The Coolness Factor—Ten Libraries Listen to Youth

Meyers, E. (1999). The coolness factor: Ten libraries listen to youth. American Libraries . (30)10.

It goes without saying that libraries have a long way to go in becoming "cool" to teens. When the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund launched its Public Libraries as Partners in Youth Development initiative last year, this "coolness" gap was seen as a key to the project's success.

The initiative is aimed at helping public libraries throughout the country develop activities and programs that support the educational and career development of young people during nonschool hours. In 1998, the Funds awarded planning grants to 10 public libraries in major urban areas.

Between November 1998 and May 1999, teens in these communities gathered in library meeting rooms, community centers, and, literally, on street corners to tell interviewers their opinions of the public library. They were happy to be consulted, and clearly did not feel a need to spare anyone's feelings in their candid responses. Although these ten libraries varied in their approach to data gathering and in their community's profiles, their findings were strikingly similar:

  • Libraries are not cool; they are frequented by nerds, dorks, and dweebs.
  • Library staff is not helpful or friendly.
  • Teens need more access to technology and more training in using it.
  • Teens want help with their school projects and research.
  • Libraries need to provide better books and materials.
  • Teens need welcoming spaces—not morgues.
  • Library hours of service are not convenient to teens.
  • Teens want jobs and volunteer service opportunities.
  • Libraries need to get rid of restrictive rules and fees.
  • Teens offered to help libraries become better.

Clearly, teens are not finding what they seek in our very uncool settings. However, they are optimistic about their ability to reform our nerdy ways and create a cool new library environment for themselves and their friends. To quote one of our teens, "A lot of librarians do not seem to like kids. They like books. They could use kids to help them get along."

How libraries "get along" in the next years will depend on how seriously we take the advice of our young people. The Benton Foundation's 1996 "Buildings, Books, and Bytes" ( AL , June/July 1998) sounded some "warning bells" for the public. For example, "the youngest Americans polled, those between the ages of 18 and 24, are the least enthusiastic boosters of maintaining and building library buildings. They are also the least enthusiastic of any age group about the importance of libraries in a digital future. "

Are we beginning to see a trend among our young people? Can we afford for teens to respond to the question, "What do you think of when you think of the library," by answering, "I don't think of the library"? Can we ignore teens who report that some kids they know with home Internet access never use the library? How many teens will get home access to the Internet and drift into the category of hardcore non-users? Can we provide services, staff and spaces that will attract teens, and change our image of a morgue run by petty tyrants for nerds, dorks and dweebs? Our future—and our coolness--might lie in our answers.

Quality and Coolness

Peter Zollo's latest edition of Wise Up to Teens: Insights into Marketing and Advertising to Teenagers (New Strategist Publications: Ithaca, N.Y., 2 nd ed., 1999) provides useful insight into teens and their assessment of what is cool. Zollo asserts that for a teen product to be cool it must be associated with quality.

Teens were very honest in their assessment of the quality of our public library services in the areas of technology, staff service, space, and materials. The following summaries of our focus group and survey findings indicate a lack of quality that will keep libraries from achieving high coolness ratings.


Access to technology is one of the main reasons teens come to a public library. Teens in all ten planning grant libraries criticized library access to computers, and the quality of computers and software. Complaints centered on "long lines" to access library computers and the corresponding "short time" computers were available once the wait was over. In several libraries, waiting time for computers was the single biggest problem youth had with the library system. Teens were passionate in their frustration, "you wait forever and only half of the computers have Internet on them." (Zollo's research confirms teens' passion for the Internet, finding that "nearly 90% of teens say the Internet is ‘in.' This is an astonishing figure, higher than the percentage of those who say partying, dating or shopping are ‘in.'

In one library, 75% of teens queried responded that the library needed "more and better computers." Other teens noted that not only were more computers needed but more chairs as well. Teens complained of "slow, old computers and software" and others chimed in with a need for "more and better quality computers and software, including graphics capabilities, Web site development tools, and a multi-media studio." Preteens wanted more interactive computers with educational games and recommended computer updates to include speakers and headphones

Customer Service for Students:

Another overwhelming finding was that students come to the public library to do research and complete school projects. Computers are their preferred mode of accessing information needed for this work, and they are frustrated by the lack of help they get from our staff. Comments included, "This one librarian…is really mean. I've asked her for help and she just points in the direction of some books."

Teens report that librarians "always have something better to do" than help a student: "She says she is going to help me but then just disappears into the other rooms and does something else." Another remarked, "Someone once told me they couldn't help because they didn't work in that section." Teachers report students complaining that librarians tell them, "they don't have time to help them."

Library Space for Teens:

When asked to think about libraries and describe the images or colors associated with libraries, young people responded, "dark", "dreary", "gray", "black", "dull" and "boring." Other creative teens picked up the pace with "libraries are like those places they keep dead people. What are they called? Morgues!" One young man cautioned that what ever else happened, "This has got to be a project that makes me feel like I'm not in a library." Library furniture was described as not comfortable or the right size for teens. Youth suggested libraries consult Barnes and Noble for some clues about cool space. Suggestions for improving existing spaces were offered with the same enthusiasm and confidence of their criticisms. Libraries should be bright, cheerful, filled with music and varied activities, informal and welcoming. The ambience should be fun, easy, friendly and exciting. Libraries need to be "presented better", have " a more appealing look." We can begin by "updating any and everything" we can.

