Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Tween and Teen Programming Ideas: Nostalgia with an Online Twist

Tweens and teens are constantly participating in a balancing act of growing up but still being kids. And they like to do fun things. With everyone focusing on virtual programming right now, I thought I would share with you a few fun websites that tap into childhood nostalgia and provide some fun online programming. The best things about these websites is that you don’t need anything but a device to access them, so if your patrons are clicking through to you page or social media, then they probably have the means to access them. It’s not a perfect solution to being closed and having to practice social distancing, but it is a way to help our patrons find fun things to do during this time.


Mecabricks is an online, virtual Lego like building platform. It allows you to build fully rendered 3D Lego models virtually. You can pick the style and color of brick at each step of the way. The best thing about this site is that you don’t have to have any bricks at home. When I ran a Lego club the first thing I learned was how many kids had never really played with Legos because they are very cost prohitibitive. You could share this site with patrons just for fun or run a virtual brick building club and give participants specific challenges and ask them to share or submit their creations.

Lite Brite

This online Lite Brite is the same concept as above with the virtual Legos, except it’s a Lite Brite. You make a pattern with little colored pegs and then turn it on and they light up.

Etch a Sketch

Here’s another childhood favorite brought to you online. In this one you use the arrow keys to sketch and then shake to erase your picture and start over.

Jigsaw Explorer

This website lets you do puzzles online. You can also create a custom puzzle and share it online. So turn pictures of your library building or book displays into puzzles and share them with your patrons.

Fuse Beads Picture Converter

So this one is not entirely online, you still need some additional supplies if you want to make the final fuse bead creation. But if you want to make fuse bead (also known as perler beads) crafts, you can use this online tool to turn your favorite photos into perler bead patterns. You can then print them out, place your beads, and fuse them to make your own personal fuse bead art. But I also think you don’t need to do the perler bead part if you don’t want to. It’s fun just to see what is created.

There are a ton of free online art, craft and digital media tools. If you Google you will find tons of great lists being compiled by art teachers, homeschooling parents, and other librarians just like me. There is no limit to what you can find and share. And the creative challenges that you can come up with. Please share some of your favorite online creation tools with us here in the comments.

MakerSpace: Taking Bristlebots on the Road or, How I keep re-defining and re-purposing a simple Bristlebot activity to get teens making


The best part about working with teens, but also sometimes the hardest, is that every few years you get a whole new crop of teens to work with. This means that you can repeat programs, expanding on what you learned the first time(s) you did a program. With a new set of a teens an older program can be new again! So I recently repeated a Bristlebot program incorporating what I’ve learned along the way and it was an awesome experience for all.






Many of your tweens and teens will be very familiar with Hexbug Nano. These are small bugs that you can buy in the toy department of most stores and they are an example of a simple robot that works using a vibrating motor. This is essentially what you are making. Hexbug Nano also sells a variety of “battle ground” kits, for a large sum of money, but you can get kits to make their own using Legos, old scraps of cardboard, or whatever else you have on hand. They can race their bristlebots, set up a thematic environment, or build a maze and see if their bristlebot can make it all the way through.


To Make Your Bristlebot

  1. Use the large wire cutters to cut the head off of a toothbrush
  2. Use the scissors to cut a foam adhesive square down to size
  3. You will use a foam adhesive square to attach a battery to the toothbrush head. You will use a second foam adhesive square to attach the vibrating motor to the battery. So you’ve just made a toothbrush-battery-vibrating motor sandwich. Use the small wire strippers to strip the ends of both lead lines on the vibrating motor so that you have enough exposed wire to conduct a current. You will make sure that one wire is firmly attached to the battery and the other is firmly attached to the vibrating motor. Tuck it under the foam squares to hold it in place. Note, there is no on/off switch for this simple vibrating robot, when the wires are attached correctly it just starts moving and a shaking.

They have really good instructions with pictures at Instructables

Talking Points


If you purchase the battery pack that I referred to in the supplies, you will see that it comes with batteries in a variety of sizes. This is a unique twist because the size of your battery matters; it creates the energy you need to move your bristlebot and the size of the battery impacts whether or not a toothbrush will move. Think about a car. Smaller cars have smaller engines and bigger cars need bigger engines to get them moving. This is true when making something with a simple battery and vibrating motor as well. The size of your battery and motor will impact what size you can create your small robot. Part of making and inventing involves trial and error; challenging teens to use other objects to make different types of robots using the same mechanism challenges them to consider how much energy is needed to make an object move depending on its size and weight.


