Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Don’t Underestimate the Value of “Hanging Out”

Also known as, the value of unstructured versus structured programming!

Necessity is the mother of invention.  It is also how I learned about the power of, and importance of, hanging out in the lives of teens at the library.  The first library I ever worked at was just a few blocks down the street from the middle school.  Every day at 3:20 pm it was flooded with a ton of teens who had just had to sit for 8 hours; they were looking for somewhere to go and something to do, but a library was not an ideal environment.  Thus my first Teen CoffeeHouse was created.  A teen coffeehouse or cafe type program is a more informal type of program that invites teens to come into your library in a safe space and simply “hang”.  This is a more self-directed type of program.  Teens are in the library in a library sponsored program, but they determine how they spend their time in the space.

In comparison, a lot of library programming tends to be more organized and structured:  craft programs, book discussion groups, Harry Potter parties.  Lots of librarians (and their administrators) like these types of programs because they have form, structure and usually some type of obvious literature or collection tie-in.  They also tend to be staff intensive (a lot of staff time is invested in planning, prepping, and marketing), cost more in funds (crafts and speakers in particular tend to cost more), and you can have very mixed results.  The truth is that when you pick a program topic, you are limiting your audience from the word go.  Believe it or not, not everyone likes Harry Potter or Twilight.  So the moment you pick a theme to program around, you are cutting out a portion of your target audience.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that structured programs are important for the library (as you know, I have lots of structured programs in a box right on this blog for you to choose from).  What I propose, however, is that libraries adopt a programming model that balances structured with unstructured programming.  Have a weekly after school cafe and supplement it with one structured program a month (depending on your library space and staff).

In a coffeehouse/cafe type of environment, teens are invited into the library in a designated space (I recommend a meeting room with doors, it can get loud) and given the opportunity to experience the library and each other, but choose how they are going to spend their time within that environment.  I typically have a video game system set up in one area as one option; in addition, a lot of the teens came in and worked on their homework (I always took a laptop in so I could help answer questions), worked on group projects, sat around and talked (or texted), played yu-gi-oh or magic, or – believe it or not – some of the teens actually read (how I will never know, I mentioned it gets loud right?).  In fact, there were almost always 2 or 3 teens in there reading (usually graphic novels and manga).   

The Benefits of Unstructured Programming, aka “Hanging Out”

They Are Developmentally Appropriate
Teens are peer oriented and on an amazing journey of self discovery; at the same time, they are moving away from adult authority and trying to navigate life more on their own.  A cafe type of program is a great environment for teens to do all of these things.  Here teens can explore relationships, navigate social situations in a safe environment, choose for themselves how they want to spend their time, and feel a greater sense of freedom in a safe space.

Let’s look for example to the 40 Developmental Assets.  The premise behind the assets is that the more of these assets that a teen has, the more successful they are likely to be (and the less likely to engage in risky behaviors like drug and alcohol use).

Asset: Community Values Youth | Young person perceives that adults in the community value youth.
Asset: Safety | Young person feels safe at home, school, and in the neighborhood.
Asset: Youth Programs | Young person spends three or more hours per week in sports, clubs, or organizations at school and/or in community organizations.
Asset: Homework | Young person reports doing at least one hour of homework every school day.
Asset: Reading for Pleasure | Young person reads for pleasure three or more hours per week.
Asset: Interpersonal Competence | Young person has empathy, sensitivity, and friendship skills.
Asset: Personal Power | Young person feels he or she has control over “things that happen to me.”
Asset: Other Adult Relationships | Young person receives support from three or more nonparent adults.

As you can see, a coffeehouse/cafe type of program that encourages self-direction in a safe environment helps promote many of the 40 Developmental Assets.  By giving teens choices, you are communicating respect and support.  And this is a great way to build relationships with your teens, which brings me to my next benefit.

They Encourage Relationship, Participation and Feedback
Because I don’t have to spend time giving craft instruction or keep supplies stocked, this type of program allows for greater interaction between the teen services staff and the teens.  Over time you learn who they are and what they love.  They come to serve as a more informal Teen Advisory Group; however, because such a large and diverse crowd attends, you get a wider variety of viewpoints and ideas.  The truth is, that there are certain types of teens that tend to sign up for and participate in advisory groups, and these are often the very teens who needs we are already meeting fairly well in the library.  However, as teens come and hang out at your coffeehouse, you can spend time talking to them.  And as I learned who my readers were, I tapped into them for collection development feedback.  For example, I am not a big graphic novel/manga reader, but a lot of them came to my TCH so I would take my catalogs in with me once a month and they were always more than happy to tell me what I needed to buy (or quit buying).  Eventually teens started coming to me at the TCH and saying they wanted to do x, y, or z for programming.  I also often got the teens to take pictures and develop commercials, etc. for me.  I always took a cart of new books in with me and shared my favorites.  And I always knew which teens I could ask to take fliers to the schools for me.  In effect, as I built relationships with my teens I tapped into their strengths and used it to enhance teen services at my library.

