Turning Teens Into Readers

Not so long ago, many public libraries, the DMPL included, sort of wrote teenagers off.  We focused on children, especially pre-schoolers, and hoped to get them back as young parents with their own children.  The public library is the premier free public educational institution for pre-kindergartners and adults and our focus sort of naturally centered on those age groups.  Teens were served by their school libraries and consciously or unconsciously, we viewed teens as perhaps unreachable.  We always had a shelving section for “Young Adults” as they were known in library lingo, but for a long time we didn’t put a lot of emphasis on attracting the age group to our buildings. Teens who were readers would read and teens who were not readers would, well, not read.

The arrival of public internet computers suddenly made the library attractive to teens.  They swarmed the internet stations (in groups, of course) disturbing the other library patrons.  A lot of time and energy was directed toward dealing with problem teens.

As many of my previous posts have indicated, libraries do a great job of re-inventing themselves as times change.  Since the teens were there, what would happen if we embraced them instead of treating them as a problem? About 10 years ago, with the help of the Junior League of Des Moines, a balcony area of the South Side Library was turned into a teen loft with comfortable seating, a television and the latest (at the time) AV equipment.  When the new Central Library was opened five years ago, a designated teen area included computers and special seating.  The Des Moines Public Library Foundation provided a grant allowing the library to offer increased teen programming at the Central Library.

Forest Avenue Library teens enjoy a Valentine's Day craft program.

The teens began to show up for popular craft, gaming, writing, Animé, and Manga programs.  In order to build on that success system-wide, the Foundation made another grant.  Young, energetic staff in each building were designated to coordinate teen programming.  Ideas and materials were shared and our What’s Happening began to overflow with teen programs.  Book discussion groups were organized.  Book discussion groups? For teens? Would teens really stop gaming, texting, and twittering long enough to read and discuss books?

We could hardly believe it when word got out that there were boys at the book discussion groups!  One group of teens was offered an additional hour of Internet Café time and chose a book discussion instead.  We celebrated the fact that putting time and energy into attracting teens to the library was turning at least some non-readers into readers.

At the Des Moines Public Library Foundation’s annual Iowa Authors Dinner in October, the designated project for the evening was a renovation of the South Side teen loft. The remodeled space will feature technology, for sure, but the biggest need identified was for additional shelving to accommodate an expanded collection of teen books necessary to keep up with the readers’ demand.



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2 responses to “Turning Teens Into Readers

  1. Brenda

    Great post! It’s exciting to see so many teens at the library. It really has become a “third” place for them outside of home and school.

  2. Gerry Rowland

    A great post. It might be time to update Ms. Wisdom’s title, however.

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