Young Adult Engagement in Public Libraries: Best Practices

What is Engagement?

“Community engagement is the process of working collaboratively with and through groups of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interest, or similar situations to address issues affecting the well-being of those people. It is a powerful vehicle for bringing about environmental and behavioral changes that will improve the health of the community and its members. It often involves partnerships and coalitions that help mobilize resources and influence systems, change relationships among partners, and serve as catalysts for changing policies, programs, and practices.”
– Fawcett et al., 1995, CDC Community Engagement Project As quoted by the National Resource Center on Advancing Emergency Preparedness for Culturally Diverse Communities

Engagement necessitates working together in and between groups comprised of people with shared experience. It necessitates shared power in decision-making, "working with them, instead of creating programs for them, so they become co-creators of programs that reflect their needs" (Hirzy 2011, 3-4). Engagement can occur with citizens and the civic sphere, or between and across individuals and organizations within a community, or both.

Young adults have been somewhat elusive patrons for public libraries. Taking an engagement approach to serving young adults in libraries would involve young adults in all stages of planning and decision-making. Typically a first step in initiating engagement is to identify needs in a community. Libraries must strive to understand the needs of young adults in the communities they serve, and must understand that young adults “know best what their needs and interests are.” (VPL Community Engagement Values Statement, 2010). Libraries must allocate funding and staff to young adult engagement (VPL). The process of decision-making and evaluating outcomes must be shared with community members, and this process should be documented (VPL).

It is important to note that engagement is a continuous process. Young adults will grow up, and new young adults with new needs and interests will visit public libraries. Additionally, the process of becoming engaged exists in a continuum. The idea is to improve library service and experience for young adults, through taking young adults from passive users of library services to active participants, planners, and directors of library services.

image from Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement. Accessed at

Being involved in an engagement initiative is beneficial for both libraries and young adults. Libraries can increase circulation, program attendance and quality, visibility and value in a community through effective engagement. Young adults are provided a safe space, leadership and management opportunities, information literacy skill-building, social interaction, and an additional boost to résumés or college applications.

Best Practice: Start a youth engagement initiative by conducting a needs assessment.

Before you begin a major engagement initiative with young adults, you should determine the needs of young adults in your community by getting input and/or feedback from them directly. Involve young adults, their parents, and other adults who work with teens and young adults in your assessment (Hirzy, 27). Do not limit your inquiries to in-house library resources! Libraries can and should provide more than information resources to teens. (Williams and Edwards 2011, 143). Ask questions about the appearance of the teen space or common areas of the library. Ask about the website and social media presence. Ask about programs and awareness of programs.

A needs assessment can be conducted through surveys, interviews, or input from existing teen clubs or advisory groups at your library. There is no one way to conduct a needs assessment, but you can learn about and choose from a variety of options presented through this Community Tool Box online resource:

Best Practice: Identify barriers to library engagement for your community’s young adults.

Young adults are absent from public libraries for a variety of legitimate reasons. Take into account the barriers to accessing the library that young adults face in order to better serve their needs (Hirzy 32).

Young adults have fewer legitimate places that they can spend time in than children or tweens (Williams and Edwards, 142-3). The overlapping/conflicting relationship between adolescent school schedules and adult work schedules make it difficult for teens to access transportation and creates a barrier between young adults and adults, preventing positive intergenerational contact (143, 145). The “location and image” of the library can affect how young adults “get there and whether they feel welcome” (Hirzy 32). Is the library an inviting, positive space for young adults? Whether or not young adults feel welcome is a mental barrier, whereas transportation and scheduling difficulties are logistical barriers, both of which factor in to young adults’ capacity for engagement (32).

Other barriers are informational. Howard (from Library Quarterly) found in a survey of young teens that 40% of those surveyed rarely visited the library because they just didn’t think about it. 35% reported they would attend library events if they knew about them (Howard 322). Make sure that your promotional materials are worded in a way young adults will understand, as unfamiliar language can be a barrier to engagement (Hirzy 32).

