Volume 28, Number 4, Winter 2006


Building a Virtual Space for Teens in Southeastern Massachusetts

By Kathy Lussier, Southeastern Massachusetts Library System

Creating space for teens has been a challenge for many public libraries.

Countless studies have highlighted the waning use of public libraries among teenagers. At the same time, a July 2005 report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 87 percent of people between the ages of twelve and seventeen are online. With those numbers, it makes sense for libraries to create virtual spaces to reach out to their teens.

In early 2004, the Southeastern Massachusetts Library System (SEMLS) wrote an LSTA grant to assist their libraries in doing just that. From this grant, the My Own Cafe Web site was born.

My Own Cafe creates an online community for teens between the ages of thirteen and seventeen who use libraries in Southeastern Massachusetts. On the site, teens can gain instant access to online databases, learn about events happening in their community, download music from local bands, and talk to other teens in the region through the site's message boards. As of October 2006, 220 teens had registered to use the site.

Background

SEMLS is a multitype regional library system with 388 members. In the fall of 2003, SEMLS came up with the idea to create a site to help public and high school libraries reach out to teens. Despite the fact that teens make up our heaviest online users, we found that only a handful of public libraries in our region had a teen Web site. Those libraries that had a teen Web site found it hard to compete with the design and content available on commercial sites.

We received $50,000 in federal grant funds, authorized by the Library Services and Technology Act and administered by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, all of which was spent on the actual development of the site. Linda W. Braun of Librarians and Educators Online served as project manager during the site's development and Pixel Bridge Inc. of Boston designed and developed the site.

An important requirement for the project was to create a site that each participating library could customize for its own patrons. When a teen with a barcode from that library logs in, their own library's name appears under the My Own Cafe logo, and they can see library information, events, and job postings specific to their own community.

An Online Community for Teens

The site goes beyond the traditional library Web site that connects patrons to information and expands it to create an online community. The one thing that distinguishes this site from the myriad of commercial Web sites targeting teens is that it contains local events, local jobs, and local scholarships. Even the music is coming from local bands. The message boards allow teens to meet people who are from different towns, but are still close enough so that they could easily meet each other in person at My Own Cafe sponsored events.

The boards are by far the most popular feature of the site. It's easy to get lost reading the conversation. The teens are exploring a variety of topics, from views on assisted suicide to discussions about homework to their favorite video games. Teen volunteers moderate the boards, and we have had no problems with inappropriate content.

Rather than pulling teens away from libraries, this virtual space has actually created more reasons for them to visit the library. One registered teen formed an anime club that meets regularly at public libraries throughout the region. She didn't find enough teens to form a club in her own community, but was able to find plenty of participants when she raised the idea on a My Own Cafe message board. The My Own Cafe teens are always looking for opportunities to meet each other in person, and libraries are starting to host events where this can happen.

The best way to learn about My Own Cafe is to see it. Please visit. Our guest login information is:

User name: guest
Password (November): turkey
Password (December): reindeer