They Get More Bang for Your Buck

The truth is, programming costs money.  And here libraries are facing continuing budget and staff cuts, putting more pressure on staff to decrease costs and yet produce greater results.  And staff time is also money.  Every minute that you spend on researching and developing programs is a cost to the library; plus it takes you away from other tasks.  We are all trying to find ways to better balance our time, money and resources.  Because there is almost no prep time involved in a coffeehouse, you are automatically decreasing your programming budget.  And because you can reach a greater audience, you are increasing your potential audience.  Plus, I have always found that teens love the TCH so much that they market the program for you.  Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tool you have.

They are a PR Goldmine
Every community is looking for positive things for their teens, so why not let it be at your library?  Keep track of your statistics and put together good pr materials.  Make sure patron, parents and the community as a whole know how many teens you are serving weekly and yearly.  I averaged between 40 to 70 teens a week at a cost of just $1.17 a teen (in snacks).  Yearly I was serving over 2,500 teens at the TCH.  Let your community know about the success of your teen program and how it meets their developmental needs and benefits the community (remember, engaged and valued teens are less likely to do risky behaviors).

They Cultivate a Love of the Library
One of our goals in providing teen programming is to cultivate positive regard for the library, and we do this by creating positive experiences.  Coffeehouses get teens into the library on a regular basis.  They meet the widest variety of needs and attract the widest variety of participants.  They communicate a trust and respect in teens that results in teens having a trust and respect in libraries.  In addition, teens are more likely to start using your library resources and collections as they become repeat visitors, especially if you tap into them and get their feedback.

So, what’s the problem with unstructured programs?
A lot of library administrators are not as supportive of unstructured programming.  They need specific goals and evaluations that show that you met those goals.  They want concrete collection tie-ins.  You can overcome this obstacle by really selling the program.  You do have goals, your goals are to get teens into the library and build relationships with them.  Help staff understand teen development and how this type of programming is essential for healthy adolescent development.

There will occasionally be behavior problems.  As the teens enter and exit the library in large numbers, they do not do so quietly.  And sometimes, some of the teens in the room don’t get along.  Again, it is important for you to continually sell the program to staff: don’t let them focus on the negative but remind them of the overall positive.  Maybe 2 teens got into a fight at the library one day, but 38 others teens came in and had a positive experience.  You can overcome this obstacle by making sure staff understand normal adolescent development, having a good acceptable behavior policy in place, and continually communicating the overall success of your program.  Read this blog entry to learn more about working with non teen services staff.

 So let’s recap, shall we . . .

The cons are:
there can be some behavior issues,
you will have to sell it and sell it again to some staff and there is a certain level of training and communication that I think is important – let your staff know about the success of the program, share quotes from your teens, let them know the benefits over and over again.

The pros are:
it meets teens developmental need for peer oriented interaction;
it communicates a level of trust and respect to the teens;
it gives teens an opportunity to choose how to spend their time in a safe environment with some oversight;
it gives you and your library a forum to communicate new materials, popular materials, upcoming events and services;
it builds a core teen audience for your library;
it allows you opportunities to develop relationships with teens in your community and better meet their needs (they become and informal TAB);
parents and community members love seeing this type of positive teen programming;
and it builds positive pr opportunities.

Herein lies one final important point:  There is no value in programming if nobody comes.  I recently formed and participated in a local Asset Builder’s Coalition (you can read about it in the October 2011 edition of VOYA).  One of the things we discussed as a part of the coalition is how you get teens to come to your programming.  It involved organizations from United Way, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, The Boys and Girls Club, etc.  Over and over again one of the themes that kept coming up was the idea that teens were more likely to come if they felt they had more freedom within the program to choose what they were going to do, how they were going to spend their time.

So if you can, I encourage you to make “hanging out” a part of your regularly scheduled programming.  It’s a win win for everyone.


  1. Hey, I loved this post! I've done and seen programs like these, but never really thought clearly about the reasoning behind them or advantages and disadvantages. Brooklyn Public Library calls it Teen Time, and I've done a modified version called Teen Tech Time (we had several laptops for teens to use). I'm just wondering if you actually serve coffee?!

  2. I do not serve coffee, but only because I do not drink coffee and don't know how to make it. True story.

  3. How long did you run the program for? An hour? Two? Did you serve snacks and drinks, or let them bring their own?

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