Community Building: More Than Programs for Teens


Community Building


My adventures in building up teen participation in my small-town library have been long and arduous. Honestly, I’ve never succeeded in having steady attendance for programs. I’ve attempted basically everything in the book and am having some success with partnering with schools (more on that ahead), but lately, I’ve given myself some permission to shift my focus.

Instead of focusing so heavily on getting more participation in programs, I focus on making the library a safe and engaging space for them. While programs are important and can help attract teens, I think that building a relationship with them doesn’t have to hinge on bringing them in for events. Making sure that they feel comfortable talking to you, asking you for information, help, or books, and helping them see that the library is for them is just as important as the shiny things we can put in our newsletters.

How do you do this? Here’s a few ways.

  1. Volunteers learn more than shelving or cleaning. Our schools require teens to volunteer in their communities for between 10-80 hours, depending on the school. That means that a lot of our local teens get introduced to us through volunteering. Giving them an orientation on their first day of helping us out is a great way to tell them about the mission of the library, show them all of our spiffy resources, walk them through the YA section and chat about our favorite titles, and sign them up for a library card. Before they leave, we ask them if they learned anything or if they’d be interested in giving us some feedback on what kinds of programs they’d like. For our routine volunteers, I sometimes approach them and say, “Hey, we’d really like to do something fun for you and your friends. Is there anything that you’d want to do? Pizza and movie or games, maybe?” I’ve had the most success with that approach.
  2. Make the most of your YA section. For us, this is pretty meager because our YA section is sandwiched pretty tightly between our kids’ collection and the adult materials. There’s not much room for displays, so instead, I might face out some titles and I also flag books with little bookmarks poking out of them. Some of the bookmarks are small and just have the genre on them (horror, romance…), but others are RA bookmarks and say things like, “Like this book? Try these…” So far, adding the genre bookmarks has significantly increased the popularity of those books and I’ve noticed some teens picking up other titles listed on the RA bookmarks.
  3. Make a poster of what you’re reading. My teammate and I have a poster in front of the YA section where we add pictures of the books we’re reading. The titles we read are all over the map, but around half of mine are YA. I haven’t had anyone come ask me about this so far (it’s been up for almost two months now), but I do think it helps them be aware that we read and we like some of the same things. Hey, maybe we’re not stuffy.
  4. Talk with teens around the library. I gauge this very carefully. If teens are in a cluster, I leave them be. There’s also lots of clear signs that someone wants to be left alone. Sometimes when I’m shelving or cleaning up, though, I might find myself near a teen who is alone, browsing or doing homework, and I might ask if I can help them pick something or just say that it’s nice to see them again and introduce myself. This has a big impact. Often after I take a moment to say, “I noticed you and I’m happy you’re here,” they start saying hello when they come in and it just builds from there.
  5.  Consider being more flexible about your services for teens. The biggest example I can give for this is that I have several teens who, after working on their homework for an hour or two, will come over to me and ask if I have any snacks. Now, they know I have snacks because they’ve been around for programs or know someone who volunteered with me. Teens only do this when they trust you and consider you a type of friend, so choose wisely when you respond to special requests from teens. I do allow teens that I know well to have a snack if they help me shelve some things. Same policy goes for allowing them access to my art supplies. A handful of my teens really like to draw together after they’re done with homework, so I let them use my markers and paints.


If you do these things, chances are that you will develop some really important relationships with teens. I’ve had teens confide in me about everything from how they feel like their best friend is dissing them to abuse in their home. I think you’ll also find that if you have a good relationship with a few teens, they’ll reward you by bringing friends and/or acting as your ambassador in the library. They’ll feel pride in “their” space and speak to other teens who are being disrespectful.

I do still offer programs when I have some teens who tell me about something they’re interested in or when I just want to do something nice for the teens I see routinely. Sometimes they come to those programs and sometimes they don’t. That’s just how teens are when they know you’ll always be there for them.


Life-Sized Plants vs. Zombies

This summer, I really tried to come up with activities that could work with big groups at a low cost. I’ve always loved Life-Sized games because they’re generally cheap and once they’re set up, you can run it almost as a passive program. In looking through examples that others tried and blogged about, I didn’t see much that could allow lots of kids to play at once. So I whipped this up.

Life-Sized Plants vs. Zombies

Plants vs. Zombies is a pretty difficult came to re-create in real life. There are lots of different plants that you can use to attack zombies and they all work in different ways. Plus, they can be placed all over the play area and that gets sticky. Another problem is that in the game, zombies are pretty boring because they really just walk into plant territory, delivering hits to plants until they die/disappear.