Use your needs assessment and informal conversations with young adults to identify barriers to engagement and formulate a plan to overcome these.

Best Practice: Form a Teen Advisory Group.

Already have one? Take it up a notch – form a Junior Friends Group.

Teen Advisory Groups are a great way to get teens and young adults engaged in library planning, programming, and decision-making. Cultivating a dedicated Teen Advisory Group can give you input on the needs of young adults in your community from young adults themselves. Teen Advisory Groups (TAGs) can meet once-monthly and provide your library will input from teens on how the library can better serve them. A TAG can advise the library on programs and collections (Kendrick-Samuel 2012, 15). A great way to cement commitment to TAGs is to offer volunteer credits or hours to teens and young adults, to offer to write college recommendations on their behalf, and/or act as a reference for job applications.

If your library already has a TAG, consider upping the ante for young adult engagement and forming a Junior Friends Group. Junior Friends Groups can take on a more active organizational and financial role within a library (15), which can give teens and young adults a sense of ownership, strengthen commitment to the library, and improve grassroots fundraising capability (16). Junior Friends Groups can fundraise in the form of craft sales, bake sales, and events. The resulting funds can be used for young adult library services at the discretion of the JFG (16). When starting your Junior Friends Group (JFG), it may be wise to restrict opportunities for volunteer hours to members of the Junior Friends in order to get firm commitments from young adults (16). Seek cooperation from your supervisor, existing friends group, and associated departments or library branches in forming your JFG to ensure organizational efficiency and meaningful impact (17). Allow teens/young adults to conduct their own JFG meetings, but be present as a mediator to show your sincere interest in their projects and to control any negative behavior (17).

For either a TAG or a JFG, it is best to begin with young adults who are already involved with your library in some way (Hirzy 34). Decide on membership requirements with input from existing teen volunteers or library regulars, and communicate clearly the expectations for participation as you expand. Be sure to give your young adult group real authority and decision-making power, and be willing to make compromises between your vision and theirs (Hirzy 35).

A young adult group can be a great tool to assess your engagement initiatives. Assessments should involve young adults in the planning and be undertaken annually (Hirzy).

Best Practice: Foster year-round engagement through quality, young adult-centered programming.

When proving programs for teens, it is essential to involve teens as more than just participants but also as advisors in program ideas. When teens are involved in the creation of programs in their public library, they gain a sense of accomplishment and attachment. Allowing teens to be involved in the development of new events and programs gives the librarian a chance to make the teens feel empowered and confident and allows teens to gain some experience and competence. Programs that teens create become meaningful and more relevant to them (Honnold).

Young adults benefit most from stable, long-tem programming efforts– so be pragmatic in planning the scale of your youth engagement programming to ensure its sustainability (Hirzy 7).

Take a youth development approach to programming. Promote “positive outcomes for youth…by giving them the opportunities, relationships, and support they need to participate fully in their own personal, social, and cultural growth” (Hirzy 5). In a library setting, emphasize pleasure reading without promoting “good” over “bad” literature (Howard, “Pleasure Reading”). Pleasure reading, regardless of the critical reception of the material, has been shown to have a positive correlation for youth in terms of likeliness to create art, play sports, attend cultural events, visit cultural institutions, and volunteering (47). Reading for pleasure enhances young people’s personal development, formation of career goals and political beliefs, and awareness of dangerous behaviors and their consequences (Howard, 50-52).

A youth development approach should also consider the transliteracy of today’s young adults, which extends far beyond the ability to read print. Transliteracy means “the ability to read, write, and interact across a range of platforms, tools, and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks” (Couri, 18). In 2011, a branch of the New York Public Library vastly increased summer program attendance among teens by extending the idea of “reading” to other media in a large-scale “Summer Library Club” programming series focused on learning “new media literacies” (19). The library successfully celebrated what their teens were bringing to the table, and provided learning opportunities to grow teens’ existing skill sets and interests.

