Consistent Programming and Unrelenting Empathy: Building a teen department from scratch

As things begin to open up again, you, like the rest of us of in teen librarianship, are probably looking around wondering when the kids are going to show back up. I have seen a few of mine (and worried about so many more, but that’s a post from another time) but as someone who deals mainly with high schoolers, I genuinely have no idea who is going to walk back through my doors, especially since two years of my kids are now done with school. This might be a weird time, but I plan to re-build the same way I built it before: getting the word out and then talking to whoever shows up.

When I started my career as a teen librarian back in 2007, I was greeted by a decent sized room with a weird collection and an already established (though small) Teen Advisory Board. I was not a full-time teen librarian; mostly I was a reference librarian who ordered the teen books. But I hit the ground running with programming and teen services grew quickly. Here are some things I did then and will do now.

Use what you have: That already established teen advisory board was a small group, but they were teens devoted to the library and super nerdy (my kind of people). They told me what they used to do AND what they wanted to do, and we started with that. Luckily, in 2007 anime was hitting a big swell in popularity, but as streaming was still several years down the road, that plucky little anime club pulled in lots of kids (since the library was the only place in the community to watch it).

If you’ve been virtual gaming with your kids throughout these long months, maybe give it a refresh and find something new (or do trivia instead)! We are just beginning to add some virtual gaming, and it’s been great to see the few regulars who have been in to grab books excited to see the event flyer, especially since I can tell them, honestly, that we hope to start some in-person programming in the fall. We are also in the midst of a massive construction project, so programming is currently limited by space, too. Gaming has been our past, and will certainly be our future. Anyone know if the kids are still playing Smash Bros these days?

Listen, Listen, Listen: Ask every kid with a stack of books what they grabbed and what was just returned. Just talking to them for a few moments helps create those important connections and makes it easier to convince a teen to return. Is there anything they can’t find? What did they do during lockdown other than play Among Us? Is there a manga series we’re missing? I recently discovered that Demon Slayer is popular, but we didn’t have it (this has since been remedied). Have you ordered the Invincible graphic novels yet? That Amazon show is very popular! Which leads me to the next thing…

Get back in touch with YOUR teens’ culture: I was incredibly lucky that anime was hitting that stride way back in 2007, as it helped immensely in growing my programming. Those kids came to other events (often with friends who weren’t into anime) and those friends told me about stuff they wanted to do. There are a lot of places online to look for what’s hot, but the only way to know what’s popular in your community is to ask. Hunger Games did not go out at my library until the movies showed up, and in 2007 teens in Warren, Ohio were still on Myspace. Maybe your kids are still playing Among Us, but maybe they’ve moved on to Deceit (which is also free to play).

I’ll be honest, I don’t know what the programming situation is going to look like. In Before Times™, we were doing a lot of cooking + food events, but I suspect those are a long way off. Maybe showing a movie would a fun, free event you could offer, and something they’ve been missing out on? I personally hope to do an Among Us LIVE event similar to what Funhaus and Smosh did, but that might have to wait until next summer.

Keep your programming consistent: This is my number one advice when it comes to programming. Ideally, do something at the same time every time; preferably on a weekly basis. If you must do it on a monthly basis, schedule it so it’s memorable, like the first Thursday or first Saturday. Gaming has been on Thursday nights here for at least six years. Keeping it consistent makes it easier for both teens AND parents to remember.

Get the word out: The chapter I wrote for YALSA’s summer learning manual is literally how I market everything, and it was included in it’s entirety both in American Libraries and on their website. The presentation I gave at the 2018 YALSA Symposium is also chockful of good stuff.

But the best way to build your program is through word of mouth, and that megaphone should be attached to your most loyal teens. Start building the connections, and it’ll happen – ESPECIALLY talk to any new teens you see, and ask how they heard about whatever it is they’re there to do. It might be slow at first, but with consistency, your teens will get what they need.

Also – find out if you can send information for the morning announcements at school. Sometimes your teens will know which teacher/staff member is in charge of that, if you can’t find it yourself.

Ensure your space is safe for everyone: If a teen needs to talk, listen. Post signs that declare your space to be an LGBTQIA+ safe space and bully-free zone, and that intolerant language is grounds for removal. (Any racist or homophobic language in our space gets one warning. Not one warning per day; one warning per person, period). If a group is being terrible, tell them they’re done for the day and escort them out of the building. Don’t take it personally when they call you names – they’re mad at you. Of course they’re going to. It doesn’t matter.

