic!

    By Anonymous Laura, at 6:46 AM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Anonymous stress, at 10:53 AM  

  • Thank you for this post. I don't have any major input to offer at this point, but I have huge appreciation for the issues you have raised here. I'm a first-year student in a MLIS program, a former human services worker, and also a former "good kid" library user. I guess I have to go with option B - both because of the beliefs I developed in while working in human services, and also because of my firm belief in the public library as the last bastion of true public space. A complicated option to be sure. I have a lot of thinking to do.

    By Blogger Mlle. Librarian, at 12:41 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger James Baker, at 3:26 AM  

  • Hi - I found this post really interesting as it reflected experiences I had at my recent job. The Library due to a number of reasons attracted a large number of late primary aged kids and teens - predominantly boys and mainly to play games on the internet. It is situated in a low socio-economic area, and many of the kids who hung out at the Library had social and family problems. We started to get behavioural problems, the worst involving the police, and one of the strategies we started to deal with this behaviour was to have regular (loosely supervised) games afternoons. This worked really well as we got to know the kids quite well, they liked having the room for themselves (adults weren't allowed in the room while it was kids games) and they seemed to value the service more and behaviour improved dramatically. There were problems with "good kids" being picked on, but one of the behaviours that we jumped on quickly was any perceived bullying and they couldn't come to sessions for a few weeks. The problem that we had - was that it relied very much on the drive and motivation of two of us, other staff tended to perceive the kids as a nuisance and would have preferred to discourage them from being in the Library - there were definitely 2 sets of "acceptable behaviours" being allowed in the Library. We have both since left this Library and the thing I feel sad about is that this hasn't been carried on since we left. What was really cool about it was the way the kids interacted with each other - they were all from different schools, different ages etc - and lots were in a lot of trouble at school, but in the games sessions, they mainly played online role playing games and worked really well together as a team, both helping each other out in the online world, but also teaching each other the skills they needed in the games. Anyway just some thoughts as your post struck a chord. I suppose for this to work well, it needs everyone in the Library service to be committed to welcoming or dealing with these kids.

    By Anonymous Amanda, at 8:49 PM  

  • I am a part-time Tech. at an urban branch library (one of the under-employed Ph.Ds.) The contributor's essay offers the best, most clear-headed analysis of the "Youth Problem" I have seen. "Plan B" is the official policy of our libraries and has produced the expected results at our branches in the disadvantaged community; I mean, of course, the real-world results, not the sentimental fantasies projected by the advocates of “Plan B".

    When allowed to hangout in groups, real street kids (together with the drug dealers, apprentice hookers, and all purpose thugs the kids inevitably attract) produce just what common sense would expect: a constant, sometimes deafening, hubbub, free flowing verbal abuse of staff and patrons, frequent outbreaks of violence, and mass exodus of adults and reasonably civilized adolescents and children from the libraries.

    The author is quite right about the advocates of "Plan B" -- they really do think they are somehow going to rescue these "youths at risk". Asked how they intend to do this when neither they nor their staff are psychologists, physiatrists, or social workers, or how, even if they were, they could manage to run a library at the same time, they respond with Alice-in Wonderland("Libraryland"}reasoning. It is as though “Plan B” advocates think that the library building itself and their own benevolent presence in it are sufficient to succeed where armies of teachers and other professionals have failed. Nor can they be made to understand there are some services that cannot be effectively provided together at the same place at the same time, however needed and important each may be. The attempt to combine libraries with youth centers has made a scandalous mess of both, as is obvious to everyone except the people responsible for it.

    Recently, a lad who was a regular at our library threatened to shoot our unarmed security guard and the following day attempted to do just that -- firing five rounds into the guard's car while the guard was parking it in the library lot. The shooter returned to the library on each of the next the three days and threatened to "shoot up the " place."

    We pleaded for permission to close the library down until it was safe, or at least be provided with an armed guard and allowed to lock the door so that we could observe who was about to enter. Nothing doing. Although none of the senior "Plan B" enthusiasts would set foot in the library during this crises, they did send an email instructing staff not to talk to reporters!

    Of course very few of the kids who hang out at our libraries are criminal psychopaths, but they are kids and will do what street kids do, if given the opportunity.

    Adults in the community served by these libraries are, of course, outraged. They want their libraries back; but they feel powerless against the smug condescension and doctrinaire wrong-headedness they encounter from senior library personnel.

    I was surprised by the author's mention that there was,in some cases, at least, an intention that these young people, once induced to come to library, might also be induced to read the books to be found therein. In my library there is no such expectation -- certainly none that anyone does anything about. Indeed, the suggestion that such modestly cultural activities as reading or just being quiet with one’s thoughts for five minutes might be of more benefit to our young visitors than watching semipornographic music videos and "networking" with their friends (and enemies, with whom one “networks” in a rather different way)is often met with polite insinuations to the effect that one is a socially insensitive snob. (Something is done for the very young children and for the rare adolescent who is not just hanging out, but these kids are not a problem)

    Lest it be thought that I am a socially insensitive snob, unaware of the crushing injustices inflicted upon disadvantages young people (one of which I have just been describing), I should mention that for fifteen years I devoted myself to helping these kids and their parents learn to read, pass the GED, and find jobs.(For which my remuneration was even more derisory than the pittance offered to library “technicians.”) But like anyone who is really committed to helping the disadvantaged, I learned early on that uniformed, self-indulgent sentimentality doesn't get the job done.

    The tragic kids who are making a farce of our libraries need a supervised place to hang out, and they desperately need help with their lives, but the former should be designed for that purpose and the latter should be provided by professionals who are trained to do it effectively.

    When these young people are ready for what a genuine library has to offer (or ready to become ready), the doors will be open.


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