After your participants make a bristlebot, have them try again using Legos. You can use the same vibrating motor mechanism to make small Lego cars and have them move. But the size of your car will definitely matter. Almost every teen will start by building a car that is way too big to be moved by the motor. The challenge then becomes, how do you build a small enough car that your “engine” can get it to move?

What else can you make move using a small vibrating motor? Many of the teens suggested you could buy packs of plastic cockroaches and make them move for the most ultimate prank.


Another interesting thing the teens learned and taught me is that the size and shape of the toothbrush matters. One teen discovered that if she left more of the handle on the toothbrush, it changed the dynamics of the toothbrush. If it was too short, the bristlebot was more likely to spin. Whereas if you left more of the handle on, it was more likely to move in a forwards or backwards direction. Trial and error conducted by a curious teen helped us to gain valuable insight. If you give teen participants the time and space to explore, independent learning happens and it’s literally like magic.

Bristlebot Kits as Outreach Tools


At a conference I attended, a vendor of maker toys was distributing small plastic resealable bags that contained the 4 components you need to make a bristlebot with a small business card that had instructions on one side and vendor information on the other. This is a genius outreach idea that libraries can take and hand out at school visits or other outreach events. Or, put a card in each kit that says “Bring this kit into the Teen Makerspace and our staff will help you turn it into a robot!” Each bristlebot kit would cost roughly $1.50 to $2.00 and you could make your own business cards pretty easily in house using cardstock, Publisher, and a printer. You could also pre-make kits to hand out at a program if you don’t want to give people wire strippers and cutters.

Will a small vibrating motor make a roach move? Teens suggest the ultimate prank!

Will a small vibrating motor make a roach move? Teens suggest the ultimate prank!

I have a small, easy carry to box with all the bristlebot supplies I need (minus the Legos) for a quick and easy program that I can take anywhere and with a moments notice. Stripped down to nothing but the bristlebot, it’s still an enjoyable program with a wide range of possibilities.

This is the third time I have done a bristlebots program and it’s quick, easy and yet a source of limitless fun and learning. I have yet to do this program and not have teens get really invested in seeing what they can create and how they can (or can’t) make it move.

MakerSpace: Legos! The one tool every makerspace needs?


I maintain that a genuine staple of a good MakerSpace can be found in Legos. Make no mistake, Legos are not cheap, but they have a versatility about them. And you can get around the cost of Legos by buying random bulk packages off of Amazon. You have no idea what kinds of pieces you will get, but they are significantly cheaper. And occasionally you can find a good sale. Wal Mart, for example, occasionally has a case of 500+ Legos for around $30.00. It’s a good starting place. You can start small and keep adding to your collection over time. You need a good amount of standard bricks, but you also need unique pieces to really build a variety of projects. Some libraries successfully get donations from the community, but I have tried at two different libraries and have found that people really like to hang on to their Legos.

In addition to just doing regular Lego builds, you can combine Legos with things like LittleBits and a Hummingbird Robotics Kit to take your Lego creations to the next level. If you are really advanced, you can even combine them with a Raspberry Pi to make a remote control car. Below we adapted the idea behind brushbots to make vibrating Lego cars. All you need is a vibrating motor, a coin battery and an adhesive to attach it to your Lego car.


Here are some of the ways we use Legos in our Teen MakerSpace at The Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County.

The Lego Wall

Inspired by all the great Lego walls we kept seeing online, we too wanted to created a Lego wall, but we simply didn’t have the wall space in our area. So we made a portable Lego wall using a piece of plywood and 4 10×10 Lego plates. We can set the Lego wall in one of our windows and take it out whenever we would like. We can also take it with us on a stand for outreach events.


This is a Lego maze that was built by multiple teens on our Lego wall. One teen started it and as teens come in they continue to make it grow. At this point about 4 teens have had a hand in building this maze.

The Daily Lego Challenge

We put out a daily Lego challenge as one of our regular Teen MakerSpace stations. A large number of our ideas come from the book 365 Things to Do with Lego Bricks.


Lego Challenge Cards

There are a variety of Lego challenge cards that you can find online by doing a Google search. We have a deck of cards – laminated for longevity – that we keep out and teens can randomly choose a card and take the challenge.


