Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Teen Issues: Because You Gotta Have Faith

I began working in libraries as a young adult “librarian” when I was 20 and an undergrad student at a local Nazarene college trying to complete a major in youth ministry.  I remember very distinctly there was a moment when I had to really analyze how being a librarian fit in with my (then) very conservative world view.  I understood implicitly that my foray into librarianship meant that I must purchase and provide access to materials that I may be offended by. I wondered if in doing so I would be accountable for leading the very teens that I was trying to serve onto a dark path.  And when we talk about issues of faith, we are not only talking about the Christian faith as we serve all people of all faiths, including those who choose no faith.

I think that true faith development is about taking the spiritual journey of life and finding ways to become a deep, authentic person who understands their place in the world and seeks to find ways to use their gifts and help the greater good.  When we discuss teens and faith (spiritual) development, we must understand that it is greater than simply deciding to read your bible and pray – it is about choosing how you will live in the world and in relationship with your fellow human beings.

In one of my adolescent development classes we learned that 80% of all decisions for Christ are made in the teenage years; which isn’t surprising when you recall that adolescence is the time of identity formation.  What I have come to understand over the years is that if we want teenagers to make authentic decisions about who they are, what they believe, and how they want to live their lives, then we must allow them access to a wide variety of materials to help them really address the issues.  You can’t intellectually or spiritually address issues without really diving into them.  There has to come a moment in everyone’s life when you  really challenge the beliefs that you have grown up with, analyze them, and decide to internalize or reject them.  You have to make them deeply your own.  I am often surprised by how many people, young and old, are afraid to face this life challenge.
We often hear in the media that we should not read a work because it is offensive to us as people of faith; but if we do not read it, how do we know that it is offensive?  When we hear that something is offensive, what that individual should be saying is that it was offensive to them.  The truth of the matter is that everyone reads and interprets a work differently. You need to read a book to truly be able to talk intelligently about it. 
In terms of faith, you often hear teens say that they are not allowed to read things like Harry Potter, for example, because it involves magic.  Yet oddly, there is much magic in a lot of books considered Christian fiction, including the Chronicles of Narnia series by notable Christian writer C. S. Lewis.  As I read Harry Potter, I read a rich, layered look at what it means to be noble, to honor your life’s calling, to be a friend, to stand firm in the path of righteousness.  And although I don’t quite buy into the idea that HP is an allegory for JC, I do believe that he is a good model for all readers in how to stay the course and be willing to make great sacrifice for the greater good.  (As an aside I also really appreciated as someone who understands adolescent development those chapters in the saga in which HP went full on whiny teen and felt it was a realistic portrayal of the teenage years.  It may have been difficult as a reader, but it was an authentic expression of what adolescence – especially adolescence under a great deal of stress – is often like.)

In comparison I, and I am going to brutally honest here, I find that most Christian fiction written for the teen audience lacks any effectiveness precisely because it is afraid to be authentic.  In trying to be safe for the reader, they fail to acknowledge the truth of the teenage existence.  The teenage years are messy years; they are years full of hormones and emotions and desires that we are often told are wrong and yet we can’t control that we feel them because biology is at work (but we can control what we do about those feelings).  How do we expect teens to understand these intense emotions and learn how to address them in healthy ways if we won’t allow them to talk about them and read about them and really consider them?

I feel that people of faith should also read about other faiths before they can really have a conversation with someone of that faith.  We can not intelligently discuss that which we haven’t read or really don’t know anything about.  The greatest gift we can give to anyone, especially our teens, are the tools they need to develop a firm foundation, and the wisdom and security that comes from having that firm foundation.  Their foundation can not be firm if we are not honest with them about the realities of life.  We have to equip them and help them make the baby steps into successful adulthood; otherwise we are simply pushing them blindly off of a cliff when they reach the age of 18.  Does something change overnight on the eve of their 18th birthday?  Does a flip suddenly switch: not an adult, adult?  No, they make a slow and steady progress through the teenage years into the world of responsibility and accountability.

I feel that my job as a librarian is to help them develop the tools they need not only to live in the moments of their teenage years, but to navigate the whole path of life successfully.  The moment an individual fails to explore themselves internally and the world around them, the moment they choose to stop growing, is the moment that they choose to give up and start slowly dying.  Your faith can grow stagnant, and yes it can die.  So can your mind, your intellectual curiosity.  So can your character.  So can your zest for life.  But you can stop all of that from happening when you enter into the doors of a library and choose to read, to explore, and to continue on life’s intellectual – and its spiritual – journey.

For more information:
Adolescent spiritual development by Donald Ratcliff, Ph. D.
Article: Study finds teen faith shaped more by hands-on ministry than worship by Ken Camp
CPYU: Center for Parent/Youth Understanding articles on Adolescent Development (some good resources)
Inspirational Fiction bibliographies
The Teen Christian Fiction page at Christian Book.com
An interesting discussion of inspiring books vs. inspirational fiction from Provo City libraries

Asset Builder’s Coalition support materials

I was very honored to have an article appear regarding asset building in the October 2011 edition of VOYA (page 354), the Voice of Youth Advocates.  My article was entitled Mpact: An Asset Builder’s Coalition and if you are a regular reader here at TLT you know that I am a big advocate for using the Search Institutes 40 Developmental Assets in program planning and evaluation.  It also provides a good framework for communicating the importance of what you do to your co-workers, administration, and community.  It’s all in the article, read it.  In this post I am going to share with you some of the support materials that didn’t fit into the article.  You’re welcome.

