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.

One choice can transform you…

Here’s a confession for you: I like Tris better than Katniss (That doesn’t mean that I think Divergent is better than Hunger Games, because well, it’s not). And I’m very, very happy that the actor playing Four is only two years younger than me. I really liked Four in Divergent, and I’m quite delighted that I can find him attractive without feeling like a dirty old woman. I guess that’s the price you pay for reading so much teen literature!

But anyways! Are you throwing a party for the premiere of the Divergent film? I am!

When I set about planning this party, I knew that despite the setting of the first novel (and presumably, first movie) I didn’t want this to just be a Dauntless shindig – that kind of goes against the whole point of the books. So I wanted to have something that celebrated each faction, and this is what we have planned:

DAUNTLESS: chocolate cake & tattoos
ERUDITE: book trivia
CANDOR: confession jar
ABNEGATION: canned food drive
AMITY: peace sign bookmarks (in book thong style)

We’ll also create t-shirts (I order them in bulk from Adair so we have them for various programs) using stencils of the factions & the Crayola Airbrush – have you used this yet? It is AMAZING! I don’t understand how it works, but wow. Pretty fantastic, and a definite worthwhile investment for programming. I’m always looking for items I know I’ll use for multiple programs, & this is definitely one of them. We have two now, and I know we’ll get our money’s worth in no time.

We’ll probably also make book charms, because they’re so cheap, easy, & fun for the fans. To make them: print out 1″ images, cut out, glue onto folded paper for the “cover”, then staple 4-5 pages inside. Punch a small hole & loop a jump ring through – voila! Super easy & cheap craft your teens will spend HOURS making. It’s a great “merit badge” for book clubs, too.

So, what do you have planned for your Divergent party?

The Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Celebration Extravaganza!

I mentioned awhile ago now that Doctor Who was quite popular among the teens of our library, so when we set about creating our generic “ReImagine Your World @ your library” teen summer reading program, I *knew* I was going to host a Doctor Who event for the 50th.

I just never imagined it would be such a hit.

First & foremost, I am incredibly proud of myself for that flyer. Although I do think I have an eye for graphic design, I have no formal training, and am usually stuck with whatever images I can find through the various royalty-free databases. But that flyer up there, I created the entire thing using shapes in Publisher. Obviously, I printed it on blue paper, but it just worked so well. Everyone IMMEDIATELY knew what it was, & so the marketing worked perfectly.

I decided to host this for all ages – and they came. We had well over 100 people, which the most I’ve ever had at an event. The most amazing thing, though, was that the Facebook event was shared all over the place. I had calls from the next county over, asking about the program. And just… wow. It was so much fun!

forgive the bad quality; it was take with someone's phone

So, what did we do? Well, to begin, I turned the entrance to our meeting room into the TARDIS. I painted a bunch of cardboard blue, hot glued it together to match the doorway (there were plenty of overlaps), use black duct tape for the lines, & then duct taped the whole thing to the door frame. It was a lot of trial & error, but definitely worth it. Everyone had a great time entering the doors only to discover that yes, it’s “bigger on the inside.” Plenty of photos were taken, too.

Food was simple – I made sugar cookie “fish fingers” and small cups of vanilla pudding “custard”!

As for activities…
Van Gogh coloring sheets for the little ones
– Duct tape bowties, which I hear are cool.
– Vote for your favorite Doctor – very close between 10 & 11, with 4 right behind.
– Trivia through space & time
– “Don’t blink!” staring contest – we gave away a Weeping Angel Barbie, and everyone who participated received a “don’t blink” button
Sonic screwdriver pens made with polymer clay
– Gallifreyan name translator using this nifty widget – we printed on blue paper!
TARDIS and Dalek paper toys
Doctor Who at the Proms from 2008 aired throughout the program

Will the Doctor be visiting your library in the future?