The Lego Challenge Game

We took the idea of the Lego challenge cards one step further and created a Lego challenge game. Again, this idea was inspired by things I found online. I created a numbered game sheet and a teen created our dice using Sculpey clay. You simply roll the dice and complete the challenge that matches the number you rolled. You can make multiple game boards and rotate them out to keep it interesting.



Rube Goldberg Machines

A Rube Goldberg Machine is a type of chain reaction machine where one action leads to another. You can make one using Legos. In fact, there is even a book about it called Lego Chain Reaction. After teens get the concept down, it’s fun to challenge them to make a design of their own.


Stop Motion Animation

We regularly use Legos in our Stop Motion Animation station. The minifigurines are great cast members and you can build your own sets.


Lego Books

We have a HUGE collection of Lego books in our Teen MakerSpace and they are some of our highest circulating items. No Starch Press has a great collection of Lego books.


Although our books are always available for check out, we do keep the Legos locked up when no staff is in the room to help prevent theft.

And no, Lego didn’t pay me to write this post. I have just really found Legos to be a useful MakerSpace tool.

MakerSpace: 5 Low or No Tech Activities for a Teen MakerSpace

makerspacelogo1When I first began transforming my teen space into a Teen MakerSpace, I was adamant that the space had to be tech, tech, tech heavy. All tech, all the time. I pushed back hard against suggestions that I should do things like have gel pens or paint. Part of my concern was legitimate, cost and clean up. Having consumable materials increases your cost right out of the gate. But there are a lot of consumables in tech making as well; see, for example, the 3D pen. You constantly have to replace the filament.

The clean up concern is legitimate as well. We work hard to try and keep our surfaces and floors protected, but there have been accidents. Tables and counters are easier to protect than floors, we simply cover them with cutting mats and it works pretty well.

I have slowly changed my idea of what a makerspace can and should be, in part because of my teens. It turns out, they like to do a lot of traditional arts and crafts just as much as they like to do coding, robotics and electronics. And many of our teens don’t have access to the tools necessary to learn these traditional types of arts and crafts anymore than they have access to the tech to learn coding and electronics. So we – so I – have expanded my idea of what a makerspace is. If it involves making something, I will consider it for the space. So today I am sharing with you 5 of their favorite more traditional arts and crafts activities that we do in our Teen MakerSpace at The Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County (OH).

Sculpey Clay

Desiree making jewelry out of Sculpey clay beads

Desiree making jewelry out of Sculpey clay beads


Making things out of clay has turned out to be really popular for us. We have a toaster oven in the space that we use to bake the clay. They make anything from figures to jewelry using the clay. Desiree, one of our TMS assistants, has become quite good at clay art.

Teen Coloring

We have a dedicated teen coloring station with blank cartoon and graphic novel strips that teens can create, but we also just print off coloring sheets. We provide colored pencils, markers, and gel pens. I really pushed back against gel pens in the beginning because they are so expensive but found a great set at a reasonable price and we keep them locked up when the room isn’t staffed. It’s a relaxing activity and it’s pretty easy from a staff perspective, and the teens love it.


Although many of our teens do use our supplies, we have a small handful of teens that come regularly and bring their own supplies and art books. They will also often draw pictures for us. A couple of times they have drawn pictures of us, which is an incredible honor.

Shrinky Dinks


A bracelet made out of Shrinky Dink charms

A bracelet made out of Shrinky Dink charms

Who knew this childhood favorite would once again be so popular? We buy plain Shrinky Dink sheets at the local craft store and the teens are welcome to create anything they would like. They often trace and color their favorite manga characters. But you can also use Shrinky Dinks to do things like create jewelry.


today5 today6 Lego can be very tech savvy. For example, you can use Legos to create a Rube Goldberg machine. Legos can also be combined with tech like LittleBits or Raspberry Pi to make remote control vehicles or small robots. But sometimes, the teens just like to build with them. In fact, we now host a daily Lego challenge. We put up a sign with a small pile of Legos and ask teens to do things like build a car, make an animal, or even create a campfire scene. We get a lot of our daily challenges out of this book.



today7I suppose in some ways this is just an extension of the coloring/drawing type of activities, but I have to go on the record as saying that I pushed back hard against buying pain and paint brushes. For one, we really do try and limit the amount of money we spend on consumables because you have to replace them a lot. But the truth is, it’s not as high of a cost as I thought it might be. You can buy a value pack of acrylic paint at Michael’s for $8.00. And a value pack of brushes for around $5.00. We don’t provide high quality materials by any means, but they get the job done. The teens not only paint on paper, but they will bring in t-shirts to paint, they paint their cell phone cases to personalize them, and more.