Getting the Word Out
Getting things organized is often the hardest part.  Before you can be a coalition, you need members.  So spend some time getting organized.  Develop your organizations vision, purpose and goals.  Then send out invitations to area organizations that work with youth and ask them to come and share their knowledge and resources.

Text of initial letter sent to community agencies that work with teens:

As the teen services librarian at ____________________, I am invested in helping teens meet their full potential through both educational and recreational information and services.  I would like for those of us in the ______________ community who provide services for teens to come together and share information and resources, and to engage in some joint programming through a group I am calling _____________, the area asset builder’s coalition for youth. 

Our goal, simply stated, will be to Share, Link, Promote.

As a coalition, we will work together to successfully develop a coalition of community partners who value youth, and commit time and resources for initiatives to reduce risky behaviors in teens and provide positive community experiences.  Our goals will be:

  1. To share information regarding individual organizations purpose, goals, and upcoming events.
  2. To share experiences and generate ideas for marketing and promotion, event planning, and resource sharing.
  3. To plan a yearly community event for teens 
Coalition partners will actively attended meetings and work together to form common goals that draw upon the strengths and unique offerings of each of the individual organizations that work in the community with teens.  Partners will also use this as an opportunity to learn about various area resources so they can appropriately refer teens when needs are expressed.  In addition, partners will work together to plan larger community events to provide teens with community based outlets to express their creativity, divest their individual talents and resources and expend their energy in healthy, meaningful ways.  And finally, coalition partners shepherd initiatives that fit with their community involvement and goals.

Our goal is to continue to develop relationships throughout the community in order to expand participation in coalition initiatives and generally encourage support for youth. Each coalition partner will participate in planning and strategies that find opportunities to connect with youth, parents, community leaders, law enforcement personnel, education systems and business owners in _________.

The Framework

Asset building is a framework that helps provide passion, purpose and communication when working with teens.  Your passion and your purpose, to help provide teens with positive assets through your programs and services.  And as you communicate with your co-workers, your administration and your community, you help them see how there is value in what you do, in what the library does in the lives of teens and for the community.  Successful, engaged teens developing positive assets is not only good for teens – it is good for the local community and all of society in the long term (not an exaggeration, the Search Institute has done the research to back up this claim.)

At our first meeting I shared our vision, purpose and goals while explaining the need and benefit for an asset builder’s coalition:

The Model
At our meetings we discussed:

  • What are the assets and how do you use them?
  • Community organization basics:  Define the goals of your organization, basic operating information, who to contact, when to refer. (I really recommend developing a wiki to share this information and allow all participating organizations the opportunity to update and keep it current.  In addition, this is a good way to share a calendar of local events to avoid scheduling conflicts.)
  • Marketing to teens (Our local United Way marketing coordinator was involved and she shared a lot of helpful information.  United Way is really good at marketing.)
  • Social media use with teens
  • What types of past programming has been successful, and why.
  • Basic adolescent development
  • Specifics of our communities, the make up, the challenges, local history and eccentricities


Their is power in networking.  Libraries today, in fact many organizations today, face a shortage of resources including staff, staff time, and money.  Working with community organizations takes an investment in time, but it can reap bigger rewards.  Instead of being one teen librarian working to help youth, you become a network of people working to help youth.  You know the saying, two brains are better than one; by networking you increase your potential through increased knowledge and increased resources.  Plus, there is great benefit to learning what is working well for others and what doesn’t as  this can help influence your decision making.  And as you share upcoming programming schedules, you help eliminate those conflicts that often arise when you set programming dates and times in a bubble.

The challenge is someone must take the first step and be willing to be the organizer.  This takes a tremendous amount of time, energy and commitment.  You have to be enthusiastic and patient; just like programming, you don’t necessarily get immediate interest and success.  You have to make sure there is someone scheduled to present (cross train) at each meeting.  You need an agenda, refreshments, and the ability to keep the conversation going.  But most of all, you have to believe that what you are doing is important; we all fail without vision, but together you can create a common vision for the youth in your community.

