Libraries Get a Read on Kids

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It’s on the books: In January, Cleveland’s Wickliffe Public Library passed a rule that bans anyone under 14 from the library property between 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on weekdays, unless they’re accompanied by parents or are enrolled in a program.

The reason: rampant loitering and vandalism by youth congregating in and around the facility. A hundred kids drawing graffiti on the building’s exterior and in its restrooms is unacceptable, says Richard Zalecky, the library’s clerk treasurer.

But so is banning “tomorrow’s taxpayers” from what arguably could be called the most public place in a community, says librarian Steve Wood.

Is there anything Wickliffe could have done to cut down on the damage but also serve the community’s youth? The kid ban comes at a time when libraries around the country, worried about becoming irrelevant to youth, are inventing new ways to draw them in.

Controlling youth has always been an issue at libraries. “The time-tested method of dealing with unruly youth in the library is to ‘shush’ them, and if that doesn’t work, to throw them out,” says Joanne King, associate director of communications at the Queens Borough Library in New York City, a setting once notorious for its rowdy youth. “At one point, we were calling the police every day.”

A few years ago, the Queens library tried a different approach. Through a partnership with community organizations, it obtained a U.S. Justice Department grant to turn part of its Laurelton branch into a teen-friendly center.

“Rather than have kids causing trouble outside, youth are now engaged in programs inside the library, and disruptive incidents have diminished entirely,” King says.

Not every public library can win federal support to work with unsupervised youth. But they all face the challenge of how to attract youth after school – when, according to studies, youth are most likely to engage in risky behavior.

Kevin King, director of teen services at the Kalamazoo Public Library in Michigan and a leader of library programming workshops nationwide, stresses that “materials are not what bring kids into the library. Programs designed to be social, fun and enlightening are what entice youth.”

That message has been around for a while, but has sunk in faster in some places than others. Nearly 10 years ago, Youth Today wrote about an “increasingly vociferous lobby within the library community … making the case that libraries can benefit from opening themselves to young people and youth workers.” (“Librarians Widen Youth Work Role,” November 1996.) “Books are not enough.”

In 1998, the American Library Association (ALA) and the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois conducted a survey to assess the content of youth programming in libraries, with funding from the DeWitt Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund.

Their report, “Programs for School-Age Youth in Public Libraries,” found, not surprisingly, that most libraries’ efforts were reading programs. It also found that most libraries did not serve “recent immigrants, youth who speak English as a second language, low-income communities, rural youth, institutionalized youth or youth with disabilities.”

The Wallace Foundation subsequently awarded planning grants to 10 public libraries in major urban areas. One of their tasks was to interview youths about their opinions of libraries.

Among the youths’ sentiments: “Libraries are not cool,” “We need more access to technology” and “Teens need welcoming spaces – not morgues.” When asked to describe images or colors associated with libraries, youth responded with “dark,” “dreary,” “gray,” “dull” and “boring.”

Organizations such as the Wallace Foundation, the Urban Libraries Council and the Americans for Libraries Council have responded with resources and studies about making libraries more attractive to youth, especially teens. “How libraries ‘get along’ in the next years will depend on how seriously we take the advice of our young people,” the Urban Libraries Council said in a 1999 report.

Last year the Urban Library Council published a detailed report to help library professionals think about youth programming. The report, “Learning in Libraries,” says the most effective programs “reflect the culture of the communities they serve, engage families, and incorporate strategic collaborations and partnerships.”

The ALA publishes resources detailing effective and tested program ideas for youths and young adults, including a magazine devoted to the subject. The bi-monthly “Voice of Youth Advocates,” promotes three basic principles: that youth receive specialized library services, that youth are granted intellectual freedom and equal access to library materials, and that professionals advocate youth activity and participation.

While the field has advanced, however, librarians face challenges, particularly finding money for programs and staff. Late last year, the ALA reported that libraries around the nation had cut a reported $158 million from their budgets in just under three years. Libraries have increasingly turned to nongovernmental support. The ALA’s Big Book of Library Grant Money 2006 profiles nearly 2,400 major funding sources.

At his workshops, Kevin King encourages a paradigm of effective programming called the Four S’s: space, staff, support and a stash of cash. These four elements, he says, are much like the four legs of a table. “Each is vitally important and each holds equal weight,” he explains. “And together, they hold up effective youth programs.”

Following are profiles of four library programs that have found success in engaging youth.

Central Library
Los Angeles, Calif.
(213) 228-7480

The Approach: A weeklong summer program that brings children living in shelters and hotels in downtown Los Angeles to the Central Library. Youth are introduced to library resources, including books, computers and the Summer Reading Club. They also learn about the architecture of the historical building, which features an atrium chandelier, marble carvings, fountains, statues and sphinxes.

Even though youth may live only a half-mile or so from the library, buses pick them up from their hotels and shelters and take them to and from the library, “which makes the program seem like a real camp,” says Ilene Abramson, director of children’s services. Participants receive a healthy, catered lunch each day.

