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TL v64n3: Teen Programming: What's Your Angle?
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Teen Programming: What's Your Angle?


Beth Dailey Kenneth


Originally presented at the Tennessee Library Association Annual Conference (Murfreesboro, TN) in May 2014.


Is trying to reach your teens becoming a nightmare? Perhaps a different approach will work. Learn about different program angles that can bring teens to your library programs. Take home program ideas from hundreds of libraries and ways to boost attendance.

Blind Date with a Book
Figure 2. In "Blind Date with a Book," library staff or users wrap up a book and post a short description on the outside. Other participants choose books based on the description without knowing the title. Photo from Flickr.

Figure 1. An example of a "Bookface" entry. Photo from Flickr.

Consider Passive vs. Active: Passive programs allow teens to work in their own space at their own pace. These can include contests such as riddles, voting on favorite books, completing book BINGO cards, writing book reviews in a binder, “Bookface” photo contests (see fig. 1), Post-It votes on best movie adaptations in a display, scavenger hunts, leaving a button maker out for use, or Blind Date with a Book (see fig. 2). Active programs challenge teens to complete an activity in a finite amount of time and bring teens together with their peers. Active programs demonstrate that the library is a fun, exciting place to be. Many passive programs can be turned into active programs by creating teams (A teen programming primer, 2011).

Is it Educational/Informative? Offer support for curriculum needs and help teens prepare for higher education, job training, and careers (North Texas Regional Library System, 2008, p. 3). Informational programs support lifelong learning needs and provide knowledge about or inspire interest in a variety of subjects (North Texas Regional Library System, 2008, p. 4). Embrace that in today’s every-changing society, we can no longer be experts at everything. Through networking opportunities, embrace being a learner along with your teens (Braun, Hartman, Hughes-Hassell, Kumasi, & Yoke, 2013). Examples include Homework help, research coaches, resume and job hunting skills, photography classes, painting workshops, poetry slams, planting and growing vegetables/flowers, and MythBusters for science experiments.

Recreational programs are pure entertainment, although they may also be informative or educational (North Texas Regional Library System, 2008, p. 5). These programs are great for drawing in new teens and creating a bond between librarian and teen. Examples include crafts and movies or even Cupcake Wars™ and learning about super tasters, tie-dying shirts, and pizza taste-offs.

Cultural programs can involve young adults in literature and the arts. These programs may be experiential—involving teens in the creation of art or in discussions about literature—or audience based, whereby a guest speaker presents a topic. Examples include art shows and exhibits, poetry slams, author visits, book discussion groups, workshops for writers and artists, and opportunities for local cultural groups to come and share food, fun and music from their home countries (North Texas Regional Library System, 2008, p. 6).

Technology programs allow teens to experiment with new technologies or become more proficient in current technologies. They focus on demonstrating and teaching new skills and offer opportunities to try hardware and software that may not be readily available in school or at home. Examples include computer game development; movie making; digital photography; use of laptops, tablets, e-book readers, and raspberry pi; and operating video and photo editing equipment, still and video cameras, drawing tablets, and more (North Texas Regional Library System, 2008, p. 7; Braun et al., 2013, p. 11 ). Remember! Technology is both a blessing and a curse. Be conscious of the digital divide and knowledge gap when planning programs. While teens are often referred to as “digital natives,” research shows that many teens are no more savvy about technology, digital media, or the web than adults (Hargittai & Hsieh, 2013). If you use technology and have the resources available in your library, make sure that teens have access to it, and always try to provide alternative means of participation (Programming in public libraries, n.d.).

Cross-generational programs encourage teens to interact with people outside of their peer group (North Texas Regional Library System, 2008, p. 8). Examples include parent-teen book clubs, activities with older mentors, teen-led classes about technology open to all ages, knitting, chess and other game programs, and teens teaching iPads to seniors.

Volunteer programs for teens support many of the Search Institute’s developmental assets, including self-confidence, self-esteem and positive interactions with non-parental adults (40 Developmental Assets for Teens, n.d.). Many teens volunteer to meet school requirements, to meet court-mandated community service, or to gain work experience. Volunteer work can be meaningful by teaching necessary job skills, even if it is routine or repetitive (North Texas Regional Library System, 2008, p. 9).

The great things about library programming is that we’re only limited by our imaginations. Many programs can fall into multiple categories with a little tweaking. Consider a cupcake program—an active and recreational program to start off. If you bring in a baker to teach icing techniques (educational), open it to all ages (cross-generational) and discuss how flavors interact (educational), the program becomes so much more than just fun. The cupcakes will draw the teens and the educational portion will attract home bakers.

Another program that covers many angles is a MythBusters™ program. What’s more fun than causing a Diet Coke explosion (recreational) with Mentos™? By having the teens first consider what will happen, form a hypothesis, complete the experiment and then discuss why the reaction happened, teens learn the scientific method (educational).

