This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA), and is reprinted here with permission.
Finding programs that work for teens can be a challenge. For example, after finally getting all the approvals needed for what was a hot new program when the idea was first pitched, a librarian finds the fad has already run its course--yet another flash in the pan of teen culture. Or teens are interested in things that rules and policies prevent because of age restrictions, a lack of soundproofing in all the right places, or a lack of budget to get equipment necessary for the program. Or the teens are coming in to use the computers to check their social profiles and have no real interest in any programming you might offer. These things happen.
Every now and then, though, something happens and you make a connection with a previously unknown community resource, or the right person is in the building asking the right questions, and the potential is there to seize a bit of programming that works for your audience. Recognizing serendipity whenit presents itself has led to some successful programs for my library in the past. As with everything involving a healthy dash of luck, there are some things to try that can help increase the chances of a lucky break arriving at a critical juncture.
Si fueris Rōmae, Rōmānō vīvitō mōre; si fueris alibī, vīvitō sicut ibi (If you are in Rome, live in the Roman way; if you are elsewhere, live as they do there)
Observation can sometimes lead to really good pogramming ideas. Being able t tap into groups and interests already on display at the library can sometimes mean being able to create programs with built-in audiences. The range of possible community events at the library is wider than the range of programs the library would be expected to present--sewing groups, political organizations, paranormal hunters, even marketing groups use the meeting room as places to put on demonstrations, plot their next moves, and try to attract new members.
- Do you know who's using your meeting room? Community groups can be a really great source of programming and volunteers for the library...if you go and ask them. This means having someone aware of what groups are in the meeting room(s) during any given week, and then seeing if someone on staff who understands that group is willing to approach them to ask for their help with programming.
- Are you out in the community? If your city/county/locality puts on festivals, street fairs, farmers' markets, or other local celebrations, having a table at those events may introduce you to other groups and expose you to trends in the community. If you're not already employed in a school, being on good terms with those who are can also open up opportunities, especially if you ask what the trends are in schools.
For example,a group that brings their sewing machines on Mondays started a discussion of possibly adding some needle arts programs for teens at the libraray. Continuing the "chain of lucky", one of the Friends of the Library happened to know a person looking to volunteer who would be great at teaching knitting. Contacts made between the volunteer and the other youth services librarian at the branch resulted in three knitting programs, with donated yarn, loaned needles, and expertise available for those who wanted to learn.
For a more guy-focused program, Saturdays have had the presence of a regular miniatures gaming group organized out of a game store close to the library. Our free space enticed them to holding regular events as part of a league, and being curious enough on a Saturday to stop by meant some contacts with the person in charge of the league, which produced a contact with a game company that was willing to come out and do demonstrations for games on a different Saturday for a few months. Attendance has been good for the game demo programming, and we're always on the lookout for seeing when new groups come reguarly to the library and attract young adults.
Sometimes, Size Really Does Matter
When I first started at my current position, my branch was in the middle of an already-too-long transitionbetween buildings, one that would continue for nearly hald a decade past my start. The branch was stuffed into a converted auto parts store with a tiny meeting room...and a fairly big teen population that came after school. The teen area in that small place consisted of one computer and one side of a tall bookshelf for the YA collection. In addition to some heated language that would occasionally break out over who was next to use the sole computer in the teen space, the teens were never shy about the topics of conversation. It was just too many teens and too little space, so we needed to redirect things in a more positive way for everyone.
- TAG, you're it! Seems simple enough, but if you can sustain one, a teen advisory group/board is a perpetual fountain of teen programming ideas, some of which may be less immediately doable than others.
- Be social. How are your social media feeds doing? Robust conversations and two-way interactions (instead of one-way marketing pushes) could yield useful results--or even things to do and play onine that might be transformable into physical programs--you might temporarily connect to a local network and let your cyber-athletes and builders play wach other. Or you take a program outside the confines of the library to allow it to grow as much as it can grow. Or get permission to do after-hours programming, so that your large group of wnthusiasts can take over the entire space for their programming. Sometimes, having a plan to present and a group of enthusiastic participants already in hand is what you need to be able to convince the reticent that you really can pull it off.
For my own situation of too many teens in too small a space, I had the fortune of arriving in the middle of gaming in libaries as the hot new thing. I sold my Friends of the Library on getting the new (at the time) Nintendo console, the Wii, and some board games, and opened the meeting room with the games and an extra computer for usage as a pressure valve for three (later two) days a week. Given some space and the ability to be a bit louder in the meeting room, the teens migrated there and came to expect the time every week. When Super Smash Brothers Brawl debuted, attendance jumped fairly close to the safe capacity of the meeting room for just about every week after that, with the teens developing an internal set of rules and culture to ensure that games were played fairly and with fun. The right combination of space issues and cultureal phenomenon made things much easier for the teens and the library for the years that followed, until the new building was completed. With the passage of time and the new building, old things don't work as well anymore and new things have to take their place, so experimentation with new things to see what works is a must.
Right Place, Right Time: Opening Doors Opens Doors
Then, thereare the programs that happen by being in the right place at the right time. Chance meetings at conferences, a link from a website tat linked from a website that linked from a website that is part of the regular visits of your professional life, or other confluences of events and mental states. Another of our meeting room regulars flew entirely under the raddar without drawing large vrowds, despite doing regular programming in the community and our overarching intereest in providing expressions of creativity to the community (to the point that we offer a yearly writing, drawing, poetry, and photography contest to all the seventh through twelfthgraders that live in or attend school in our service area). We had no idea they were here and using the meeting room.
- Who you know can be as important as what you know. Your co-workers and colleagues, conference attendees, and people you know through the Internet could all be untapped sources of potential for programming. If you can get support or approval to shift them around to help plan and run programs, they'll probably be very happy to show off their abilities and talents. Take advantage of the expertise that is already there in your system.
- Can you do short-term programming? Do you or your system have templates in place with which you could generate a standard program and its marketing from an idea within a month of getting that idea? Two weeks? One week? Quick turnaround time can often mean the difference between snagging a program for this time around and having to wait until it returns to your orbit many months later.
One Saturday, this previously unknown regulargroup came to the desk toget the meeting room doors unlocked so they could set up. On the way over, we had a general conversation about their group. They were the facilitators for the regional area of the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) meetups, and they used our space to do local meetings. They also had an event coming in April that would serve as the warm-up forthe full NaNoWriMo in November. Since our twice-monthly teen program needed some fresh possibilities if it wanted to continue existing, we exchanged business cards and a regular writing program sprang into existence. The program has been doing well for several months now...all because a door was locked and needed to be opened.
Never Give Up, Never Surrender
Don't be discouraged if programming possibilities don't immediately appear for you as you make contacts and build friendships. Some groups won't be interested in collaborating with the library and others don't have enough people to do things. Raising your luck score doesn't mean the dice won't occasionally tuen against you. The less you leave to chance, though, the more likely you are to fins a serendipitous encounter or two. Or more. Good luck!