Throughout the week, youth participate in a variety of activities, including storytelling workshops, magic shows, science projects, crafts and performing arts. The first part of each day is dedicated to introducing the activity. For example, “a magician might come and perform a 45-minute show,” Abramson says. “The second part of the day, the magician teaches the kids how to do the magic trick themselves.” Books are introduced with all activities.

One goal, Abramson says, is to show children “that libraries are non-threatening, informative and entertaining places open to everyone, regardless of social status.”

At the end of the week, parents are invited to accompany their children to the library. A “Read to Me LA” workshop explains how and why parents should read to their children and take them to libraries. Free T-shirts, nutritious snacks and books are provided for all campers.

History and Organization: In 2001, Abramson had the idea to reach out to the youth living near the library, most of whom are homeless. “I wanted to give them a week of fun,” she says.

With the support of the city librarian, Abramson solicited funding from the Library Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the Los Angeles Public Library system.

For the first three years, Abramson worked with the nonprofit “School on Wheels” to place kids in the camp. This year, the Los Angeles Unified School District will find participants.

The program has changed dramatically, Abramson says. For the first two years, “we hired a choreographer, and he came in every day and taught 25 kids a dance. At the end of the week, they performed the dance in the rotunda for parents and other onlookers.”

The trouble was, “the youth that attend camp come from a very transient population. You cannot always rely on every kid to come every day.” Now children are introduced to a new program or project each day.

Youth Served: Between 20 and 25 youth in grades three through five participate each summer. The library and school district advertise the camp with flyers.

Staff: Abramson and staffers from the school district, along with some additional helpers, supervise the youth. “There are at least four adults every day,” Abramson says. Parents also volunteer to attend and supervise the children. Staff librarians conduct story-time and craft sessions, and docents conduct the building tours.

Funding: Private donations are solicited from the nonprofit Library Foundation, which since 1992 has raised more than $60 million to support the library system.

Indicators of Success: The program has reached more than 100 children over four years, Abramson says. Some have returned for a second and even a third summer.

Librarians are also heartened by participants who continue to use the library after camp ends. “The youths served by Camp LAPL move around quite a bit,” Abramson explains, but “whenever they’re around, they’re using the library.”

Queens Library Youth Empowerment Initiative
Laurelton Community Library
New York, N.Y.
(718) 528-2822

The Approach: This partnership between the Queens Library and community organizations strives to engage and guide neighborhood youth by providing them with a teen center.

Programs are designed to be attractive to teens and include open-mike nights, poetry slams, chess, computer labs, video-teleconferences from remote sites and workshops that build such life skills as getting a job and building self-esteem.

“The most popular programs are the ones that the kids plan and perform in themselves,” says Lambert Shell, the library’s youth counselor. “A recent fashion show and a Kwanzaa program packed the house.”

The program is also designed so that professional intervention is available for severe problems, particularly substance and physical abuse. A social worker on contract from nearby St. Mary’s Children and Family Services builds trust with the youth and “gets a glimmer of who might need additional support,” says Joanne King, associate director of communications at Queens Library. The social worker provides one-on-one counseling, asks for meetings with caregivers and sometimes refers children to outside agencies for services.

History and Organization: The Laurelton area has the “highest number of foster youth in the city,” King says. Frequently, parents don’t give the foster children keys to the house, and they are effectively homeless after school.”
For years, King says, youth would hang out outside the library, the only public building in the community, and “mischief came out.”

In September 2001, the library tried something new. A space was renovated “so teens could have an area to call their own, without having to be very quiet, and without disturbing other library users,” King says. The renovations included movable walls, so as much as half of the entire library space of 7,500 square feet can be devoted to youth initiatives.
Youth Served: Youth ages 7 to 15 and their families. Each day, about 100 teens take part in the program, which the library says has served more than 40,000 youth since its inception.

Staff: Shell, the youth counselor, is on hand after school to encourage youth to do their homework and participate in programs. He also identifies needs and refers youths and their parents or guardians to professional help at other agencies. Shell is “especially talented and quickly earned the teens’ respect,” King says. “He is an imposing [6-foot-4, 250-pound], well-educated African-American, a former semi-professional basketball player and someone who radiates gentle but unmistakable authority.”

The social worker, who is on site part-time, provides counseling and referrals to community services and engages the kids with workshops and discussion programs. She holds a weekly “Boy Chat Girl Chat” that helps youth deal with the pressures adolescents face.

Funding: Since 2001, the project has been supported by a Title V grant of more than $200,000 a year from the U.S. Office of Justice Programs, through the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services. In the first year, the library used funds to buy 16 computers for its cyber-center. The money also covers the salaries of Shell and the social worker.

Indicators of Success: Incidents requiring police intervention have dropped to near-zero, from four or five per week before the program began.

