It Takes More Than Snacks to Attract Teens to Your Programs

Posted by Susan M. Brackney

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Teen Read Week takes place Oct. 12th to the 18th, and, unless you’ve already got your teen programming dialed in, you’d better get your plans in place!

Here are some experts’ dos and don’ts to help you boost interest and get teens into the library.


Teen Programming’s ‘Golden Rule’

Even if they worked particularly well for the library down the street, mirroring other libraries’ successful programs can be problematic. Dawn Abron serves as Teen Associate at Zion-Benton Public Library in Zion, IL. She’s also the 2014 winner of the MAE Award for Best Literature Program for Teens by The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA).

“A lot of times we go to all these conferences, or we read articles, and look at School Library Journal. We peruse other libraries’ teen sites, to see what kinds of programs they do, and we say, ‘You know, that’s great. I’m going to do that at my library.’ I’ve done this before,” Abron admitted.

But it hasn’t always worked out. For instance, in trying to latch onto the popular Maker movement, Abron’s library offered a Maker Fair. “The problem was that our kids didn’t know what ‘Maker’ means. We probably should’ve called it something else and then put ‘Maker’ in the description. It was just us not knowing our demographic. We didn’t realize that these kids don’t do ‘Maker’ in school. They do STEM. They know what STEM is, so maybe we should’ve called it STEM,” she said.

Similarly, Abron also patterned a teen photography contest for her library after one that a nearby library held. “We have a library that’s about 15 minutes from us. They have a huge photography competition. They get tons of entries. We tried that. We got nothing,” she explained.

“It’s because our teens don’t really care about photography—at least not with a fancy camera. They might use their cell phones. Or a lot of them don’t even have fancy cell phones to take really good pictures, so it’s just a matter of knowing who your kids are and what kind of programs that they need or want,” Abron added.

RoseMary Honnold, an author and editor-in-chief of VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates) Magazine, agrees. “The kiss of death is thinking you know what your teens want based on what other communities are doing or what you want to do with no input from your teens. You can plan a perfect program from someone else’s library and someone else’s teens, but it may bomb in your library because you forgot the teen programming golden rule of listening to your teens,” Honnold said.


Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 4.50.17 AMThe Promise and Pitfalls of Pinterest

Similarly, websites like Pinterest afford myriad teen program ideas that look promising, but, again, that doesn’t mean they’ll work well in your library. That’s not to say that Pinterest and similar sources of inspiration don’t have a place. They absolutely do—but it’s up to you to make sure they’ll fit well in your library, with your teens.

“Pinterest and other books and sites are great to find ideas. . . . I like to think of these resources as cookbooks. You find a recipe that looks good and modify it to suit your family’s tastes. Pretty much the same idea,” Honnold said.

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 4.52.38 AMYou can find the official Teen Read Week Pinterest board here and Dawn Abron’s YA Programming Ideas here.

So, just what should you do, if you come across an intriguing idea? “Present and discuss [it] with the teens. The teens may create their own version of a program that was inspired by one of these resources,” Honnold said.

In fact, involvement with program planning and logistics can itself be valuable for some teens. “Involve teens in the planning process, beginning with deciding what programs to have and giving teens real roles in making them happen. Also [give] them the parameters—they must make these decisions within budget, space, staff, etc.,” she said.


What Works

Although some of her teen events have attracted up to 50 kids at a time, one of Abron’s most successful programs wasn’t one of her most heavily attended. “For this particular program, we only had about 11 [attendees], and we were teaching stop-motion [animation],” she said.

The group used library iPads and a free app that illustrates the required steps to create stop-motion animation. Some even added their own soundtrack using Garage Band. “We just let them loose for 45 minutes, and they were able to film and edit and add music. We had a little film festival, and they were able to vote. We had some other kids who were just hanging out in the library come in and watch the videos, and they were able to vote for their favorite ones,” Abron said.

(See embedded videos for some of the teens’ work.)

“You know, we do a lot of Christmas parties and Valentine’s Day parties and craft parties, but here they actually learned something. They actually learned how to use an app, learned how to use software and how to make a film and how to add music and how to edit it. And, on top of that, it didn’t cost us anything, and they had a great time,” she continued.


Partner with Schools

So, just how can you be sure what will work with teens at your library? Simply ask. To do that, Abron surveys students at her local high schools: “We have a nice school librarian who will let us come and sit in the library all day. The kids will come up to us, and we give them a little, multiple-choice survey. One of the questions is, ‘What social media are you on?’ We’ll ask, ‘What programs are you interested in?’ We’ll list maybe 10, and we say, ‘Circle all the ones that you like.’ That way, we kind of get a feel for what social media the kids have and what they are into.”

Even so, successfully tapping into local teen interests and preferences takes time. “I’m going on year three of working with this age group, and we still get maybe 10 percent [of teen event attendees] that are in high school,” Abron said. “Just be patient and keep contacting the principals and the school librarians. Maybe even ask them about doing a program at the high school, as opposed to at the library. Go where the kids are.”

Finally, when you think you’ve got a winning idea, try it out, tweak things as needed, and keep trying. Abron recommended, “If they’re not coming in the first program, just change something. Maybe you need to change your day or the time that you do it or the title. Just change things until you finally get something that works for you. Do not give up so quickly.”


One Response to “It Takes More Than Snacks to Attract Teens to Your Programs”

  1. Jessi Taylor

    Going in and surveying teens beforehand is a great “lean start-up” type idea. I wonder though, how do you get them to take the time to fill out a survey? Thank you.


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