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.

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