So, in thinking up this game, I really built off the core concept of the game. There are two sides, plants and zombies, and the plants attack the zombies with a combination of offensive and defensive characters. I ran with that and created a game where the zombies fight back in the same way that the plants do. To attack the other side, kids tossed paper balls at each other. (Don’t worry. There’s no way this can hurt when you put at least four or five feet of space between the sides.) They did this in rounds of three minutes and the side with the most balls on their side at the end of the game lost. This makes it a lot like a game kids play in PE called Garbage or Yard Wars or…Google it. It has lots of names.

So here’s the layout of the room.


Step one: Set up the playing area.

You need three rows on each side. The back row is for your catapults, the middle is for offense, and the front is for defense. I used painter’s tape to make my rows.


I made some catapults by taping ladles to yard sticks. Jealous?


The offensive line did nothing but throw and kick balls to the other side.

The defense blocked incoming balls with their shields, which were made from cake rounds and duct tape. They could also help kick balls across.


Step Two: Manage the daylights out of big groups.

I played this game with three groups; two had 40 kids, and one had 12. 40 kids with summer camp instructors was bonkers. 40 kids with parents was just fine and really fun. 12 kids with parents was also perfect. So really, the key to having kids play well is having witnesses who care, but here are some rules that really help.

One: Make it known from the beginning that they cannot just hang on to the balls the whole game and toss them over at the last second. This does not make for fun gameplay.

Two: Also make it known that when you countdown and it’s time to stop, they need to sit down with their hands in their laps. If you don’t have parents there, you may need to say that if you catch them cheating–sitting on the balls or kicking them over when your back is turned–they’ll have to sit out the next game.

Three: Everyone needs to stay in their row. The catapults can move only to reach the balls, but then they need to back up so they can lob them over. This is to keep them from accidentally whacking anyone with the stick.

Step three: Find a referee to help you count and collect the balls at the end of the game. You may also want to kick balls back into the gameplay area if and when they’re tossed out.

Other than that, let them go wild. My summer camp kids got pretty loud, but the groups with parents kept a respectful volume. There’s really no way they can destroy something with a paper ball, either, so you don’t have to worry about damaging the room.

This is fun, easy, and the kids LOVE it. It’s a far cry from the actual game, but when it’s explained, the kids do get it.


Starting a Teen Advisory Guild

My main library only has one night per week when we’re open beyond 6 o’clock, and on that night, I’ve been seeing a fair amount of teens using our computers and lurking at the art stations I’ve set-up at the very back of the library. I wanted to find a way to get them more involved and so I fell back on a teen programming staple- a teen advisory guild.

This was a good option for me because:

A. Our local schools require students to have volunteer hours, so they’re pretty motivated to come to us if only for that.

B. I’m the only person doing programs for all ages in two small libraries. So, yeah. I could use a little help coming up with and executing ideas, especially for a population as elusive as teens.

I know about five teens fairly well, either from volunteering with us or just talking to their families. I was sure to talk to them directly about starting one, and they were actually pretty excited by the idea.

But I also wanted to reach teens who had never spoken to me or my teammate before, and I did this by planting information in the areas where they tend to hang out. Namely, the computers and those art tables. For the computers, I made tents to go between all of them with brief information and instructions to go to the desk if they wanted to sign up.

teen advisory

I felt that a lot of teens weren’t going to want to ask us questions, so I left out quarter sheets with a jar for them to sign up. The quarter sheets simply asked for a name and contact information. This was a quick, no pressure way for them to show interest. The rest was up to me.

For the art tables, I chose to have a similar sign with a few more details and another jar and forms to sign up.

Both ways allowed teens to join without needing to talk to me or my teammate.

I had better success talking to teens I knew and even a couple I didn’t, but I still had three teens sign up using this method.

In all, I had 9 teens signed up within a few weeks. A couple of them asked me about our first meeting, and I wanted to keep their enthusiasm, so I set-up our first meeting after these three weeks passed.

For our first meeting, I bought pizza and just asked them about the kinds of things they like. We had four out of those nine teens come, and I didn’t think that was too terrible.

We talked about the music they love, what movies are their favorites, books they’ve liked, what kinds of events (like concerts and fairs) they’ve always wanted to go to. They told me about their hobbies and school activities. I got a good sense of who they are and ran with it. That same night, I scheduled an after-hours movie night with them. They loved the prospect because they could have the library to themselves and since none of them are driving yet, this was close to a feeling of independence. Of course, I let them pick out the movie, too.

We had our movie night last week, and our four stretched to five as they invited friends to come. It felt great to see them feeling some ownership for the library and being excited enough to ask friends to come with them.

I learned from the movie night that this group is really interested in dancing, so I’m hoping to find someone to come and teach them a few moves in the future.

