Instant Ideas and Collaboration

Feature #38: Working with Teens in Libraries

Our #uklibchat on Tuesday 4th October 2016 6.30-8.30pm will be about working with teens in Libraries, we’re very excited about this as it is our first chat with such a focus and  we’re very happy to have Matt Imrie writing a feature article for us on this topic as he has a lot of knowledge and experience in this area.

Working with Teens in Libraries

Most of what I have written below has been learned from my years working with young people in public libraries, I have successfully transitioned from a public to school librarian and found that most of the skills I have picked up are still usable in a school context.

Teens – the stereotype and the truth

Teens in public have the unfortunate reputation of being loud, rude and prone to unreasonable outbursts when asked to conform or go away.

This is nothing new, young people since time immemorial have been viewed with disfavour.

Socrates himself is alleged to have said:  The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.

Like all stereotypes there is some truth to the behaviour of young people in groups – they are more prone to excitement and talking over each other, getting louder and louder until they are surprised by someone telling them to be quiet.

Unfortunately it is also very easy for adults to fall into the pattern of believing that everything young people do is aimed at winding up every one else around them.

The truth is that even though they often kick against it, teens do appreciate and have a need of boundaries and a few rules clearly laid out and reinforced several times will go a long way to make sure they will not go overboard and if they do they are then aware of the repercussions.

Building a relationship with teenagers

Building relationships with young people takes time, a useful analogy is trying to tame wild animals, if you suddenly appear in their midst they will run away at speed or bite you. As with everything that is worth doing the best thing to do is take your time – this is especially relevant in public libraries as the teens that use these actually want to be there.


Put the odds in your favour

Your initial move should be to observe the teen library user in their natural environment; chart their comings and goings and make sure that over a few weeks that you are working in or near the teen area when school is out or at the times when they start drifting in. Over time you will start to become a recognized part of the scenery and your presence will become acceptable to them.  Use this time well to listen to their discussions, learn their interests and if you spot an opening in their discussion say hi, introduce yourself and let them know that you are responsible for the teen area. If time allows also mention that you have been thinking about starting a teen library group (if possible base it around their interests) – would they be interested in being a part of it; the soft sell is essential, guarantee a comfy place to sit and say that if anyone has a problem with them being there to let you know.  Building trust with a group of teens starts slowly, it is important that if you promise something no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential to keep that promise as they will remember and if you develop a reputation as being untrustworthy you will get nowhere.

Starting a teen related group

If you are fortunate to be chosen to be the teen library person in your library often the first thing you will want to do is dive in and start organising events and activities for the young people. This approach while laudable is almost certainly doomed to failure, for in creating a group for teens the most important part has been left out – the youth involvement in setting it up. I still remember the first event I ran, I forgot to include the teens and when I announced the teen group was starting I have never seen a library clear out faster since!  They eventually came back as it was a Saturday afternoon and there was nowhere else to go so I sat down and chatted to them informally and asked them what they would like and with their input the group grew from there.


Teens in Libraries –  a manga club drawing class

Helping a teen group to grow and mature takes time, it is always important to remember that when you are running events, attracting the teens that use the library should be your primary concern. It is important to attract more young people into the library but not at the expense of the existing user group. I have had this argument so many times over the years – it is better to reward the regular teen users and encourage slow, organic growth by persuading them to invite their friends to come to meetings than it is to plough money in to a time limited set of high profile events that draw non-users in at the expense of the regulars as they will come with high expectations and when the money eventually runs out they will feel let down and betrayed and most will leave. By all means put money into library events, but do this with the input of regular library users as they will take ownership of the events and see that they are being listened to and will be more inclined to attend – there are few things worse that throwing money into a big event and have minimal take-up.

Once a group has been established it is important that it is youth-led, your role apart from providing raw material, snacks and keeping colleagues aware that it is a group meeting and not a riot is to fade quietly into the background and participate if and when called upon.

Branding and increasing engagement

Branding a dedicated teen area can be an important step in establishing a recognizable borough wide youth library identity for a library service; unfortunately edgy neon logos can date horribly and names like ‘Teen Zone’ appear to have become ubiquitous and hang around for years as it is too expensive to change. It is important to remember that the teen area/zone/whatever should in no account be in or right next to the children’s library for several reasons first of which that teens do not view themselves as children, and many prefer the term ‘young adult’


Who doesn’t love Domo-kun?

Props (link: http://teenlibrarian.co.uk/2012/04/19/tips-on-working-with-teens-props-are-important/)  can also play an important role, they do not have to be massive – a branded lanyard can be more cool and eye-catching than any number of displays or fancy posters – I had a lot of success with getting teens to talk to me simply by wearing my Domo-Kun lanyard when I was setting up a manga group in Edmonton Green Library. Similarly getting involved in cosplay events works wonders with engaging with groups of teens.


Cosplay with the best of them. Haruhi Suzumiya and ??


If you are thrown into the deep end and have no support and no idea where to begin one of the first things you should do when working with teenagers is think back to your years as a teen.

Remember what you went through, the unfairness of being young and perfect and not being understood by adults who were never young like you. Think about the challenges you faced, what you needed to get through those years

While the problems that young people may have changed and multiplied over the years their needs remain pretty much what they were when we were that age:

  • Someone to listen or give advice
  • A reliable adult figure
  • Be a friend but remember that you are also a figure of authority
  • Be encouraging and supportive but always be honest
  • Sometimes just being there when you say you are going to be there is all that is needed, you may not be needed for a deep heart to heart – just your presence may be enough
  • Be consistent – you are working with teens through choice or by nomination, do not blow hot and cold with them or you will alienate them and once that happens they are lost to you!

Useful resources

Bio: Matt Imrie is currently a school librarian, he has been involved in working with teens in UK Libraries for well over a decade. You can find him on twitter as @mattlibrarian and he blogs at www.teenlibrarian.co.uk


About Ka-Ming

Librarian at a University in London and one of the founding members of uklibchat.wordpress.com Find me @agentk23

One comment on “Feature #38: Working with Teens in Libraries

  1. Pingback: #uklibchat Tuesday 4 October 2016, 18:30 – 20:30: Teens and Libraries | #uklibchat

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


This entry was posted on September 21, 2016 by in Feature and tagged , , , .


%d bloggers like this: