Come for the Xbox,
stay for the books
As a young adult author, should I be happy or worried that libraries across America are using video games, music, and movies to capture the attention of teens?
AS I TYPE this, R&B singer Jaheim's new album "Ghetto Classics" is blaring from a speaker overhead. A dozen or so teenage boys are clustered around a honeycomb of computers, chewing the fat while a couple of them watch an Akon music video and the rest surf Myspace. And just a little ways over, by the Xbox projector, a group of boys and girls decked out in their finest goth attire are brainstorming the video game of their dreams.
"You should be a dragon so you can burn people!" a guy exclaims.
"It should be set in a futuristic past and you could speak a mix of French and Italian!" throws in another boy.
"You know what?" cries one girl. "You should be able to squish insects. I love killing nasty bugs."
Welcome to the teen section of your local library. In an effort to lure teens and build a base of lifelong patrons, libraries are leaving behind their humdrum ways and getting the party started, stocking up on everything from video-game collections to radio edits of Ludacris CDs. Branches in Santa Clara, Calif., and Sewickley, Pa., are hosting Dance Dance Revolution video game tournaments, and in Charlotte, N.C., there's a blue screen studio where teens can produce their own cartoons, claymation, and live action films. And, oh yeah, they still have books.
Until about 15 years ago, most libraries were divided into the adult and children's sections, and teens had to make do with a shelf of Lois Duncan and Robert Cormier paperbacks. Over the last decade, though, libraries have begun to set aside separate budgets for adolescents, and now we've reached the point where the majority of libraries have carved out a place for teens to hang out. And they are -- in droves.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, participation in library programs for people under 18 rose from 35.5 million in 1993 to 54.6 million in 2004. "The public library is something that needs to be usable by all ages," says Judy Nelson, president of the American Library Association's Young Adult Library Services Association, "and there is a real desire to make them fun."
A handful of libraries have been resisting the invasion of the latchkey kids by implementing "three strikes you're out" rules or shutting down during the hours when school is letting out. But for the most part, librarians say they'll embrace pretty much anything that brings in a crowd -- even if it means a very loud crowd. "Kids are kids, and no matter what they're doing, it's going to be kind of noisy," says Beth Hoeffgen, a youth services librarian in Ohio. She says she wishes her library had space for a battle of the bands.
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As somebody who makes her living writing books for young adults, I initially felt threatened to see that the atmosphere at the local teen section was more reminiscent of an MTV Video Music Awards after-party than a study hall. If harridan librarians weren't going to be shoving my books down the teens' throats, would anybody read them?
As it turns out, the answer seems to be yes. Melissa Jenvey, a young adult specialist at the Donnell Library in midtown Manhattan told me that after redoing the teen section four years ago, circulation of young adult titles rose 400 percent. "We just needed to have the merchandise that they wanted," she says. "It's like how they put the milk in the back of the supermarket to get you to buy all the other stuff."
While there are no hard statistics on teens' library usage, most librarians are of the view that if they provide the teens with the gizmos they want, they can also expose them to the joys of reading, however subliminally. "You still put all the new books out there," says Hoeffgen, the Ohio librarian. "Even if they haven't come for that reason, you can still inform them of what we have to offer."
Last week marked the inaugural Teen Tech Week, a program organized by the Young Adult Library Services Association. Libraries across the country hosted teens-only video gaming nights, business card design workshops, and cyber scavenger hunts (meanwhile, adults at my local library had to make do with a documentary on Celtic harpists). "The kids are having fun and it shows them you're not just about books," says Norwich, Connecticut's Jennifer Rummel, a librarian for teens.
Being about more than books has meant librarians have had to scramble to figure out what will appeal to their teenage patrons. At the American Library Association's midwinter conference in Seattle this year, one of the programs was a video-gaming workshop for librarians to help familiarize them with their materials. Many teen sections have Myspace pages and advisory boards made up of teens to pick the new CDs and DVDs.
At the Phoenix Public Library, the teen section is tricked out with a surround sound system. Movies play loudly in the theater area on one end of the room, and the speakers by the book stacks plays CDs. "Right now we're listening to Jay Z's new CD, and I'm about to put on Tech N9ne," library assistant Kevin Jin said when I called him the other day. "We'll play anything, as long as it's doesn't have a parental advisory label."
With all the fun distractions, though, it can be hard to get kids to attend a traditional program such as a book club or author visit. "The Myspacing definitely makes it hard to peel them away from the computer screens," Jin said, "but we can usually scrounge up a couple if we motivate them with snacks."
Some libraries' teen sections are growing faster than the facilities can keep up with. "We don't have our own walls yet and sometimes I have to ask the kids to keep it quiet," says Betsy Levine, a young adult librarian at the San Francisco Public Library. Still, she doesn't expect them to whisper. "Some adults using the computers nearby will get cranky because a teen will be talking and they don't like it. I have to point out that they're in the teen section and that's the way it is."
Last year, I briefly flirted with the idea of doing the majority of my writing in the young adult section of my local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. But the sneaker screeching and screaming was grating on me and -- I can't believe I'm admitting this -- one day I found myself hissing, "Shh! This is a library!" at an energetic group of kids. They stared at me as if I'd addressed them in Middle English. And then the moment passed and they went back to having fun.
So now I write upstairs, in the boring grown-up room where there is no giggling and no video downloading. For kicks, I can pull down a reference book or walk over to the water fountain. I tell myself it's OK if I'm not downstairs, as long as my books are.
Lauren Mechling is the coauthor of the 10th Grade Social Climber series of teen novels. "Foreign Exposure: The Social Climber Abroad" is due out from Houghton Mifflin next month."