Some tips on recruiting are:
Do some outreach and make contact with teens that do not regularly visit the library. Put flyers out where you know interested teens will see it, such as flyers for gaming events at a local game store.Remind teens at least three times of an upcoming program. Invite them a few weeks beforehand. Remind them the week of and send out a reminder about an hour before the event.Providing food creates another incentive for teens to participate in the program.Use technology to your advantage to spread the word on upcoming events.
RetainingKeep the programs consistent. It is easier to retain involved teens if the program is a part of their normal weekly routine. Having long periods of time between each teen program will make it twice as difficult to encourage participation.
ReinventingAttempt a special program at least once a year to gain some new attention to the library. Having something special like a guest speaker or a competition may catch the interest of teen patrons who do not regularly participate in library programs. Offering new and updated programs will also keep the interest of the teen participants the library already has (Houston).

Best Practice: Make your library an attractive and welcoming environment for young adults.

– regardless of the amount of money you have to acquire materials.

There is value in investing in the young adult patrons of the library. “How children feel when they use the library will affect their attitude and behavior not only when they are children but also when they become parents,” (Feinberg). Young adults can be very sensitive to their environment. They are experiencing many rapid changes including physical, social and emotional transformations. At the same time they are developing their personal values, intellect, and identity. This is a vulnerable stage of life and teens need a place where they can feel safe and explore without being judged. Libraries have both the potential and the capability of being that place.

According to the 2012 Public Library Data Service Statistical Report, only 33 percent of public libraries currently have one or more full-time staff member dedicated to teen services. Unfortunately in many public libraries the teen area is sadly neglected. In many cases teen areas are an afterthought attached to either the children’s or adult sections. This sends the message to teens that they are not seen as a separate and unique group, but rather an extension of either children or adults in the library’s eyes. Young adults are more difficult to entertain than children and do not have as much influence over library decisions as adults; therefore teens are an underserved population. Another reason the library fails to provide space for young adults is because of the negative perception many adults have of teens. They see teens as disruptive to the library atmosphere and therefore do not want to encourage them to hang out at the library where they could bother other patrons (Fiene).

Staff Training

It is important that staff be trained to work with young adult patrons.

One of the basic services libraries can provide to young adults is “assuring access to caring adults” (Bishop and Bauer, 36). Staff are critical to making a library friendly to young adult patrons, and should consider young adult users and their needs equally important to persons of other age groups (Bourke, 99). Even if your library is well-funded enough to have a state-of-the-art YA room, “[t]he most brilliant youth space and resources will not compensate for surly, unfriendly or unhelpful staff. Staff…will determine whether our libraries are youth friendly or not” (99).

Jones and Delahanty (2011) showed that after library staff in Kentucky underwent youth development training, participants “discovered the need to form community partnerships, to expand upon youth engagement efforts, and to create or enhance relevant after-school initiatives” for young patrons (43). Staff recognized that stereotypes and negative perceptions of young people were obstacles to library service and a positive library environment (43). It is important to address the significance of negative perceptions of young adult patrons with all library staff.

YALSA Guidelines

Libraries are an important institution that aid in the transition from childhood to adulthood. Libraries can offer both the resources and environment necessary for positive development. If libraries want to engage and encourage teens to be involved in their public library, librarians need to provide a physical space where teens feel comfortable spending time in. Librarians need to create a place where teens can come and feel ownership of the space without feeling judged or unwelcomed for being who they are, a teenager in a library.

The Young Adult Library Services Association has provided National Teen Space Guidelines for libraries. These include six areas related to shaping physical teen spaces and three areas on shaping virtual teen spaces.

