the teen librarian you wish you had (or were)
I met Sarah Jones (Teen Librarian) via twitter, and I’m happy to say that via the gloriousness of the internet we’ve become real life friends. I’ve been continually amazed by her efforts whenever she talks about her job on twitter or facebook, and I finally decided that I needed her to tell her story, in her own words, for all my blog readers to see. So, without further ado, here’s a tale of how one teen librarian, through gumption and awesomeness, took her library’s teen programming from pathetic to positively awe inspiring.
A few months ago I gave a presentation at my state’s annual conference about teen programming. I submitted the proposal because I recognized that I hadn’t heard anything new about teen or youth services at a conference in a long time, and decided that might mean that I’m an expert. The presentation went great; it was standing room only, people took notes, and people had so many questions that we ran over our allotted time by quite a bit (and they were GOOD questions, not the kind of questions that come from that ONE person at every conference. You know who I mean.).
I’ve been a full time teen librarian for a few years now, but the position was new when I started it. I took over for someone who made a genuine effort but was a youth librarian not only at heart but 4 out of 5 of her work days. A lot of libraries have that murky position—a staff member who does storytime three days a week but still stays late on Friday to throw a video game night for the local teens. There were a lot of such librarians at my presentation, great people who WANT to be doing a good job, but who aren’t passionate about teen services, and aren’t sure where to start. The great news for those librarians is that those of us who come to work each day barely able to believe we got so lucky as to score full time teenbrarian positions are often very, very willing to talk about of successes in excruciating detail, and will encourage you to steal our ideas.
I started my position in the Spring of 2010, which meant I took over an SRP (Summer Reading Program) that someone else had already planned. I don’t remember many details of how things worked that summer, but my stats show that about 220 teens participated across three buildings. The next year I burned the thing down and planned my own program from start to finish. The very simple breakdown:
-read anything you want for ten hours, get a prize
-read anything you want for another ten hours, get another prize and get entered into the grand prize drawing and an invitation to the wrap-up party
-for every hour you read beyond that, you get an entry into a prize drawing for one of 5 or so super awesome other prizes
That’s it! Super simple! No dictating what they read or how they read it, or even what quantity they read. If a special needs teen participates and only reads one book in 20 hours, that’s fine by me and he or she has no reason to be embarrassed, because I don’t even know. If all they read is online fanfic, they don’t have to worry about figuring out how many pages it would be equivalent to. It’s all just time.
To keep prizes cheap but also fun and motivational, I go the grab-bag route. Every grab bag gets a full sized candy bar. Some grab bags get an additional little something. Smencils are a hit, and I also throw in things like rubber ducks, weird things I find in the $1 bins at Target, books I have left over from book clubs, really anything works. A smaller number of bags get a small gift card, usually to Target or Game Stop. Depending on budget, I might do 15-20 $5 gift cards. I like to give a few $10 Coldstone gift cards, and then I always throw in one $20 card to a random bag. They all get stapled shut, and the rule is that they can’t fondle them before they pick. It’s important that you say fondle so they laugh. I clearly mark and set aside a set of bags that only contain things that have no nuts and do not have a nut allergen warning, and another set that have no candy at all in case of a diabetic or severely food allergic teen. Before they pick I ask “any food issues?” and so far it’s worked just fine.
The grand prize is easy. When you were a teen, what did you want more than anything? MONEY. Last year, I gave away 5 $50 Visa gift cards. Even at 30 I would totally join a summer reading club for a chance at winning fifty bucks! And I’d likely spend it on the same things the teens do, realistically.
The Above-and-Beyond (that’s what we call the entries that come after they’ve finished the 20 hours) prizes are where I get to have a little fun. Usually one or two are bigger gift cards for Game Stop or Barnes and Noble or something like that. And then the other three are based on some theme. Past themes have been Twilight, The Hunger Games, Manga/Anime, and Art Supplies. For my Winter Reading program this year I’m making a Nerdfighter basket and a Doctor Who basket, among others. It’s all about what your teens are into and what you can afford.
