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American Libraries Learn To Read Teenagers

Way, way back in the 20th century, American teenagers turned to the local public library as a great good place to hang out. It was a hotspot for meeting up, and sharing thoughts with, other like-minded people – in books and in the flesh. It was a wormhole in the universe that gave us tunnels into the past and into the future. It was a quiet spot in an ever-noisier world.

The library was a gentle mentor. It accepted us as we were and let us grow at our own pace – as teens are wont to do. It taught us about sports and sex. About fashion and finance. About life and death.

It showed us how to search for information. How to bring intelligent, like-minded people together. Even how to build and program computers.

In effect, it gave us the tools to create video games, websites, social media and the strange digi-real world we live in today.

Now that the Internet is in full flower, you would think that the American Public Library would be a victim of its own success. And in a way it is: Library use is down.

But a 2013 Pew Research survey found that teens use libraries and librarians more than other age groups, "but don't necessarily love libraries as much."

Like any seasoned mentor, the public library is not giving up. The library is pulling out all the stops to get teens to keep reading and learning and dreaming. For example:

  • TechKnowledgey Things: Recently the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) sponsored its annual , which encourages teens to engage in content creation at their local libraries. "The range of programs is amazing," says association president Shannon Peterson, "from creating and programming mini computers ... to learning how to produce, record and market your own music with local musicians." Some libraries mashed up print and digital by helping young people film book trailers and create"Read Boxes" — like the Red Box movie kiosks — with QR codes for others to view and rate the trailers.
  • Nostalgia: In suburban Washington, a library branch invited patrons, ages 12-18, to rummage through its collection of books to find randomly hidden Golden Tickets – a la Roald Dahl's Chocolate Factory books and movies—that can be exchanged for iTunes gift cards. The only requirement: "You must check out the book after you win (and read it, we hope)!"
  • Headlocks: In partnership with Wrestlemania, YALSA encourages teenage wrestling fans to celebrate reading and win prizes in the Wrestlemania Reading Challenge. "This year, nearly 50,000 kids, tweens, and teens participated in the Challenge," Shannon says. "This program is particularly exciting to me, in that it tends to encourage reluctant or non-readers to engage."
  • Today teens and young adults are using libraries, Shannon says, "in a variety of ways: from homework help and school support, to accessing print and downloadable books, and engaging in creative and innovative programs which help them pursue interests, connect to mentors and other teens and expand learning in the after-school hours."

    In other words, libraries and librarians are teaching teens a valuable lesson: Know thy shelves.

    The Protojournalist: Experimental storytelling for the LURVers – Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers – of NPR. @NPRtpj

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

    Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.
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