So here’s my takeaway.

1) The idea of a makerspace is always evolving.

2) Don’t be afraid of more traditional arts and crafts.

Video Games Weekly: Lego Harry Potter Collection

The Lego Harry Potter Collection is the remastered PS4 edition of the original Lego Harry Potter games, (it’s unknown if a remastered edition will be released for Xbox or Nintendo) but this time the entire game is on one disc!  The release was timely considering the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them came out in the same month.

YouTube Trailer:

Platform:  PS4

Rated: E10+

Single or Multiplayer: Both, up to two-player co-op
Storyline: The storyline is based off of the Harry Potter books.  Similar to the movie, the game focuses on key plot points and glosses over the details.  Hardcore fans of Harry Potter will notice how the storyline combines events together in order to make each chapter shorter, but the game is overall charming and will make players nostalgic for their favorite wizarding school days.

Gameplay: In a standard Lego game, players are encouraged to wreck/fix as many things as possible in order to collect studs.  Studs are the standard Lego game’s currency that can be used to unlock bonus content such as levels, characters, costumes, and special moves.  What makes Lego Harry Potter stand out is how instead of just punching items repetitively for studs, players can use specific spells to wreck or fix items.  For example, the first spell players learn is Wingardium Leviosa, which can be used to levitate books back on their shelves, or lift benches.  You can only lift things with Wingardium Leviosa, and it’s up to players to figure out what spell they need in order to move what objects.

The best part about spells is how they foreshadow what is to come later in the game.  One example is during  Year 1, players can see a bunch of Cornish Pixies holding golden cauldrons or blocking players from entering certain parts of the Hogwarts castle, but players know they won’t be able to get there until at least Year 2.  This also encourages players to replay previous levels once they have unlocked that one spell they needed, which in turn lengthens the gameplay using the same levels/maps.


Each year takes about an hour or two to beat, meaning it’ll take about 14 hours to beat the entire game the first time through.  Players will definitely replay the game to unlock bonus characters, golden bricks, and other fun items, so this game overall takes over 20 hours to beat.

This game is made for any fans of Harry Potter, young or old.  The game is also more fun to play in multiplayer mode, so be sure to grab a friend or relative to enjoy this easy-to-learn game!

Verdict: Recommended for circulating collections where Lego games are popular, especially if any copies of Years 1-4 or 5-7 have gone missing over the years.

Questions? Comments? Tweet them at me!

By: Alanna Graves
Twitter: @LannaLibrarian


Pricing: $50 on Amazon https://www.amazon.com/LEGO-Harry-Potter-Collection-PlayStation-4/dp/B01LPO6WF6

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Video Games 101: What you need to know about Lego Dimensions

Lego Dimensions is the first toys-to-life video game of its genre.  It is also one of the coolest video games that combines popular fandoms all into one video game. I mean, just look at this list!


Sounds cool right? Before your library jumps on this bandwagon, you need to know a few things.


Platforms: PS3, PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One

Single or Multiplayer: Both but only up to 2 players at a time

What is this game about?  The plot begins with an evil villain Lord Vortech and his robot sidekick X-PO trying to find the “foundation elements”, known as the cornerstones of time and space that can merge all of the different universes [franchises] together under his control.  Each foundation element is the trademark of each universe, like The One Ring from Lord of the Rings.  Players simply save the universe by defeating Lord Vortech with Batman, WyldeStyle, and Gandalf the Grey.

The game is a typical Lego game in terms of gameplay, but what makes it great is the ridiculousness of the plot/pop culture references.  Right in the beginning of the storyline, players have to navigate around The Land of Oz with Batman, Gandalf, and WyldStyle trying to find Robin and Frodo.  The game makes sure every Lego character keeps in character, and it’s almost like watching a fun new Lego movie as they navigate areas that exist outside of their own fictional world.



What are the Legos used for?  Lego Dimensions is unique in how players have to build and customize Lego structures in real life, and then scan them into the game.  First, players have to construct the portal that will be used for the whole game.  The portal’s platform is where players construct and scan in different Lego figurines, which can either be characters or items. For example, early on in the game players have to build a Batmobile out of Legos, and then scan the Batmobile with the platform on the bottom.  Technically, the figures don’t need to be built.  All you really need is the platform scanner, but what fun is that?