Then you have to welcome them back, when their time out is done, whether that’s the next day or in a year. Don’t hold a grudge against their ill-chosen behavior, but DO hold them accountable. If they mess up again, you must follow-through. I recently attended a webinar that suggested this language: “if you want to stay here, you have to stop doing that.”

But safe spaces go beyond just behavior – it extends to your collection and programming too. Ensure that diverse materials are prominently displayed and that your events are inclusive for all. If you find that your programs are predominately attended by only one facet of your population (eg, the white kids), figure out why, and then do something about it.

CARE: This is where that ‘relentless empathy’ comes from. You have to actually care about your teens. You have to care that they have access to Roblox and books you wish they didn’t read and that they’re at the library all day making the room stink, bringing all their glorious teen angst and drama with them. Ask about their days, remember their names, and know that for a lot of library teens, you might be the only adult in their lives other than their parents. When I was a teen, I was involved in everything under the sun (marching band, FFA, drama club, newspaper, a job, youth group at church, etc + so forth) and had plenty of adults in my life. I find that most of us working with teens were also very involved, and maybe that’s why we feel called to work with this population.

The truth is, I don’t actually care about the thing they’re talking about. I often really and truly don’t (though it is really fun when I do!). What I do care about, though, is that they have things in their lives they are that excited about, whether it’s a band, an anime, a book, or a really funny TikTok, and for that reason, I am delighted to let them talk as long as they want. Because that’s how you develop empathetic people – you show them you care about them, and then they learn to care about others. And if you don’t, well, no amount of pizza or gift cards or super fun events is going to help you build your department. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If you don’t care about the kids, get out of my profession. Teen services isn’t about stats – it’s about that second word: service. Serving teens so they become great people. And you can’t do that if you don’t care about them.

I know it might be a long journey back to 20+ kids hanging out after school, but I look forward to those days again. If you have a tip I didn’t mention, post it here in the comments. Stay strong, fellow teen services staff. We got this.

The One with all the Trivia

Trivia is a fantastic addition to any library program but can also be great on its own. If, however, your trivia game is feeling a little stale, here are a couple of fun options to try.

The concept behind Um, Actually is pretty simple – nerds love to correct people. The host reads out a statement that contains something that is incorrect, and contestants have to name what is wrong AND correct it. While the show from College Humor sticks to nerd culture, there’s no reason you couldn’t use this format for literally anything. There are also ‘shiny’ questions, which, like Shiny Pokemon, are little more special and a little bit rarer, but aren’t worth anything more.

I highly recommend this YouTube show to any and all of my nerdy librarian friends, whether or not you ever plan a trivia event. Figuring out what is wrong with the items on the set is SO incredibly fun.

Like so many things at Rooster Teeth’s Funhaus, the Google Trends Show has evolved throughout the years, but the basics have remained the same: pick a word to pair with a term over at the Google Trends tool.

Here’s an example: the term you had to pair with another word was orange. The teams must choose different words; you can give a few moments to deliberate or do it Family Feud style. Plug the chosen words in (‘juice’ and ‘theory’), and this is what you get.

Points are allocated based on the values given, in this case, the team that chose ‘juice’ would receive 77 points, and the other team would get 24. Note: you aren’t limited to just two comparison items, and you can limit or open the definitions of what you are searching. This comparison was done based on searching in the US over the past 12 months, but you could open it to worldwide searching or limit it to a smaller amount of time. The key, though, is that the points are awarded based on the current week.

It gets really interesting when you choose to purposefully misspell a word, or choose a word that may have been relevant in the last year but is no longer. In the example above, ‘orange theory’ WAS briefly higher than ‘orange juice’ back in February 2020, and ‘orange juice’ spiked much higher back in December. Who knows why?

I’ll be honest, I’m not actually sure what this data is tracking or how they determine these numbers, but it’s obviously useful to Google. In any case, it makes for a pretty fun game, especially when you base it around a theme.

The Movie Movie Game from The Valleyfolk is pretty straightforward: take two movie titles and mash them together. But first, ask a weird question that combines the plots, such as…

A masked vigilante watches over a city as its museum comes to life by the power of a magic tablet.

The answer is, of course, The Dark Knight at the Museum. The hilarity comes from watching people as they figure it out. What *I* think would be fun is to include popular book titles, music, video games, and tv shows, though I’d probably announce what media to be thinking about before the clue. As another example…

A cancer-stricken teen falls in love and travels to Amsterdam while rebel forces battle an evil empire in a galaxy far, far away. The answer, dear friends, is The Fault in Our Star Wars.

Of course, if your program is for teens, be sure to use current things that teens (and your teens especially) are into.