The social worker, who serves as a liaison to local schools, says 25 percent of the teens who participate in the program have increased their school attendance, 75 percent have exhibited a decrease in anti-social behaviors and 60 percent report improved family relationships.

In 2004, the 32-year-old Shell received a Pacesetter Award from the city council for his work with at-risk youth at Laurelton. The program has expanded to two other libraries.

Community Youth Corps Program (CYC)
Enoch Pratt Free Library
Baltimore, Md.
(410) 396-5356

The Approach: Provide youth with the opportunity to learn new skills while earning the community service-learning hours required for high school graduation.

Youth interns “help with absolutely anything,” explains Asia Lunn Boone, the young adult programming specialist at Enoch Pratt, one of three Baltimore library branches that offer the program. That includes the daily functions of the library, technology and beautification, homework help for children, and planning and implementing youth programs.

Youth receive preliminary training in Web page design, library and research skills, customer service and team building. Each youth is then assigned to a library team and to a Pratt staff member, whom he or she “job shadows” throughout the program.

The fall and spring terms last for 11 or 12 weeks, while the summer term lasts six or seven weeks. At the end of each term, youth are encouraged to use their acquired skills to create a program, product or service to be used by library customers or the general public.

For instance, in 2005 youth interns used media skills to produce a documentary about a community in Baltimore. At another branch, CYC interns recruited neighborhood teens to create a community quilt to display at the library.

History and Organization: In 1999, Boone says, Enoch Pratt was one of several libraries to win a grant from the DeWitt Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund under “a national initiative to introduce the concepts of youth development to public libraries.” The library staff then surveyed teens, parents, youth workers and others in the community about what the library should provide for teens before creating the program.

Youth Served: Ages 11 to 18, although most are 13 to 15. They typically enter the program in eighth grade and remain interns through 10th grade. Last year, more than 100 youth participated.

Participants come from throughout Baltimore and sometimes from surrounding counties. Librarians and school staffers make presentations at schools and to local organizations to recruit youth, and the library also gets the word out through school guidance counselors.

Staff: Enoch Pratt librarians supervise the interns. “Where possible, the program also seeks to link younger students with college students by serving as a community placement site for college work-study,” Boone says. The college students supervise the work of younger students and provide some training.

Funding: The Initial DeWitt Wallace grant was $400,000 over three years, until 2002. Since then, the program has received the bulk of its budget from a local family foundation that the library does not publicly identify. Additional support comes from the city’s Office of School and Student Services, the unit that administers the program.

The program costs approximately $60,000 per year in direct expenses, excluding salaries.

Indicators of Success: CYC has helped 137 teens earn almost 4,000 hours of community service. Each summer, the library offers summer jobs to up to 30 CYC interns. Jobs are funded through Youth Works, a summer jobs program run by the mayor’s office.

Born to Read 4 Babies & Kids
Marion County Public Library
Ocala, Fla.
(352) 671-8551

The Approach: Teach at-risk teen parents and parents-to-be about the importance of reading to their babies. The program provides materials, helps parents document their progress in a reading log and strives to address the developmental needs of the children and the literacy needs of the parents.

Born to Read partners with Marion County Public School’s Young Parents program to help teen parents continue their education and develop literacy skills. Each month, a librarian holds a monthly program that encourages teens to read or teaches them how to read to their babies.

History and Organization: Born to Read is a program of the American Library Association that is used by libraries around the country. Marion County’s program began in 2001. In its first year, Born to Read addressed only teen parents. The following year, it added all mothers giving birth in Marion County hospitals. In 2003, the program added toddlers and grandparents raising grandchildren, and last year it added pre-school and elementary school children up to third grade. This year, the program hopes to add adaptive toys for children with disabilities, says Gerry Brent, the library’s community liaison.

Youth Served: Children from birth to third grade in Marion County and their parents. At any given time, 15 to 20 teens from the Young Parents program participate. Brent says that according to the county health department, Born to Read serves about 600 teen parents throughout Marion County each year.

Teen mothers and pregnant teens in Marion County are referred to Born to Read primarily through three community programs: the Children’s Home Society’s “Healthy Families Marion,” Marion County Public School’s “Young Parents,” and the county Health Department’s “Healthy Start.”

Staff: Numerous library staff, from four children’s librarians to the volunteer program coordinator.

Funding: The program began with funding from the Division of Library and Information Services, the designated resource provider for the state’s public libraries. That funding has steadily decreased, Brent says. Other funders include the Marion County Board of County Commissioners, Friends of the Library, the Early Learning Coalition and various community partners.

Indicators of Success: Born to Read has seen a steady increase in attendance at story times and in community participation, highlighted by a large increase in reading logs, Brent says. The number of logs increased from 143 the first year to 1,269 in the third year.

In 2002, Born to Read was one of three programs awarded “exemplary project status” by the Division of Library and Information Services.

The program now helps children prepare for the FCAT, a statewide standardized test for primary school students.