The Physical Guidelines:

1.0 Solicit teen feedback and input in the design and creation of the teen spaces.

2.0 Provide a library environment that encourages emotional, social, and intellectual development of teens.

3.0 Provide a library space for teens that reflects the community in which they live.

4.0 Provide and promote materials that support the educational and leisure needs of teens

5.0 Ensure the teen space has appropriate acceptable use and age policies to make teens feel welcome and safe.

6.0 Provide furniture and technology that are practical yet adaptive.

The Virtual Guidelines

7.0 Ensure content, access, and use is flexible and adaptive.

8.0 Ensure that the virtual space reflects twenty-first century learning standards.

9.0 Provide digital resources for teens that meet their unique and specific needs.

These nine guidelines can be used to help begin evaluation of what is an excellent library teen space. The most important guideline to creating a teen space that is successful is to involve young adults in the community in every step in the development process and give them the ability to make decisions regarding the spaces. Oftentimes adults are wrong in their assumptions of what teens like and enjoy. In this day and age, teens want to be collaborators and feel a sense of ownership when a space for them is created (Trouern-Trend).

Expense Limitations

A comfortable teen space can be created in any library regardless of the amount of money available to acquire materials. The main concern for most librarians when creating an area for teens is technology and the expenses that come with it. An important question to ask is “How do we increase access and engagement within the space we already have?” Many teens already have their own mobile technology that they bring into the library. Installing outlets or “charging stations” in the teen area for them to plug in their devices is vital for many teens to feel comfortable using their technology in the library.

When you have little or no money to implement, expand or add to your teen space or YA collections, consider rearranging furniture or popular reading material to make the existing space more inviting. You can rearrange tables, shelving, or prominently display graphic novels collections or other popular items in the collection for your young adults (Bourke, 100).

Creating teen ownership does not necessarily mean expensive renovations or additions, but does require librarians to listen to the teen’s voices and work together to create something that meets the unique needs of the teens (Trouern-Trend).

Virtual Space

A teen space is more than just the physical area within the library but also the library’s virtual space. Teens should be able to and expect to be involved and interact with digital content. Teens interact all the time with content on popular social media sites. Librarians should keep this in mind when structuring an online presence if they want to engage with their teens virtually. “Simply feeding information through librarian-created content is no longer an effective means of reaching teens and engaging them in the library. Giving teens leadership in creating library content gives them ownership of their library's virtual and physical space,” (Trouern-Trend).

Ideal Teen Space

Teens use the library for many and varied purposes. The ideal teen space would serve all of these needs. Some teens come to the library to study, others to use the Internet, some to read and still other teens come just to hangout. Here are some ways a teen space can fit these many and varied needs:
  • The teen section could have a cozy spot with oversized chairs and good lighting for reading.
  • Include a place for teens to sit with friends, play board games, or just socialize.
  • Have an area for teens to meet with a tutor or a group to work on school projects would also be useful.
  • A quiet place to work on homework could be helpful for some teens.
  • A designated technology area just for teens with the ability to listen to music, watch videos and spend time on the computer would be popular among young adults (Wemet).

When teen students were asked what they would have in an ideal library space devoted to them, they came up with these ideas:
  • Couches, beanbags, cushions
  • Xbox, PlayStation
  • TV/DVD player, plus access to DVDs to watch
  • Listening posts with a wide choice of music
  • CDs, computer games to borrow
  • Books, magazines, graphic novels, manga
  • Free Internet and email
  • Food vending machines
  • Somewhere to eat food
  • Somewhere to “crash”
  • Somewhere to study
  • Friendly staff – but not in the space itself! (Ikin).

There are many great examples of engaging teen spaces in libraries. One great example is the Youmedia in Chicago Public Library:

Creating a space just for teens in a library is a great way to encourage teen participation and engagement. Giving young adults their own space helps teens feel that they also belong to the library and are welcome there. Libraries always notice an increase in community participation when they become teen minded and create an inviting space for these budding young adults.

Best Practice: Develop community partnerships and strengthen ties with public schools.