So there you have it – a few more options for your trivia games. When next I get to host a game night, I’ll probably pull a few ideas from each of these, rather than doing an entire game board just within the confines of these settings, just to keep things interesting and fun.

“Maybe they didn’t miss us.”

My current teen space, with all the fun stuff packed away. No games, no crafts, no consoles, no tables, no computers.

If I hear one more library staff member say this (and I’ve heard it from every level of worker, from page to upper administration), I might scream.


Our library skipped curbside and opened to the public on June 1st. That has had it’s pros and cons (less work for staff, but some of us suspect that many are still hesitant to come on in), but as it is, we’ve been very slow. The model at the moment is basically ‘grab & go;’ check out your materials and then please leave. All our tables and chairs are packed up in a corner, and we have only few computers scattered throughout our system (with NONE at our downtown location). And so because of this slowness, people have been acting very defeated and as though people only used to visit us to get books.


I just can’t believe people honestly think our users haven’t missed us. You know who has missed us, and who hasn’t returned?

– school-assigned tutors who rely on our big tables to spread out their teaching materials

– students and business owners looking for a (mostly) distraction-free environment to work on projects

– parents & preschoolers excited for storytime

– widowers who come to read the newspaper daily

– teachers looking to borrow our puppets, curriculum supplies and other goodies

– parents looking for great audiobooks for the long vacation roadtrip (that aren’t being taken this summer)

– kids looking for an air-conditioned hangout to get away from their homes for the day for whatever reason

– teens who don’t have internet at home & want to play roblox or a gaming console with their friends

– adults without access to wifi who simply want to check their facebook without using phone data

– ANYONE without internet (who therefore also cannot take advantage of any virtual programming being offered)

– new parents who rely on babytime to learn early literacy skills and connect with other parents for the first time in 6+ months

– young adults not into the bar scene who want to hang out and play a board game with their friends

– the retired ladies of our book club who loyally attend each month

– anyone who needs to use a copier

– the homeless patrons who just want somewhere cool & quiet to sit for a few hours

– daycare centers used to weekly storytime visits

– school-age kids and parents excited for fun, free, and educational programming

– teens excited to attend the cooking and movie programs we had started to plan for this summer (not to mention the weekly game night hangout that was always, always, always held (because the kids would be here anyways), and could only be stopped by a PANDEMIC)

Why are these patrons considered less-than when it comes to library users? Are they not taking advantage of the things we offer? Of COURSE our stats are down; our daily attendance dismal. What we are able to offer at the moment is just a shadow of the library we’ve been building for decades. I mourn for the job that was (and worry about the kids I haven’t seen in months), but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let the library go out with a hushed whimper.

In a world of tens, be an 11


SEASON THREE IS COMING SO SOON! It took a while for Stranger Things to become popular around here, but we are officially hosting an all-ages event tomorrow. AND I AM SO EXCITED.

It’s just… hosting fandom parties is my thing! And there isn’t really a big fandom at the moment? And it makes me sad. BUT TOMORROW WILL BE EPIC!

stranger things poster.png

This is what we’re up to. 

  • First and foremost, we’re having a waffle bar! I got a ridiculous amount of frozen waffles from ALDI with all the fixin’s: whipped cream, chocolate sauce, frozen berries, syrup, mini chocolate chips, and butter. The kids are getting spoiled, and it’s still cheaper than pizza.
  • Trivia!
  • Themed escape room, created by my awesome co-worker, who is somewhat of an Escape Room Artist (and super obsessed with Stranger Things).
  • Watching the first episode.
  • Crafts! (Waffle keychains, vintage book charms, demogorgon corner bookmarks, wallpaper bookmarks with Christmas light charms)

stranger things crafts 2

stranger things crafts
Close-up of the book charms and waffle bottlecap keychain

Some resources for you:

What about you? Is Stranger Things popular in your community? If so, have you planned an event? What did you do?

A Library Battle Royale


Perhaps you’ve of a little thing called Fortnite? If not, well… you officially have homework.

We purchased ~40 Nerf guns from, laid down some different colored tape throughout our library, gave whistles to all staff members, put boxes everywhere, and let ’em at it.

Oh, and we had a T-Rex. Because why not?

We played for about ninety minutes, but the teens would have been perfectly happy to play for the entirety of the four-hour After Hours Event™.


A few more details:

→ It was very easy to set-up a tax exempt account at the Hasbro Toy Shop, and we mostly just purchased the 3.99 single shot guns, along with extra darts. I signed up for emails and got a really great discount, and have not been bombarded by emails since.