Unlike Nintendo’s amiibos, the Lego portal is used in order for players to progress in the game.  Players have to use problem solving skills to figure out which area a certain character needs to be scanned on the portal, and they will then appear in the game.  Basically, players will be interacting a lot with the physical Lego portal, adding a really cool new gameplay element to the video gaming world.


Expansions Packs: Players can purchase expansion packs that range from new characters, story packs, to level packs and fun items.  If you’re considering purchasing Lego Dimensions, you’ll have to consider buying expansion packs in order to keep the game popular.  The starter kit will give you about 10 or so hours of gameplay, and I guarantee people will want to purchase their favorite fandom expansion packs.


Should libraries buy this for circulation collections? As of right now, I am going to say no.  The issue is how the game relies on having an in-tack Lego portal, as well as all of the figurine scanners.  If one piece goes missing, then players cannot progress in the game and right now there isn’t a way to purchase replacement parts.  My other concern is the game’s availability on FIVE different platforms, and you cannot try to crossover a Wii U kit with a PlayStation 4 kit because for the sake of fairness, libraries would have to purchase multiple kits, catalog them as kits, and constantly check them at circ to see if they have all of their pieces.  It’s simply too much work for my library system, but if you’re willing to try it, let me know how it goes!


Should libraries buy this for Teen Game Night Programs? My library did, and we just set it out for the first time last week.  One teen somehow exploded our Batmobile, so little pieces went flying everywhere and he had to clean them up.  But, they did like the game, and many sat or stood behind our two players to watch.  I’m going to wait a few more weeks before I give a definitive yes or no for Teen Game Night programs, and I’m also curious to see if teens will beg us to buy expansion packs.


Price: $80 original price but often on sale on Amazon https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00VMB5RDQ/ref=s9_acss_bw_lb_stt_1_2_di/168-8936683-8226212?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=merchandised-search-top-4&pf_rd_r=2HC095PVYCEE2JTKSD7D&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=5a1e06dc-b40a-46a0-b1cd-27cb1f862f44&pf_rd_i=11090984011&th=1

Questions? Comments? Tweet them at me!

By: Alanna Graves
Twitter: @LannaLibrarian

MakerSpace: Challenge Cards, getting teens to try new activities in the Teen MakerSpace

challengecards We are having tremendous success with our Teen MakerSpace at The Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County (OH) and are very excited to see the teens in our community using the space and learning new things. We have learned that certain items are more popular than others, with the button makers and 3D pens being hands down everyone’s favorites.

We have also seen that some of the elements are a little less self-directed then we imagined them to be. Sometimes, our teens want prompts to help get them started. And after a little bit of searching I learned about “Challenge Cards”. Challenge cards are a great way to help get teens engaging with some of our Teen MakerSpace elements. They basically work like a writing prompt, giving just that little push needed to get the creative juices flowing.

We currently have Challenge Cards for our stop motion animation station, the LittleBits, and Legos. Some of the Challenge Cards we found online, others we created ourselves. Our Lego Challenge Cards are a combination of those we found online and those we created with the help of teens sitting in the Teen MakerSpace.

In the future, we hope to develop (or find) some coding challenge cards. And because our iPad bank is perfect for learning photo manipulation and meme creation, I think we will also be developing some Photo Challenge Cards.

We laminated our cards and created signage, making them available right next to the station so teens can grab a card and go. We have found that it has prompted some of our teens to try new activities in the space and recommend them.

Here are links to some of the various Challenge Card examples we have found to date or created for ourselves. If you know of others you would like to share, please add them in the comments.

The New Makerspace: Unboxing and the Learning Curve

For those of you following my current journey, the new Makerspace stuff at The Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County has arrived!

New to my journey: I’m at a new library and I re-evaluated my previous MakerSpace, doing some comparison of tech components and putting together a Lego based MakerSpace that incorporates Little Bits in this first round. In addition, we’re getting some iPads to learn how to make pictures, GIFs and stop motion movies.

Most of the stuff arrived and it was glorious:

Because space is still a premium, I once again opted for mobile. This means I can take my MakerSpace components wherever I need them to be.

