Teenagers are a notoriously difficult group for public libraries to reach. Navigating a tricky transitional time, teens can be busy with schoolwork, lack transportation, view libraries as irrelevant or uncool, and be juggling new adult responsibilities. They need the safety, support, and resources of a public library more than ever—but how can librarians make the connection?
To crowdsource ideas for engaging teens at the library, client success manager Lauren Brami moderated a roundtable among our Beanstack partner libraries this spring to discuss the importance of reaching teen readers and the tactics for doing so. The attendees started the conversation by sharing their “why.” Their mission-driven responses about the importance of nurturing teen involvement resonated around the virtual room: “To create lifelong library users,” because “every reader deserves a positive library experience,” to be a “safe space for teens,” because “they’re the most under-served age bracket—and they’re awesome,” and much more.
Librarians also shared their common struggles, like not having a dedicated teen space at the library, having trouble doing effective teen outreach, a lack of transportation options, teens’ time constraints, and even the fear that “[teens] worry they’ll look lame.” Then, panelists from Pikes Peak Library District in Colorado and Tulsa City-County Library in Oklahoma and other attendees shared robust tips and examples about how they surmounted these obstacles to grow participation and provide community for their teen readers.
1. Get out of the library and reach teens where they are.
To better serve the teens in and around Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak Library District underwent an existential shift in how they defined engagement and participation. Rather than focusing on in-library programming and attendance, Becca Philipsen, their young adult services senior librarian, described shifting their focus from getting teens into the building to “finding out where they are in the community and meeting them there.”
“There are so many other ways to utilize library resources and participate in the library than just coming in and being part of a program,” Philipsen said. “We’re trying to focus on those … and we’re starting to see successes.” With teens spending so much of their school day and extracurricular time at school, her team pared down their library program offerings for teens and doubled down on school outreach. Now, they have six of their 15 local school districts participating in their “PowerPass” program, which automatically registered students for a library card upon school enrollment, plus a teacher who physically brings students into the library during class time each month.
“I would rather 10 teens hear about us at whatever program they’re at and know that the library is there when they need us,” Philipsen said.
Leah Weyand, the teen services coordinator at Tulsa City-County Library in Oklahoma, also works hard to identify community outreach opportunities for teens during the summer and throughout the year. “There’s always a balance to being inside the library to greet teens when they get there and being outside the library to try to get the teens to come in,” she said.
Weyand and her team often set up a table at local teen hangouts, like popular restaurants, snow cone stands, and skate parks, as well as community events, farmers markets, festivals, and local parks to reach teens and their guardians. Rebecca Denham, a fellow teen services coordinator at Houston Public Library in Texas, chimed in with their success bringing a button maker along on their community tabling days. “Super popular,” Weyand agreed. “10,000 extra points if you have Pokemon characters that they can color in. Pokemon has remained wildly popular with the 10-14 set!”
2. Leverage the Beanstack mobile app.
Teenagers are often the library’s most tech savvy—and tech hungry—users. Multiple librarians shared about the power of promoting Beanstack’s mobile app to hook young adults on reading.
“We love using Beanstack because of the fact that there’s an app that can be used by teens and other patrons, the online version and the app, to track their own progress,” said Christa Funke, Pikes Peak Library District’s children and family services senior librarian. The app gives teens autonomy and independence to chart their own reading journey and form their own reading habits.
“Really leverage that as an option,” Philpsen advised. “It’s a little more accessible for them to keep track of that on their own. They’re not lugging around a paper game card— the horror, being seen with a game card from the library!” she joked. “They can just keep it on their phone.”
In Tulsa, Weyand has also seen the app help the library reach teens who can’t get to the library or who don’t have access to computers during summer break. “We have some teens who can’t drive an hour to the library,” she said. “The Beanstack mobile app helps us out with that too, because they can do most of summer reading on their phone.”
3. Incorporate learning activities and attainable reading goals in teen challenges.
With so many academic, social, and financial responsibilities, leveling the playing field and making reading fun, worry-free, and accessible for teens is crucial.
“We really want to try to focus on making it not feel like more school,” Philipsen said of their teen challenges at Pikes Peak Library District. “They don’t often have time to just read a book for fun. So we try to focus on, what are the teens wanting out of this? … What are your interests? How can we help your interests grow? … We try to be really low pressure and make it really self-directed.”
To do this, they set up their summer reading challenge to allow teens to keep track of reading by the day or to complete learning activities that get them to move, read, or imagine. “That makes it a little more achievable, and also is hopefully building habits over the summer,” Funke said.
Houston Public Library’s teen summer challenge is similarly set up to track days of reading instead of minutes or books. “We found that the teens that do participate, we actually have a pretty high completion rate, because the days are less intimidating and they can read what they want,” Denham said.
And teen reading and enrichment programs don’t have to end when the school year begins. In Tulsa City-County Library, every March is “Teens Make Month,” where the library runs a tech and creativity-focused activity challenge to get teens using the library’s many resources. “It’s just engaging teens in the library through creation, whether that’s maker activities, through creative writing or visual arts, or whether that’s tech focused,” Weyand said.
4. Host a writing competition to forge school partnerships.
Alongside their Teens Make Month and their summer reading program, Tulsa City-County Library holds a system-wide “Young People’s Creative Writing Contest” every year. “If you haven’t done a creative writing contest through your library yet, I think it’s always a pretty good idea, especially if you have the staff power for it and prizes with it,” Weyand advised. For their competition, Tulsa offers cash prizes to maximize students’ excitement.