→ We used different colored masking tape (available at craft stores) for the boundaries, placing them on the floor in increasingly smaller circles, and used the library PA system for the announcements about arena shrinkage (ie, in two minutes, you must be inside the yellow circle or you will be eliminated, etc).

→ A map of the library was provided, so they could plainly see that they weren’t allowed behind circ, to hide in the bathrooms, etc. If we do this in our meeting room, I won’t give them a map, since the “drop zones” (which they drew from a basket) will be visible throughout the arena.

→ Blowing the whistles was super fun. Really loud, but fun.

→ We had an area designated for those who were eliminated – I recommend placing that somewhere they can see the action, because they were super into watching.

→ We did lots of variations – singles, duos, teams of 3 and 4, start with a weapon but scatter before it begins, etc. They’ll come up with lots of ideas.

→ If they won, they got a “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner” pin, which yes is from PUBG but they thought was awesome.

BATTLE ROYALE RULES (as read to participants):

1. Throughout the library and marked on your map are your drop zones. Everyone/every team will draw their drop zone, and at the sound of the whistle you will proceed there to find weapons & building materials

2. All weapons, ammo, and materials are in plain sight – nothing is hidden behind books, shelves, desks, etc. DO NOT enter any area that is blocked off, and DO NOT go behind any desk. If you are discovered in any out-of-zone area, you will be eliminated.

3. If you are hit, you are down and must be revived by a team member. You must immediately drop to your knees, although you may move away from the action and take cover. In order to be revived, one of your team members must tap you on the back.

4. If, however, you are hit again before a team member revives you, you are eliminated.

5. Staff members in the gray shirts will act as referees. A blow of the whistle means a violation has occurred; do as the referee says, whether that is going down, being eliminated, etc.

6. As time goes on, the arena will begin to shrink. Pay attention to the announcements to learn which circle to report to.

7. Anyone outside of the circle when the clock winds down will be eliminated.

8. There are building materials throughout the arena. You may use these as shields, or build a fort to defend your team.

9. Alliances are permitted, however, there can be only one winning team.

10. We will play this multiple times, invoking variations of single player, squad play, & other fun surprises.

11. The T-Rex is invincible. If you are attacked by the T-Rex, you are eliminated.

Let’s begin!


This was incredibly fun for all involved, and we will definitely keep doing it until the Battle Royale genre disappears. My biggest piece of advice is this: If you haven’t played or watched Fortnite, PUBG, Blackout, etc, do so before you plan this event.

Mini rock cactus pots

rock cactus pot infographic

I don’t know about you,  but around here, a.) cacti and succulents are very popular, and b.) my kids cannot paint enough rocks. As there are very few crafts they seem willing to do, I’ll let them paint as many rocks as they’d like!

You can get a BIG bag of rocks from your local big box home improvement store for $10-$20 dollars; the pots are from Pat Catan’s for about sixty cents apiece. Have fun!

Pokeball Charms

pokecharm infographic

This easy craft is a great addition to anime club meetings and game nights, and can even be something left out in your teen space for anyone to do. I recommend painting the beads white beforehand, and encouraging your kids to make a variety of Pokéballs. The lollipop sticks, string, and wooden beads can generally be purchased altogether for under $10.


Celebrating Turtles ALL the Way Down!


I’m not sure if Penguin did it on purpose, but releasing John Green’s new book during Teen Read Week was perfection. The fact that I’d already planned our annual Teen Read Week Extravaganza on October 10th was just icing on the cake. It’s like it was meant to be!!

I’m also excited to be planning any sort of fandom event. While it’s kind of fun not having One Big Fandom™ right now (there are SO MANY little ones to keep track of!), this fangirl has been pining for a big, specially-themed event. So here we go!

During our annual TRW Extravaganza, we usually give books away, play teen literature pictionary, engage in Shakespearean insult battles (with these books), create a few crafts, & top it all off with a fun treat. This year is no exception.

We’ll make turtle sundaes (vanilla ice cream with caramel & chocolate sauces, pecans optional), create turtle corner bookmarks (that three lucky attendees will get to put in their book prizes) and turtle keychains or pins, play some pictionary, and give away books. With the book being about mental illness, I really wanted to give away turtle stress balls, but alas, I can’t find any that don’t require a minimum order of less than 75. I really only need about 25. Sigh.

And yes, I am aware that the book isn’t actually about turtles. TFIOS wasn’t about clouds, but that didn’t stop us from putting those clouds onto everything!


