The Need for Teen Spaces in Public Libraries

By Kimberly Bolan for YALSA

Adopted by YALSA’s Board of Directors, January 2008

Abstract: This paper provides an overview of and commentary on teen space development and its implicit bearing on the strategic vision, planning, and development of facilities design for 21st century libraries.  Attention will be drawn to key success factors such as why teen space is important and current and future priorities and best practices related to library facilities for teenaged users.  This paper will help you understand the importance of teen space within your community and organization and address issues which shape the quality of a teen customer’s experience with your library. 

Background: Over the past twelve years there has been a transformation in library facility design for teenagers. Traditionally speaking, common practice has been to ignore dedicated space for teens or to create boring, unfriendly facilities with little attention to adolescent needs and wants.  Libraries have generally been designed without teen customers in mind, driven by the personal likes and ideas of librarians, administrators, and architects. 

As the number of teenagers increases and as libraries look to reevaluate their priorities and services in the 21st century, more and more schools and public libraries are working to accommodate thirteen to eighteen year olds, moving away from the previously described traditional approaches to creating more efficient, innovative, appealing, and teen-inspired spaces.  This reevaluation of priorities is supported by the fact that kids are not only using the library, they are visiting frequently.  78% of children ages 8 – 18 year olds have library cards, according to the Youth and Library Use Study, a Harris Interactive poll conducted in June 2007.  57% of public library users and 78% of school library users have visited their library at least monthly.  According to the Public Agenda in June 2006, three-quarters of Americans believe it is a high priority for local public libraries to offer a safe place where teenagers can study and congregate.  Equally relevant is the Harris poll response to the question, “I would use my local public library more often if…?”  Twenty-six percent of the respondents replied, “If there was a space just for teens.”

Position: As libraries continue to move forward, organizations of all types, sizes, and budgets must realize that warm, inviting, comfortable, and user-centered environments are integral in attracting teenaged users and transforming the role and image of the library.  Such environments are essential in encouraging positive use of libraries for recreational activities and education.

Whether building a new library, renovating an existing facility, or working on a minor facilities revamp, the primary key success factor is understanding why teen space is critical.  Developing dedicated, attractive, motivating, and teen-oriented space provides a way to create a positive, safe environment for studying, socializing, and leisure activities.  It is a way to outwardly and interactively acknowledge teen customers and their needs by supporting adolescent asset development, creating an environment which encourages emotional, social, and intellectual development, and building a sense of teen belonging, community involvement, and library appreciation. 

Creating appealing teen environments is also an effective way to expand a library’s customer base, by appealing to both users and non-users, creating a wider variety of customers from a diverse social groups, backgrounds, and interests.  If done correctly, teen space is a very useful marketing tool, enabling libraries to draw teenagers into the physical library space, leading them to other library services such as materials, programming, etc.

All of these efforts provide a path to increasing current & future library supporters.  The future of libraries is tomorrow’s adults and, believe it or not, these are today’s teenagers. 

Other key success teen space factors include making teen participation and input a priority as well as a regular practice throughout the planning, design, implementation, maintenance, and marketing of the space and related teen library services.  It is also crucial that libraries appropriately size their teen facilities based on community/student population (ages 13 – 18).  Libraries must re-evaluate space allocations in their overall facilities and scale them according to demographics, not personal bias.  In public library facilities, the ratio of a teen area to the overall library should be equal to the ratio of the teen population of that community to the overall population of that community. 

All space and facilities projects should include a well thought-out plan for improvement, including short-term and long-range planning for current and future teen space and services.  During this process it is equally important to get buy-in and support from all stakeholders, including teens, staff, faculty, administrators, and the community.  And, lastly, think about what teenagers’ need, not about what adults want.  In regard to the actual design and décor of teen spaces, a truly teen-friendly space is comfortable, colorful, interactive, flexible in design, and filled with technology.  It is important to keep in mind that “teen-friendly” is not synonymous with unruly, unreasonable, impractical, and tacky.  Don’t make assumptions or let personal biases impact decision making, whether selecting furniture, shelving/display units, flooring, lighting, paint color, signage, etc.  Items should be welcoming, have visual impact, be versatile, and encourage positive, independent use of the library.

Conclusion: Making libraries appealing and important to teenagers is not an impossible task.  Library facilities design is one integral step in attracting teen customers and redefining libraries of the future. Looking at teen facilities design in a new light, letting go of antiquated ideas, re-evaluating traditional ways of doing business, and emphasizing customer needs and wants are essential first steps in moving forward in the world of 21st century libraries.

Bernier, A. (Ed.). (forthcoming). Making space for teens: Recognizing young adult needs in library buildings. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Bolan, Kimberly. “Looks like teen spirit.”  School Library Journal, vol. 52, no. 1
(Nov. 2006): 44+. 

Bolan (Taney), Kimberly.  Teen Spaces: The Step-by-Step Library Makeover.  Chicago: ALA Editions, 2003.  *Note: The 2nd edition of Teen Spaces will be available in Sept. 2008.

40 Developmental Assets for adolescents - 6th to 12th grades (2007).  Retrieved June 14, 2007 from the Search Institute.

Jones, Patrick, Mary K. Chelton and Joel Shoemaker.   Do It Right: Best Practices for Serving Young Adults in School and Public Libraries. New York: Neal-Schuman, 2001.

Long Overdue: A Fresh Look at Public and Leadership Attitudes About Libraries in the 21st Century, Public Agenda.  Retrieved September 4, 2007 from Public Agenda.

Youth and Library Use Study.  Retrieved September 4, 2007 from Harris Interactive.