Reaching Out to Underserved Teens in Your Community

A May 2013 Pew Study showed a majority of parents appreciate libraries as a resource for their children.  If you have ever been involved in a Library’s Summer Reading program you are keenly aware of how much families benefit and appreciate the literacy skill enrichment offered by their libraries.

Another national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project and reported at the 2014 ALA Midwinter Meeting in January, 2014, reinforced the opinion that libraries’ interactions with communities should extend outside of its walls through community outreach partnerships.  The participants were equally adamant about the need for their public libraries to be involved in supplying resources to their communities’ schools to help supplement the consistently dwindling school districts’ budgets.  Those same respondents also mandated libraries to provide free early literacy programs for children.

These surveys, taken during our country’s continuing economic recovery, provide us with a resounding answer to the question of where libraries need to focus if we are to remain viable and valuable members of our communities.  As our patrons and community members mature and bring new generations of youth into our libraries we must focus on offering resources to the adults while focusing even more strongly on enriching the experiences of their children.

A library that provides services to everyone ensures its position in the community as a center of the resource wheel instead of a spoke that is important but not vital to the patrons who support it with their taxes.  The future of our libraries depends on the building blocks that we lay with our families today.  In the movie, “Field of Dreams”, the protagonist is assured that “if you build it, they will come”.  I wouldn’t want a group of deceased baseball players walking into our library, but I am thrilled when a family with kids comes into the library to see a story teller recount the history of the Negro Baseball League during the first month of a new baseball season.

An underserved group may be residing in your community’s juvenile court system.  Students who have been sent to a county juvenile detention center are often desperate for reading materials and are captive audiences for book talks and Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM) education presentations.  Building a bridge with uncooked spaghetti and miniature marshmallows takes on a new importance when you compare the cooperation and planning that is required to design and build a new bridge to span a river.  We conducted that presentation with a local juvenile detention center’s students at the same time the new Stan Musial Bridge was being opened in St. Louis, MO.  The session was more meaningful because the students could compare their efforts to real engineers and bridge builders.  The sense of cooperation and achievement at that STEAM session was positive in an environment that can sometimes be dampened by the need for structure and solitary coexistence.   If you can establish a positive relationship with the management and staff of a detention center you can become mentors to students and other underserved youth in your area.  Scary, maybe a little, but the outcome is worth the temporary discomfort to you.

Yes, it’s safe inside your library kingdom, but there’s a world of new friends you can make for your library and services you can provide, if you can reach out to the right groups.  “If you build it, they will come” can be paraphrased just a little.  If you reach out into your community you can build a bridge that will bring more people and public awareness to your library.  The library of the future may not have any walls, so isn’t it time we start opening up our doors and windows and stepping out into a world where the library is the community?

Magi Henderson is the Youth Services Director at Glen Carbon Centennial Library and a past recipient of the ILA Golden Ticket Award for Youth Services.  Her library was named the 2010 Best Small Library in America by Library Journal and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

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