Other TLT posts that discuss asset bulding:
Understanding the Wild Child
Don’t Underestimate the Value of “Hanging Out”
Marketing Teen Services to Non Teen Services Staff part 1 and part 2

End Note: Evaluating YOUR Teen Services Program Using the 40 Developmental Assets

We have discussed using the assets to evaluate and communicate your teen services program.  At the end of each year I simply make a quick outline of the assets and make sure what we are doing accomplishes what we say we are doing.  Think of it as creating a yearly plan and then making sure at the end of the year that you met your goals.  Here is an example:

40 Developmental Assets
Through extensive research, Search Institute has identified the following 40 building blocks of healthy development that help young people grow up healthy, caring, and responsible. The _________ Public Library actively helps teens address and meet 27 of the 40 assets listed below, proving that the ___________ Public Library is essential community resource in the life of teenagers in the Marion community.
External Assets:
Support, Empowerment, Boundaries and Expectations, and Constructive Use of Time
1. Family Support-Family life provides high levels of love and support.
2. Positive Family Communication-Young person and her or his parent(s) communicate positively, and young person is willing to seek advice and counsel from parents.
3. Other Adult Relationships-Young person receives support from three or more nonparent adults.
·         Library staff provides positive adult interaction to community teens and help teenagers successfully navigate the library environment. 
·         Teens who regularly attend Teen CoffeeHouse develop a positive relationship with Teen Services Librarian.
·         Through reader’s advisory and informal book discussions, many regular teens develop a positive relationship with Teen Services Librarian.
4. Caring Neighborhood-Young person experiences caring neighbors.Library resources, especially those designed especially for teens, communicate that the library community cares for teens in the community.
5. Caring School Climate-School provides a caring, encouraging environment.
6. Parent Involvement in Schooling-Parent(s) are actively involved in helping young person succeed in school.
7. Community Values Youth-Young person perceives that adults in the community value youth.
·         The library provides a developmentally appropriate teen program that meets a variety of their needs and interests, including a special teen resource collection, which communicates value in the community.
8. Youth as Resources-Young people are given useful roles in the community.
·         Through regular interaction with the Teen Services Librarian, both informal and at programming, teens give input into programming, services and collection.
9. Service to Others-Young person serves in the community one hour or more per week.
10. Safety-Young person feels safe at home, school, and in the neighborhood.
·         The Teen CoffeeHouse provides a developmentally appropriate, enjoyable environment for teens in their neighborhood.
11. Family Boundaries-Family has clear rules and consequences and monitors the young person’s whereabouts.
12. School Boundaries-School provides clear rules and consequences.
13. Neighborhood Boundaries-Neighbors take responsibility for monitoring young people’s behavior.
·         The acceptable behavior policy helps outline responsible behavior for teens in the library.
14. Adult Role Models-Parent(s) and other adults model positive, responsible behavior.
·         All library staff and the Teen Services Librarian directly model positive, responsible behavior to teens in the community.
15. Positive Peer Influence-Young person’s best friends model responsible behavior.
16. High Expectations-Both parent(s) and teachers encourage the young person to do well.
17. Creative Activities-Young person spends three or more hours per week in lessons or practice in music, theater, or other arts.
·         The library’s teen services programs provides a variety of opportunities for teens to be creative, including drawing and poetry contests, etc.
18. Youth Programs-Young person spends three or more hours per week in sports, clubs, or organizations at school and/or in the community.
·         The library’s teen services program provides a variety of programs that provide teens with opportunities to engage in developmentally appropriate programming.
19. Religious Community-Young person spends one or more hours per week in activities in a religious institution.
20. Time at Home-Young person is out with friends “with nothing special to do” two or fewer nights per week.
Internal Assets:
Commitment to Learning, Positive Values, Social Competencies and Positive Identity
21. Achievement Motivation-Young person is motivated to do well in school.
22. School Engagement-Young person is actively engaged in learning.
·         Library has essential resources for teens engaging in learning
23. Homework-Young person reports doing at least one hour of homework every school day.
·         Library resources are beneficial in the successful completion of homework
24. Bonding to School-Young person cares about her or his school.
25. Reading for Pleasure-Young person reads for pleasure three or more hours per week.
·         Library provides an extensive collection for teens reading enjoyment
·         Library provides a variety of programs and events that encourage reading for pleasure
Note about education oriented internal assets below:  The ___________ Public Library provides a variety of resources, both fiction and nonfiction, to help teens explore, develop and enhance these internal assets.  The teen collection, which has developmentally appropriate titles written specifically for teens in a manner that will engage them, is an important part of helping teens in the community address these internal assets.
26. Caring-Young person places high value on helping other people.
27. Equality and Social Justice-Young person places high value on promoting equality and reducing
hunger and poverty.
28. Integrity-Young person acts on convictions and stands up for her or his beliefs.
29. Honesty-Young person “tells the truth even when it is not easy.”
30. Responsibility-Young person accepts and takes personal responsibility.
31. Restraint-Young person believes it is important not to be sexually active or to use alcohol or other drugs.
32. Planning and Decision Making-Young person knows how to plan ahead and make choices.
33. Interpersonal Competence-Young person has empathy, sensitivity, and friendship skills.
34. Cultural Competence-Young person has knowledge of and comfort with people of different cultural/racial/ethnic backgrounds.
35. Resistance Skills-Young person can resist negative peer pressure and dangerous situations.
36. Peaceful Conflict Resolution-Young person seeks to resolve conflict nonviolently.
37. Personal Power-Young person feels he or she has control over “things that happen to me.”
38. Self-Esteem-Young person reports having a high self-esteem.
39. Sense of Purpose-Young person reports that “my life has a purpose.”
40. Positive View of Personal Future-Young person is optimistic about her or his personal future

Special thanks to VOYA for the opportunity to share my passion for teens and asset building.

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.