I’ve done this program two years in a row now. That first, sad year when I took over someone else’s program I had 220. The first year of my own program I had 435. Last summer I had 647. It turns out that spending less on incentive prizes in order to give them a chance at winning a BIG AWESOME PRIZE totally works.
There is, of course, more to my success than a prize basket including Hunger Games kneesocks. Another important thing is that if teens are IN the library, they are more likely to turn in their forms. So PROGRAM PROGRAM PROGRAM. The ins and outs of my programs and failures and successes therin would take a whole separate post, but QUANTITY is seriously important. At our Main library I’ve got something going on each week—often 2 or 3 or 4 things a week. At each of our two branches I’ve got at least one thing a month throughout the year, and during the summer I try for 2. I’d love to do more, but I’m the only person who does teen stuff for three buildings, and I have to sit at the reference desk sometimes or the youth department will mutiny.
There is ONE summer program that has to be addressed here though, and that’s the Summer Reading Wrap-Up Party. While the grand prizes are a huge incentive, getting the invitation to this party is the big awesome thing that EVERYONE gets.
And the party must be awesome. This could mean different things for different libraries, but it definitely has to be something you don’t usually do as a program, and if it can be something you don’t usually allow at all, even better. For me this means the dreaded after-hours program, where the teens get the run of the library after closing. It also means LASER TAG. My first summer as the planner of the SRP, I got the crazy idea that there should be laser tag at this event. I quickly realized the terribleness of the idea of letting them play in the library proper, and I found a place nearby where I could rent a giant inflatable laser tag course. Since only about ten kids could play at a time, I had other things set up that were a little less exciting—video games, karaoke, and lots and lots of pizza. I made sure when handing out the invites to stress how insanely awesome the party was going to be, and also that I was going to be VERY VERY STRICT about not allowing anyone who didn’t complete the SRP to attend, so if they wanted to bring friends to this party, the friends had better finish the program too. Guess how many teens came to that party?
115. Luckily I had roped a LOT of friends into helping supervise, and I’d required registration so I was ready for them. By then end they were getting a little nutso, but overall it was a great time with no big problems. As they were leaving, I heard many kids say “I CAN’T WAIT UNTIL NEXT YEAR!” so I knew I was going to have to bring it in 2012.
And bring it I did. A little thing happened called The Hunger Games, perhaps you’ve heard of it? One morning I had one of those great “in the shower” ideas that I should make it a Hunger Games themed party—I could still have laser tag, because that TOTALLY makes sense! It would be the arena, where they’d kill each other! On the invite I encouraged the teens to cosplay and held a costume contest. I had many stations with HG games I found online so that they would keep busy while waiting their turn in the arena. I made a scavenger hunt and a trivia game and gave out copies of the then just-released DVD as prizes, and one girl was so excited she’d won it that she squealed. I kept them so friggin’ busy that they didn’t have a chance to misbehave, and I got a TON of adult volunteers to help me run all of it. For me it was key to have my friends help, and not my coworkers, because I knew I needed people with a high teen tolerance level. As soon as they saw the Hunger Games font on the invitation the teens started to get REALLY excited about the party. Total attendance? 216. TWO HUNDRED AND SIXTEEN TEENAGERS AT ONE PROGRAM.
Don’t be discouraged by humble beginnings. Don’t start out thinking that this wouldn’t work at your library. I never thought that the attendance at a wrap-up party two summers after that first one would have been the same as the total participation in 2010. I’m not special, I’m not anybody you’ve heard of, and I’m not a mover or a shaker. But I’m on the front lines, talking to teens, throwing programs and hoping they come over and over and over again until they do. Start now, keep it up all year, and they’ll come to your SRP. If you asked me what I’ve done to build the relationships with my teens that I have, I’d say, “Eighteen programs this month” and then probably eat a Kit Kat.
Read more about Sarah’s programs and teenbrarian philosophy at teenbrarian.blogspot.com