“The schools really love this initiative with us,” she shared, “because you’re getting kids engaged with creative writing, which is something schools are always really hammering.” Visiting local high schools and middle schools to promote a fun, free, and enriching contest that offers the chance for kids to win cool prizes is an auspicious way to start a partnership with your local schools or school districts that can extend through the rest of the school year and into the summertime. Plus, it gives teens a renewed positive association with the library.
5. Offer enticing incentives and rewards at multiple points in a challenge.
Cash can be king, as Weyand discovered in Tulsa’s “Young People’s Creative Writing Contest,” but multiple levels or types of prizes can increase interest and participation throughout the entirety of a teen reading challenge.
In Tulsa’s summer challenge, they draw prizes and incentives throughout the summer. “That keeps people interested and also generates word-of-mouth traffic,” said Weyand. “because you have teens that have just won an iPad or something, and their friends are like, ‘What, where did you get this?!’ and they’re like, ‘The library, and there’s still time to sign up for more prize drawings!’ So that really helps to generate activity and maybe bump you each time a prize is drawn.”
They also offer prizes at different milestones, like registering by a certain date or reading a certain number of books. And to draw teens into their year-round programs, they often go straight to their stomachs and offer free pizza to all attendees.
Diana Lasky, youth services manager at Harrison County Public Library, shared that their library’s teen reading challenge finds a lot of success from using weekly prize drawings to create sustained teenage participation. “Anyone who has read during that week, they’re in the prize drawing,” she said. They give away coupons to local restaurants, ice cream, movies, putt-putt golf, and other teen favorites. “And the teens that do participate, we have really good participation with them,” Lasky said.
6. Utilize teen volunteer programs.
The librarian panelists from both Pikes Peak Library District and Tulsa City-County Library talked up the positive impact of their teen volunteer programs on teen engagement. They strongly suggested capitalizing on students’ need to log volunteer hours for school, to get an early job experience, or to find a summertime extracurricular.
“The volunteer hours are the bait that we use to sneakily lure them in,” Philipsen said jokingly about their volunteer program at Pikes Peak Library District. “We get them in the doors that way and then we use them to help us with dealing with summer reading traffic, but also, expose them to the program, expect them to participate, and then ideally they’re telling their friends about the program.”
“That is a huge way to get teens into the library,” Weyand echoed about teen volunteer hours. Tulsa City-County Library markets their “Teen Team” as a first job experience, complete with an application, orientation, and end-of-summer review. But it’s also “a huge source of library ambassadors in our teens,” she said.
“These are teens that are coming to our programs throughout the rest of the year, these are teens that are spreading the word about what services we have, because during the summer they’ve been talking it up at our locations, so they actually know, and these are teens that are really our big word-of-mouth people.”
Weyand shared tips like using teen volunteers to create book lists in Beanstack, to help create activities, or even to form a teen advisory council in the lead-up to a teen challenge. ”I think there’s a lot of different ways you can do summer volunteer programs that can scale with the amount of staff you have,” she said.
7. Harness the power of word-of-mouth recommendations.
Real-world conversations and recommendations are hugely influential for boosting participation and engagement, and especially when that word-of-mouth information comes from a trusted source, like a parent, peer, or librarian.
In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Pikes Peak Library District struggled with low summer reading participation numbers. “In 2020, as I’m sure with everyone, our numbers tanked,” Philipsen shared. But the next year, one of their branches set a goal to get back to their 2019 participation numbers—and they actually exceeded them.
“When we asked how, they said, ‘We literally talked to everyone that came in the door,’” she said. Person-to-person interactions at the library are vital, especially since community members often don’t actually read flyers and notices when they come into their branch. This year, they’re making sure every staff member is talking up their summer reading programs with the community to maximize their reach.
Weyand has also seen the power of personal outreach in Tulsa. “I find especially with teens, word of mouth is huge,” she said. It can be difficult to reach teens directly via email or social media, although her team is having success with a teen-specific Instagram account that creates reels with trending audio.
“From all of our surveys, we typically know that teens hear about things from their parents, from their teachers, or from their friends,” Weyand said. To capitalize on this, Heather Lozano, one of their librarians, devised a “Refer A Friend” card prize drawing. When a teen signed up for the summer reading challenge, they would fill out their name and phone number at the top of a card, and then pass it on to a friend, who would add their contact information and then bring it back to the library when they registered for the challenge to get entered into a drawing for a free movie night.
“And then that friend could take a card. They could take as many cards as they wanted … we could make the cards rain everywhere,” Weyand said, describing the cycle of sign-ups and drawing entries. “We saw a huge increase in sign-ups, and a huge increase in engagement at that branch, especially relative to other branches.” And the cost? For two packages, each with two movie tickets and a concession gift card, Weyand estimates that they spent $100.
8. Offer expansive teen services.
Pikes Peak Library District, Tulsa City-County Library, and many other partner libraries have wide-ranging teen services that go beyond book lending. They’ve turned the library into a community hub for teen resources and a safe space for teenagers to grow and learn.
Weyand and her team work hard to connect with teens in the library and outside of it, offering virtual video game programs and other teen-specific events and activities. Other libraries shared that they have a dedicated teen zone with gaming screens and run virtual escape rooms for teens. And Pikes Peak Library District is part of the National Safe Place initiative, which provides crisis intervention resources and connections to local organizations for teens in need, and also provides menstrual and hygiene supplies to the community.
For more ideas and examples from fellow librarians, check out the full “Creating Teen Engagement With Beanstack” roundtable recording here.