The craft samples above can be easily manipulated to whatever your needs are. I based the turtle body template for the pin/keychain on a basic five petal blossom; feel free to resize to what you want before printing on cardstock. Add a bit of a tail if you wish, or attach a bit extra to wrap around a keychain fob. Then, all you need is a circle that matches your chosen size.

I like working with felt because it’s very forgiving – I find that many teens don’t have great tracing or scissor skills and get upset when their cuts aren’t perfect. All the supplies used for the crafts are in each image; as you can see, there’s nothing really special. Just basic stuff that, if not already in your closet, you can get at your local craft supply store.

So what are you up to this fall?

Five Nights at Freddy’s LIVE!


I adore this game.

Or should I say, I adore watching Markiplier play this game. I love it so much, in fact, that my husband got me the main four animatronic character plushies for Christmas this year.

We hide them around the house in unexpected places and scare each other. I mean, how could we not?

But anyways. If you don’t know about Five Nights at Freddy’s, you should. Go watch that video and then ask your teens about the rest if you don’t care to watch more. Basically, it’s a jump scare game about Chuck E. Cheese-esque characters who have taken to wandering about the place after hours. You, as the night security guard, have to look after the place without letting the characters get to you – or else they’ll kill you.

(It’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the gist.)

This year, for our After Hours Event™ (it’s the reward for completing our summer challenge), we’re doing Five Nights at Freddy’s LIVE! The teens and I are very, very excited.

Of course, for those of you who are familiar with the game, we can’t emulate most of the first one, as it mostly involves tracking the characters on security cameras and slamming the door shut before they get you.  Subsequent games, however, use flashlights and a music box mechanic, which we can TOTALLY duplicate!

So here’s how we’re going to do it:

Up to five can play at a time: Freddy, Chica, Bonnie, Foxy, and the security guard. Each of the animatronics will don a headband that denotes which character they are.

Our teen room is a long rectangle, and has two doors on either end. I’ll be blocking the windows if need be, but I think it’ll be dark enough by the time we do this, around 8pm in mid-August. I don’t want it completely dark in the security guard’s ‘office’ – just enough to set the mood.  Outside the room, I’m going to fashion some ‘ventilation shafts’ using large boxes I’ve been hoarding. Bonnie and Chica will have to crawl through the boxes to get from door to door (if this doesn’t work, I’m going just make them run around the stacks to space out the attacks). They’ll knock outside the open door, then wait for a count of ten before entering the room.

IF the security guard gets to the door before the count of ten is over and closes it, the character can stay for another count of ten before heading through the ventilation system to the other door. As in the game, the security guard will have to keep the door shut until the character leaves. Keeping the door shut, however, drains your precious power faster – and causes Freddy to appear (he’ll be hiding behind one of the bookshelves). As soon as one door is shut, Freddy will begin counting. If he gets to thirty with one door shut, or fifteen with both doors closed, the Freddy jump scare is triggered.

IF the character gets into the room, the security guard must shine a flashlight for a count of ten to get them to run away.  Neither the guard nor the character can move while shining the flashlight – which means they can’t wind the music box or open the door, if need be.

A laptop or iPad will be set up with speakers at a table away from the doors, with this video providing the ‘music box.’ It’s a minute long, and once the music is stopped, Freddy will wait for a dwindling amount of time (beginning with 30 seconds and lessening by ten seconds each time) before jumping. Therefore, the security guard must keep the music ‘wound’ by refreshing the video. If enough time passes and the music box has not been wound, the Freddy jump scare is triggered. (I do, in fact, realize that the music box triggers the puppet, but that would require yet another person.)

But what about everyone’s favorite pirate, Foxy? Pirate’s Cove will be in one corner of the room, covered by a curtain. Every fifteen seconds, Foxy become more visible – first the curtain will open, then an arm, etc. As in the game, the security guard will need to occasionally ‘check in’ by shining a flashlight on Pirate’s Cove for a count of ten, thereby resetting Foxy to his original position. Thirty seconds later, the curtain opens again. If you forget to check Pirate’s Cove long enough, the Foxy jumpscare is triggered.

In order to win, the security has to make it through five minutes of this without triggering a jump scare. Then the teens trade places and move on!

Character cards for role clarification.

Do you have any suggestions for improvement? Let me know!

Great Design Makes the Difference


Presented as part of Marketing Library Programs for Increased Impact Pre-Conference at the 2016 YALSA Symposium

Slides in PDF// Resource Sheet

Surviving and Thriving with Social Media, presented by Carrie DiRisio

Slides in PDF

Marketing Library Programs for  Increased Impact, presented by Samantha Helmick

Slides in PDF // Social Media Audit

Shared ideas document – please feel free to contribute!