At Betty Warmack Branch Library in Grand Prairie, my teens loved – and I mean LOVED – making mini movies so I thought we would start there. Because of this year’s superhero themed SRC, I scoured the Internet for the best deal on Lego Superheroes. I got a pack of 24 for around $24.00 off of Ebay. It was the best deal out there.

Today I spent some time with fellow staff and some passing by teens to try our hands on using Little Bits. Little Bits are entirely new to me so I thought we would give it a try.

The instructions on how to make the various components work were pretty straight forward and easy to use.

We did manage to make our Lego Hulk spin using Little Bits – which I think will totally up our movie making game!

Although we did not use the LittleBits, we did our first project and I outlined how we did it here.

In order to help me get some great idea for the Little Bits, I started a Pinterest board which you can follow here if you would like. And don’t forget to check out the Robot Test Kitchen for more information on Little Bits.

5 Things Libraries Can Learn from Starbucks and Lego

In March, two companies launched PR campaigns that were a bit of a misfire and received some backlash. First Starbucks launched their #RaceTogether initiative, which would have their barista’s write #RaceTogether on the coffee cups they served and asked their employees to engage in discussion with their customers. The thing is, it turned out that most customers didn’t want to engage in a brief chat about racial issues with a barista in the early morning hours, as evidenced by the backlash that began quickly on Twitter. Around this time the newest edition of the Lego magazine was released with a page that had some beauty tips. The problem here is that the target demographic for Lego magazine is 6 to 12 year old girls and many readers were repulsed at the idea that we were trying to inflict beauty standards on such a young age group. I tweeted some about  both situations, even going so far as to Storify my tweets about the Lego situation because my two daughters are in that target age group and I was horrified to think that they company that I had put my trust in and championed precisely because it was more gender neutral than most companies had betrayed my trust.

But as I thought about these two situations, I also thought about what libraries can learn from these corporate missteps.

1. Know Your Community

Both of these campaigns received backlash because they didn’t understand what their customers wanted from them. Customers coming into Starbucks want coffee or pastries and sometimes even music. They may want a social place to meet up and hang out with friends to have deep, meaningful conversations. They do not, however, want to have deep meaningful conversations with people who are basically strangers serving them coffee. That’s the thing about being a service industry employee, what people primarily want from you is indeed service, quality customer service that meets their needs and makes them feel comfortable. Discussions about race are a big, hot button issue. This is not what we want to be doing with what basically amounts to a perfect stranger.

Library personnel are service industry employees. We can argue the benefits of that service, and I will until the day I die because I believe in them. But at the end of the day the heart of what we are is service. Our goods and services may be “free” (even though they aren’t really), but what our patrons want for us is to come in, get the help that they need to meet their immediate goals, and to have a positive customer service experience. There is a reason most libraries have policies in place that forbid their employees from discussing politics and religion with their patrons, and that reason is to avoid exactly what Starbucks tried to dip their toe into by asking their baristas to discuss race issues with their customers.

Knowing what your customers – or audience – wants from your business or organization is key. Understanding how they use the library, what they want from the library, and how you can successfully give that to them is our number one goal. If Starbucks had a better understanding of what their customers wanted, they would have understood why this campaign wasn’t a good idea. In fact, it never would have made it past the brainstorming stage.

2. Know Your Message/Brand

The Lego situation in particular is a stark reminder that companies build for themselves a brand and when they try to change that brand they risk alienating some real loyal followers. Lego has historically been championed as a gender neutral toy, one of the few that still exist. The Lego company moved off this message slightly when they introduced the Lego Friends product line (though I understand it has been commercially successful) and you can still see the occasional Buzzfeed post that brings back the brilliant ad campaign from the 70s that reminds parents that Lego is gender neutral and is for all kids. And really, that’s a genius marketing strategy because instead of alienating half of your potential customers by being either “for girls” or “for boys”, marketing yourself as being for all people – pretty smart.

Lego Ad image via this Buzzfeed article: http://www.buzzfeed.com/jobarrow/its-the-imagination-that-counts#.pyaW08qN

The Lego Friends product line is problematic because it puts girls in gendered stereotype boxes: pink and purple bricks with shopping malls, for example. The great thing, however, is that you can buy the Lego Friends bricks (or receive them as gifts, which is what happens in my home) and mix them in with more standard sets and you get a null set of bricks with unlimited building potential that sparks creativity and innovation. But when they start putting targeted messages like the beauty tips in the Lego Magazine, it becomes harder to avoid and work around. The Lego executives claimed that they did this because customers said they wanted an advice type column in the magazine, but here’s the type of advice I want from Lego: What’s the best type of brick to use to make x. y or z? How do you preserve your builds? (My tip: Take pictures of everyone’s Lego creations and upload them into an electronic photo album).