I’ll keep you posted. 😉


Instagram Poetry

This program was how I took a stab at using STEM for teens. I haven’t had a lot of success getting teens into my library, so I tried something different by offering a series on an ongoing subject. Since I’m passionate about writing and remember how much it meant to me as a teen (SO MUCH FAN FICTION), I focused on writing as our topic for now.

The first program in the series was Instagram Poetry. In an effort to get a few more teens, I contacted a middle school English teacher that I have a good relationship with. I shared the information, took some bookmark-y advertisements to her, and reminded her as the time drew near. Since her three classes had a visit to the library the week before, I had a chance to push the program again, this time directly to the students.

I had only one teen come out for the program, and, against all odds, her mom found the program listed in the newspaper. Thankfully, I had a very sweet teen volunteer that night, and I asked her to join us so my participant wouldn’t feel alone. They were fabulous.

To open up a discussion about poetry, I first played some Youtube clips of clean performances from Def Jam Poetry. First, I showed a poem by Taylor Mali called “Totally, Like Whatever” because it was written by a teacher and has the quality of a speech as he rants against the way teenagers often speak. Next, I showed one by Steve Colman called “I Wanna Hear a Poem” because it has more flow, wordplay, and stands out as having definite poetic qualities. Last, I showed one written and performed by a teenager, Sarah Kay, called “Hands,” because her style is somewhere in the middle.

After we watched each we paused to discuss them for a minute. Did it seem like a poem or were they just talking really fast? What makes something sound like a poem when it’s being performed? What can poems be about?  How would they feel about trying to memorize all those words and performing them?

For the second half of the program, we were actually making poems using the spine labels of books. I snagged this idea off of Teen Librarian Toolbox. You just line up book spines with interesting titles in an order that creates a poem. I had an example stack of books that I showed them and then I explained that they could look around the library to make their own, write down the titles, and bring back the books so that we could take pictures of our poems. That last bit got lost in translation, but they came back with some great poems. If I’d really wanted to push the use of the iPads for their cameras and access to Instagram, I would have taken away the sheets for writing down the titles. Then they would have to take pictures of their book stacks. I really didn’t mind either way, though. The most important thing to me was seeing them using their noodles, getting to know each other, and practicing sharing their work in a very warm, accepting setting. The girls were so nice to each other about their poems.


Next up, we’re attempting to make comic strips using the iPads and that’s next week.


Guerrilla Gardening for Teens



I rarely ever share my teen program ideas, and that’s because I haven’t been very successful in getting anyone to come to them. Both of my libraries are in small, rural towns, so I don’t see a lot of teens in the library, even for picking up required reading or working on homework. Still, I always feel a little guilty when no one shows up for a program. My goal is to start doing a lot more outreach and build on things that are more popular, like movie nights, before I delve into more involved programming.

Anyway, I finally talked myself into posting my teen programs because, a) I like my ideas and think they could possibly work for other people, and b) I really wanted this blog to express all the varying duties of a rural, branch librarian.

A couple weeks ago, I offered guerrilla gardening for teens. It’s a name that’s pretty militant, but it’s harmless fun. Guerrilla gardening is about finding spaces outdoors that are ugly, neglected, and screaming for help. You create “seed bombs” and scatter them in areas like this so that wildflowers bloom and create a little optimism and beauty in these places. Knowing that there’s a few places like this in easy walking distance of both of my libraries, I decided this could be a cool project for teens as it has a slightly rebellious nature to it. It’s something you can do to make the world a better place without organizing a fundraiser or even asking permission.

What would be really important to communicate to your teens is that there are some places where scattering seeds would not be welcomed. They should avoid parks, property that obviously belongs to someone, planters around businesses, etc. To help teens figure out where they can scatter seeds without getting into trouble, you should take them for a walking tour of your neighborhood (if possible) and point out examples. Empty lots, the outskirts of eroded parking lots, ditches, walkways, the ugly places behind stores–all of these are acceptable places.


For materials you need:


Wildflower seeds

Potting soil (or nice, healthy dirt of any kind, really)

Natural clay (if you don’t live in a place where you can find this outside, your local home improvement store may have some)


Something to use for scooping and measuring


Mix 1 part soil with 4 parts clay and then sprinkle in your seeds. When you’ve given everything a toss, slowly add water until you have just enough to make clumps. Ball up the seed mix and place somewhere to dry. These are your seed bombs. When scattered, a bit of rain will break down the ball and help the seeds to grow. No need to bury or water, you could just toss these out a car window if you really felt like it.

The bombs take a few hours to dry (at least), but they don’t really need to be dry for you to scatter them, it just makes them easier to store and carry around. You could have your teens make them and carry one as you go for a walk together and practice scattering them.

I was able to do this program for only a few dollars as I only had to purchase the seeds. One pack of seeds is enough for one person, so plan accordingly.