Each summer my teens perform a murder mystery (recreational) for an audience (cross-generational). They love ad-libbing and trying to guess “Who-Done It?” The audience is involved by asking questions and in the end everyone gets a chance to name the killer. This program helps create critical thinking skills and problem solving that teens need in today’s workforce (educational) (Braun et al., 2013, p. 3). In the past, I’ve gone so far as to have evidence available—film clips, photos, finger prints, lip prints and floor plans. Everyone who studies the evidence learns about criminal investigation skills (educational). Wouldn’t it be fun to bring in a crime scene tech to talk everyone through the process prior to the start of the mystery?

It is important to remember that many of today’s teens are connected. We must help teens think about the audience of their message, the readers of the message, and the images they choose to post. What type of technology is best used to express their message--like Vine and Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter, Facebook, and fan fiction sites (educational / recreational) (Braun et al., 2013, p. 7)? It is vital that we support teen media literacy skills through library programming that focuses on their passions, desires, and interests. Connected Learning (Ito et al., 2013) highlights several case studies in which teens drive their own learning and become empowered by using a variety of tools and resources:

  • At Quest to Learn, a public school for grades 6–12 in Manhattan, educators weave together connected learning principles to challenge students to build Rube Goldberg machines, to write and perform short plays based on fairy tales, to design and orchestrate a series of outdoor games for an end-of-the-year field day, to research and construct a travel website featuring three NYC neighborhoods, to build a sculpture from recycled materials, and so forth.
  • Clarissa, growing up in a working-class family, becomes a better writer through playing video games and participating in online role playing on the Faraway Lands website and is admitted to two highly competitive liberal arts colleges.
  • Louis, a high school dropout (because he felt school set him up for failure) gains skills as a hip-hop artist in a hip-hop music production program for youth.
  • At the YOUmedia Lab at the Chicago Public Library Harold Washington Library, teens from all over the city pursue their interests in everything from creative writing to video game production and connect with mentors who support that learning. 

Expectations are the hardest to deal with in programming. Teens are fickle. Here are three steps to help get your program off to a good start.

Don't be afraid to fail! Take the risk!
Sometimes, if a program is new to your library, it may not be successful right away. Programs can be unsuccessful for many reasons: They may not be reaching the right audience, they may not meet the needs of your community, or there could be a similar program already in your community. Evaluate, assess, and revamp! The most important thing a librarian can do to help make a program a success is to promote the program through marketing.

Marketing, marketing, marketing!
Get the word out about your program. Create posters, flyers, make a note of it on your website, and get the word out when you speak to patrons at check-out. Sending fliers to schools, or even getting the word out through a library newsletter, can be a good idea. Think outside of your community—info labels on pizza boxes, coffee cup sleeves at coffee shops. Use social media and QR codes for free marketing.

Don’t forget your own staff. They are your cheerleaders. Share information with them at meetings and one-on-one. Keep them happy! Bring doughnuts, snacks or other items they’ll enjoy and you’ll be amazed at their appreciation.

Get to know your community.
Before even creating or choosing a program for a library, librarians must do their research on the community of the library in order to make programming decisions suitable to the ages of the users, cultural backgrounds, socio-economic status of users, and the needs of the community. In order to do so, a librarian can study the demographics in their community through websites like the National Center for Education Statistics (Programming in public libraries, n.d.).

Library programming is about reaching out to your community and focusing on their interests and needs. By being community driven, your library will become a vital source not only for information, but for enthusiasm and fun! With dedication and hard work, your program attendance will grow. Focus on your community today and begin exciting new programs!


40 Developmental Assets for Teens. (n.d.). Search Institute. Retrieved from

A teen programming primer [blog post]. (2011, July 16). Teen Librarian Toolbox. Retrieved from

Braun, L. W., Hartman, M. L., Hughes-Hassell, S., Kumasi, K., and Yoke, B. (2013). The future of library services for and with teens: A call to action. Young Adult Library Services Association. Retrieved from

Hargittai, E., & Hsieh, Y. P. (2013). Digital inequality. In W. H. Dutton (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of internet studies (pp. 129-150). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ito, M., Gutierrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., . . . Watkins, S. C. (2013). Connected learning: An agenda for research and design. Connected Learning Research Network. Retrieved from

North Texas Regional Library System. (2008). Teen programming in North Texas libraries. Retrieved from

Programming in public libraries. (n.d). Retrieved from

Reaching teens subversively through passive programming [Blog post]. (2013, March 29). Programming Librarian. Retrieved from


Beth Dailey Kenneth is Teen Librarian at the Memphis Public Library. More information and program ideas can be found on her website:


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