See Community Partnerships

Fostering strong community partnerships should be a goal of any successful youth engagement initiative. Community partnerships offer opportunities for libraries to expand their reach and recruitment efforts, pool resources, increase visibility, and improve the quality and quantity of program offerings.

Urban areas may offer a wealth of partnership opportunities for libraries, while other locations may have fewer potential partners. Consider arts and cultural institutions, schools, parks and recreation departments, government agencies, nonprofit youth services groups, and existing youth services community parterships (Hirzy, 42).

To identify potential community partners, library staff should undertake a community asset mapping activity, ideally involving teen library users. Asset mapping involves identifying the assets your library has to offer, and the assets of other organizations or resources in your community. Ask teen members of your library or Teen Advisory Group to work with you in creating asset maps. Identify organizations in your community that work with youth, and then contact those organizations to learn more about what they do (Rutherford, 24). Ideally, the teens themselves could attempt to contact these organizations under a librarian’s guidance. A useful example of an asset mapping workbook suitable for young people is available here:

Rutherford (2010) suggests conducting focus groups with teens to assess interests and needs and identify community trends (24). This provides insight into opportunities for collaboration with partner organizations (25).

Another useful strategy is to identify fledgling youth services organizations in your community and, if your library is equipped with meeting and/or activity rooms, offer free space to those groups. I recently implemented a successful partnership between the Richmond Public Library and Girls Rock! RVA, the local girls’ rock camp. Girls Rock! Raises the library’s profile in the community and the number of children, young adults and families using the library on weekends, as well as providing a dedicated team of 20 and 30-something volunteers to flyer the city with library materials. The library gives free space for programming, musical equipment storage, and a venue for a gear-lending program to Girls Rock!

Effective community partnerships are mutually beneficial (Hirzy 42). I also encourage you, if interested, to search for a Girls Rock Camp near you using this online resource (zoom in to find a camp nearest you) and form a community partnership with your library:

Consider the public schools as a major community partner. Libraries should promote their services directly to schools. If your library lacks a partnership with the local public school, try to talk to teachers directly on school staff development days (Bourke, 101). Emphasize that libraries provide opportunities for “free-choice” or self-directed learning, a complement to structured school curricula (Jones and Delahanty, 42). Partnerships between schools and libraries can “promote innovative learning collaborations” (41).

Once you have made contact with the teachers and have communicated what you have to offer to the schools, you are more likely to be allowed to address the students at schools in assemblies (Bourke 102) or even better, in individual classes. Consider offering homework help hours or expanded Summer Reading programming at the library in exchange for the opportunity to address students at assemblies and the ability to distribute flyers at schools.

Make the library available for field trips to classes or clubs at public schools. Recently at the Richmond Public Library, I hosted a group of teens belonging to the choir at local Armstrong High School. Our library has an extensive collection of sheet music, scores, CD recordings, and non-fiction books about music and musicians. Several teens checked items out, several registered for library cards, and even a few filled out paperwork to become volunteers. This field trip showcased the library as a place for these teens to pursue their passion for music, and more generally as a place for “self-directed learning that affords autonomy” (Jones and Delahanty 43). Reach out to niche interest groups of young adults through the schools, as “a significant amount” of teen learning “stems from what they are intrinsically motivated to learn on their own” (42).

Librarians are burdened with increased workloads as library funding and staffing continues to be cut nationwide. However, community partnerships can vastly increase your resources and impact for and with young adults. Howard (2011) found that, of young teens surveyed, the reason most did not attend library programs was they simply didn't know about them, and the reason they did not visit libraries was that they did not think about them (332, 335). 35% of teens said they would attend library events if they knew about them (332). Community partnerships, and a strong relationship with public schools, increase the visibility of the library in the community and among teens, increase the impact of promotional and recruitment activities, and increase resources for strong, youth-centered programming.

Related GSLIS Courses

Community Engagement
Spring 2013 Moodle Link:

Key Sources

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