Libraries also have a brand: we are the information centers of our communities. That information may come in the form of books, programs, or access to technology, but that is our main goal. If we start to veer too far from that brand, we dilute our effectiveness and muddy our message. We risk alienating our patrons and supporters while overwhelming our staff to the point where we are trying to do so many things that we do none of them well. Staying on message, on brand, makes it that much easier to communicate with our communities who we are, what we do, and why we matter.

3. Know Your Staff Limitations and Comfort Zone

One of the biggest problems with the Starbucks campaign is that it asked its employees to do things they were in no way qualified to do in that setting. Race discussions are complex, rife with history and context and a vast array of sociological theory. There are people who spend years in college preparing how to discuss this issue in meaningful ways. Starbucks baristas are trained to provide Starbucks services. Asking them to engage in conversations of this nature is so far out of their comfort zone it is shameful to think of a CEO asking their staff to put themselves in such an awkward and potentially volatile situation. The chances of making a misstep in this type of conversation is so easy it is terrifying. All the CEO of Starbucks needed to do was spend 5 minutes on Facebook or read the comments on just one articles on racism to know how volatile this issue is. What they were asking of their staff was profoundly unfair, it put their safety at risk and quite frankly it puts the company at risk because one misspoken word and you now have an angry customer.

As much as it is our job to provide costumer service, it is also our job to create and provide safe work spaces for our employees. And I would argue comfortable work spaces. What Starbucks was asking its baristas to do violated this in my opinion. Don’t put your staff in uncomfortable, and potentially volatile, positions by asking them to engage in unnecessary tasks or conversations with patrons.

4. Know Your Library (aka, leave your ivory tower)

The truth is, all of this could have been easily avoided if CEOs of both companies spent more time in the trenches, leaving their isolated ivory towers behind and really observing what happens in their businesses, what their customers want, how their products are used, etc. And this is a common problem I see in libraries. Library administrators often (not all, of course) spend so much time in secluded offices that they don’t understand what the day to day business out in the library is actually like. They are making policies and procedures removed of the actual information they need to more effectively make those policies and procedures, and then putting it upon their staff to enforce them on a public that wants and needs something entirely different.

In comparison, The Mr. went through the management college of a major store and one of the first things they are taught is the first thing you do every day that you come to work is to walk the floor, making observations about the space, greeting your customers and employees, and being mindful of what is working and what isn’t. At the end of the day, you repeat this process. And the best of the best will make a point to do the same a couple of times throughout the day. In comparison, I have worked in libraries where I have gone months without seeing anyone in administration, they rely on the information to get back to them from the management they put in place not understanding that information can be given to them through filters of bias and personal agendas.

Ideally, library administrators would make it a point to walk around their libraries a couple of times a day. Even better, work a public service desk shift each week. Know first hand what is happening in your library, what the patrons are asking for and experiencing, and what demands are being put on your employees. This simple act will help administrators better understand what their patrons want and need, how they are or aren’t staying on message, and how their employees are being affected by the policies and procedures they enact. It’s so much easier to create buy in and earn the respect of your staff when they know that you are making decisions based upon the best information possible.

5. Know That You Don’t Have to be Involved in Every Conversation

In this day and age of social media saturation, it’s like we’re all trying to be all things to all people and involved in all conversations. This is not a good idea. Especially for a corporation – or a library. Some conversations are not about you and that’s okay. Sometimes it’s better to stay out of the fray then to make a misstep. Some things are bigger than us or more complicated then the medium we are trying to use. Actually, John Oliver recently addressed this point really well on his HBO show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. You can view the video clip by following the link provided to get a better idea of what I mean about this point, but I will warn you it is super not safe for work and contains language. You can view the clip here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rG_7xur1iRc&feature=player_embedded. As John Oliver points out, “You’re silence is never going to be controversial.

I viewed the Lego situation very much through the lens of a mom, but during the firestorm about the Starbucks situation I couldn’t help but think of those employees and what was being asked of them. Through it all I kept thinking, we can learn from this.