National reports from the past decade help us understand how teenagers relate to our rapidly changing information landscape by dialing in to the ways they use and think about libraries. It is in this spirit that a recent, localized study of teen attitudes gives insight into the minds of occasional library users - reportedly about seven out of ten teens - and upon what points they pivot in deciding whether or not to visit their local library or make use of its resources.
As part of a larger IMLS-funded investigation of student habits at an urban Northeast technical high school, four researchers interviewed twenty-five young men and women about their feelings toward their local public and school libraries. Why do they use them? Why not? What happens there, and how? Questions surrounding their perceptions of the usefulness, relevance, or obsolescence of libraries elicited from these students the sort of anecdotal feedback that gives granular texture to statistical understanding.
Some meaningful, though not altogether startling discoveries in this study might help light up the way for librarians to approach their potential young adult patrons in the twenty-first century. Beginning from the very first with a more inclusive, public articulation of library identity - we're more than just paper books - would have re-ordered at least 75% of this study's participants whose library attitudes seemed to accommodate a misunderstanding of the spaces and services available to them. Prohibitive library policies embodied in things like late fees and quiet sections, technical barriers to navigating library resources, or limited library staff support were also, for many of these teens, unwelcoming aspects of their personal library experiences that seemed easier to avoid than to re-approach.
On the flip side, teens' positive decisions to make their way to a library were - in a significant number of cases - independent of the library as an information hub. That the library provided informal spaces for students to hang out or collaborate on schoolwork, or social programs that fed and entertained them after school, was a markedly greater motivation for paying a visit to it than any other offering. Taken together with our knowledge of the highly accessible, virtual social realities of this demographic, a building dedicated to comfortable socialization points toward the library as an institution that can satisfy needs for interpersonal communication in ways that others like it can't quite.
Researcher recommendations based in these findings are simple but pointed, and should leave a mark. Library landscapes need not only to shift and accommodate both the information and social needs of the twenty-first century student, but also to communicate that shift widely and audibly. Where outdated perceptions of a former library are mismatched with reimagined library realities, educators inadvertently stifle what today's library can make possible for students in their academic, personal, and social lives. Libraries might be working hard to keep up with what they imagine to be their patrons' needs, but if the invisible, absentee, or occasional patron isn't keeping up with the library, to whom, then, is library innovation directed? Let us consider the interview format of the study at hand to be a strong model for something: it might be good practice for the modern librarian to find ways to open two-way lines of communication with the young adults they don't yet - or frequently - serve.
Agosto, D., Magee, R., Forte, A., Dickard, M. (2015). The teens speak out: What teens in a tech high school really think about libraries...and what you can do to improve their perceptions. Young Adult Library Services, 13(3), 7-12.
Image: Most Ingenious, Senior Superlatives, Sylvan High School, Snow Camp, NC, 1960, from North Carolina Digital Heritage Center via Flickr