Beasts in the garden

One of the first things that I do when I visit other public libraries when I travel – and I always visit other public libraries when I travel (thank you Lebanon (NH) Public Library for letting me print my boarding passes for free!) – is to check out their children’s section. And every library, no matter how small has a space set aside for children, with low rows of attractive picture books, irresistibly cute furniture sized specifically for little ones, and sometimes even special play areas for tactile learners. Even Princeton University has set aside space in their august main library for a children, complete with a gigantic bonsai tree, topiary animals, and a puppet theater. 

More rarely, though, do libraries have space set aside for the other age group that I work with as a member of Princeton Public Library’s Youth Services department – teens and tweens. The term “tween” is an apt description for people this age since they are truly betwixt and between childhood and adulthood. They are at an age where they want to move beyond the children’s section they loved just a few years earlier, but the social ways that teens often use library’s are often seen as too…boisterous to be fully welcomed in the parts of the library used by adults. The greatest characteristic of teens – their unbounded exuberance and energy – can be seen as existing at odds with the image of the staid and orderly library. Margaret Alexander Edwards, an early and passionate advocate for this age group, famously described the unease many librarians envinced when teens entered their space, using the metaphor “the fair garden and the swarm of beasts” in a book of the same name.

Luckily PPL does not view the library as a “fair garden” needing to protection from a “swarm” of beastly teens. Teens are central to the mission and the success of PPL and we do everything that we can to make them feel welcome here. Teens have their own space in the library, the Teen Center, which occupies the nicest piece of library real estate in the building – top floor, corner windows, overlooking the plaza. We have recently replaced its fixed furniture with modular, mobile tables that teens can easily reconfigure whenever they need to shift from studying to socializing over a game of chess. And several months ago the library started a program to lend Macbook Pro laptops to any teen with a PPL library card, allowing them to be freed from the rigid confines of desktop computers: now they can take their laptops anywhere on the third floor conducive to their work. And don’t worry – in the photo below, rogue teens have not hijcked the library van to escape the library! They are members of our Teen Advisory Board (TAB) up to their usual delightful mischief during their annual retreat.

Teens ponder the feasibility of all piling in to take a road trip with the library van

Even though we hope that teens will love spending time in the Teen Center, we don’t try to keep them sequestered there. Our teens are frequently found out and about in the library and beyond, irreplaceably serving as volunteers for library programs aimed at all ages. Just in the past month teens from our Teen Advisory Board and Go-Between Club have volunteered by keeping score at the library’s Spelling Bee, teaching children about science at Nano Day, helping decipher runes at Princyclopedia, and even dressing up as Shakespeare at a celebration of the Bard’s birthday. Librarians are also constantly thinking up new programs for teens, like our recent Scavenger Hunt, which sent teens across the town and university looking for things like Aaron Burr’s grave, seen below.

The thrill of victory: Teens celebrate locating Aaron Burr's grave during the recent Scavenger HuntWith summer approaching, I encourage teens looking to increase their connection with the library to volunteer to help with our summer reading program; soon they will also be able to apply for TAB for the 2013-14 school year. In all of these groups and at all of these events, our teens serve as energetic and passionate ambassadors for the library and the values that it represents: helpfulness, courtesy, and friendliness. Far from being beasts, our teens and ‘tweens have left their indelible and positive mark on the library. And we smile every time they walk through our door.

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