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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.