Embracing Service to Teens

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

When did it become an acceptable customer service response to try and push out an entire age group of users?

Never, but that’s happening at too many libraries. Can we remain transparent, open, and focused on the core value of access and still tell young people to find another place to be social online?

MC: I still get emails from librarians who endure meetings where administrators bemoan having to accommodate teens. One even said her director thought stats showing lower senior citizen library use reflected the increased teen presence.

Banning MySpace
MS: My hometown library in Mishawaka, IN, near South Bend, just banned access to Facebook and MySpace because of what the South Bend Tribune called “Fights, lewd language and cars being blocked in the parking lot by teenagers.” As a Mishawaka taxpayer, curious librarian, and LIS professor, I stopped by the library and learned that other sites, like Flickr, remain available. It is disturbing how easily the library administration and board made the leap from unruly teens to “let’s block access to two of the most popular social tools on the web.”

Comments on my blog ranged from the forward-thinking, right-up-Ranganathan’s alley and the “Anonymous” who said, “Of course that crap should be banned” to the thoughtful critique and commentary of Ian McKinney from cutting-edge Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, IN. He reminds us the problem was specific kids, not technology. Indeed, I worry the teens in Mishawaka won’t care about the library and that will hurt the whole community. Were other solutions considered?

MC: When we advocate bringing teens into the library, we don’t acquiesce to rowdy teen behavior, as some suspect. Behavioral problems are never acceptable in the library. Foul-mouthed teens need to be booted out for the day, and problem teens for longer periods. Sometimes this means hiring security guards, and sometimes this means setting a firm tone at the beginning.

But don’t misunderstand; teens will be teens-they need to talk and socialize-so don’t expect a library with a lot of teens to be quiet. Carving out a teen area is great, if you have the room. If not, try to find an area that can be kept relatively quiet and offer it to those users who need a sanctuary.

Issues with teens are often larger community challenges. Kids need interesting and safe things to do. The entire community should be a part of the solution.

Plan with pros
MS: Right. Don’t ban technology or the web (cell phones, games, social sites) but instead offer guidelines for behavior. As public libraries evolve, one of the most important jobs will be that of teen librarian or youth specialist. I wonder if libraries that have had trouble with teens lack such specialists. You can’t just tap Sally from the fiction department and say, “You work with the teens now.”

MC: We continue to see great teen programming. Maria DeSapa, a library assistant at Troy Public Library, NY, coordinates gaming activities for teens. Nearby, at the Stillwater Free Library, Director Sara Kipp even brings her own PlayStation console for teens to use. I like how Stillwater combines game night with a book club meeting.

Focus on users
MS: That’s a dedicated focus on the user, not a rush to control and gatekeep. I think that’s why many of us wound up with library jobs-a giving, encouraging nature fits with libraries’ mission.
After my talk at the Public Library Association conference in Minneapolis in March, an attendee told me how a librarian at a library he visited said “we don’t like” having graphic novels. In the classroom, I’ve reminded students of the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics: “We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access….”

So, what could Mishawaka have done differently? I would suggest open forums involving the community and a stronger focus on teen outreach.

MC: Also, just deal with behavioral issues. After all, if the seniors get a bit loud when knitting, do we ban knitting? It’s hard to defend banning specific social networking sites when other libraries not only allow access but integrate those sites into their library marketing plans.

If we don’t get them in as kids and keep them as teens, we likely won’t see them later in life. Kudos to librarians embracing service to teens.


Stillwater Free Library

Troy Public Library

Michael Casey is Information Technology Division Director, Gwinnett County Public Library, Lawrenceville, CA, and co-author of Library 2.0.

May 15, 2008 Library Journal