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Where Teens Matter
Loudoun County Public Library, VA
Innovation SummaryLoudoun County Public Library (LCPL) has addressed one of the most significant issues in librarianship today: creating a library community for teens. LCPL listened to its youth to develop a model promoting the value of teens as library customers. Now, LCPL is the antidote to teen isolation.
One third of the population of Loudoun County is under the age of 18. Due to this significant demographic, the challenge and opportunity to Loudoun County Public Library was how to completely rethink the model of service to teens. When Loudoun County Board of Supervisors asked schools, non-profits, local government and businesses, one simple question – “What do you do for teens?” – Loudoun County Public Library was propelled to honestly assess with teens what they wanted and needed from their library. LCPL learned that many teens felt alienated, unimportant and misunderstood in the library and in the community. If LCPL wanted to change this impression then it would have to alter its approach to serving this large segment of the population by acknowledging and reacting to their collective voice.
Understanding the importance of youth as leaders now - not just in the future – and wanting to assess their needs, Loudoun County Public Library conducted hundreds of community forums throughout the area. Through these “Listening to Youth” discussions, teens were asked two questions: What did they see as constructive forces supporting growing up in Loudoun County? What did they see as the biggest challenges and major obstacles to growing up in Loudoun County? Participants recognized the strong sense of community in the county as well as defined a specific challenge that would lead the LCPL forward in its mission to youth. Teens identified “a place of their own” as critical to their well-being. While a physical space is implied by the response, teens indicated that this was only part of their requirement; a welcoming environment that encouraged and enhanced relationships with caring, supportive adults was paramount to their needs. Loudoun County Public Library listened and made headways in creating opportunities for youth in their library system. It has also shown to the County decision-makers that the library takes the youth suggestions seriously and acts on them. Most importantly, LCPL shifted adult attitudes from viewing youth as service recipients to viewing youth as resources. Taking this information to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, fiscal support was received to create innovative approaches to reaching the teens.
The immediate success of the “Listening to Youth” initiative was the approval by the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors of $80,000 out of the budget cycle for the establishment of the “After Hours Teen Center” at Cascades Library. This program runs continually every Friday night with weekly attendance between 60-80 youth. These teens actively participate in developing and planning of the Center’s programs, activities and goals. A welcoming and safe environment encourages attendance by all youth including teens with intellectual disabilities and their caregivers. Based on this model, Loudoun County Public Library planned, developed and received funding from public/private partnerships to create two enclosed teen centers totaling more than 8,000 feet. The Teen Centers are planned with the teens and project architects and incorporate the vision of the youth. Within these welcoming areas teens find “a place of their own.” All branches regardless of size have developed areas of committed space with and for their teen customers. A highly significant result from the “Listening to Youth” initiative was to triple the teen services staff in the system. These individuals are advocates and mentors to the youth who use the library. Tens of thousands of youth are now served through the library’s teen initiatives. Through LCPL’s commitment and sheer determination, the library has emerged as a symbol of how public sector can provide the leadership and vision to support a community’s youth through the sometimes difficult and treacherous teen years.