Teens want a multiple use space—place for quiet study and space to socialize. The teen-friendly library will include a music area and a video room. (Zollo's survey found the top three teen leisure-time activities to be watching TV, listening to FM radio, and listening to tapes, CDs, and records.) Other requests are comfortable chairs for reading, and tables and chairs with enough space for writing. Youth would also like to see performance spaces and vending machines.

The advantage of having a distinct "place of our own" was indicated by many respondents. Teens frequently mentioned not going to libraries because of "too many adults", "not enough people my age", and being bothered by "too much mess and noise from younger children."

Books and Materials

"My ideal library would be one where all the books are clean and new and have all their pages." "All the movies are really old. The newest ones are from the 80's ! " [laughter]. Teens described frustration at collections that did not allow them to complete school projects and research. Multiple copies of books that are needed for assignments or "more copies of the book I want" were requested. Currency of materials was mentioned for reference books and encyclopedias. Offering materials that were popular and contemporary—especially magazines, CD's, videos, and audio-tapes -- was mentioned at eight of the 10 libraries. Materials for learning foreign languages were requested, as were textbooks. Several youth wanted a clearer arrangement of materials--"shelved together or color codes for age groups;" "paperback series shelved together." Youth who mentioned a desire for books for leisure reading felt the library lacked "books about favorite topics", "more items that reflect our cultural identity", and again multiple copies of "favorite books."

Rules, Regulations, and Hours of Service:

Fines were mentioned as a barrier to using public libraries by teens in five of the 10 cities surveyed. Teens believed that books could not be checked out until fines are completely cleared. They stated they had no money for fines, and desired amnesty times to clear fine records. Some stated that it is easier to buy a book rather than worry about return due dates and accumulated fines. When probed by interviewers, teens would happily return to libraries if they thought they could have an easy way to erase fines and start with a clean slate. Accumulated fines make teens feel very unwelcome, and no teens had a sense that they could discuss this concern with library staff.

Teens are distracted by libraries that are "too quiet." "The first thing I think of when I think about libraries, is "SHHH!" "Libraries are so-o-o-o quiet—they are creepy." The sense that you "can't talk" in libraries was coupled with other comments about severe strictness, "too strict in the rules", "always scolding us to be quiet" and "too restrictive on talking and eating."

Rules about food and drinks were discussed by youth in half of libraries surveyed. Youth are hungry and would really like food available at libraries. Suggestions included library cafeterias, food courts, snack bars and vending machines, not signs or warnings about food.

The interpretation of library signs was mentioned by one group of youth who reported a sign that stated, "If you're here at 5 p.m. without your parents, you'll be in trouble and we'll call the cops." Youth in seven of the 10 libraries complained about library hours of service. Longer evening hours were needed by teens for school projects. More weekend hours were requested, especially on Friday and Saturday evenings for social events or additional research time.

It's Cool if It's For People My Age

In addition to quality, Peter Zollo has identified a second aspect of teen coolness: "After quality, the most common description of what makes a brand cool to teens is that it is ‘for people my age.'…it must be perceived to be of superior quality and it must convey an image that is relevant, desirable, and aspirational to teens." Before you go running to your dictionary to find the word "aspirational," Zollo uses this term to describe the tendency of youth in this age group to be constantly aspiring to the next step of their development. Preteens aspire to be teens, middle school students to be in high school, non-drivers to have driver's licenses, etc. Cool products must appeal specifically to teens, be relevant and desirable, and take advantage of the desire of teens to aspire to their next goal of achievement or accomplishment.

Jobs and Service Opportunities

When libraries asked youth how they could change their uncool image, they were uniform in their response: "Let us help you." Youth in eight of the 10 libraries saw opportunities for young people to do both community service and paid work in the library. Libraries would certainly be perceived as being "for people my age," if teens were visibly involved in a variety of library tasks. Teens listed a wide range of possible activities including organizing books, helping people find books, helping people with computers, reading to children, tutoring and homework help, teaching and leading classes and clubs, serving as translators, and representing the library at other activities and sites. Youth volunteered to help librarians with materials selection, program topics, and Web site construction.

Young adults offered very practical advice about their employment or volunteer service, "If I worked in a library, I'd want to read to little kids and help them have fun in the library." "I'd help people from other countries find information in their native language and it they didn't have it I'd ask the library to get it." "I want to learn something: I don't want to do boring stuff. Otherwise I won't stick to it." "What I learn should help me get a job." Not surprisingly, the majority of youth who specified a kind of library job or volunteer experience, requested that it involve technology and hoped that the experience would help them in future employment.

Teens and Marketing

A frustrating finding in all cities was that often teens requested materials and services that the library already had, and which in some cases were not being fully utilized. Teens were confident that they could effectively help with promotion and marketing of programs and services. They confirmed the importance of word of mouth and their knowledge of appropriate media to spread the library story. Teens who worked during the planning phase to invite other teens to participate said, "I learned that if you get people who care about something to do something, we could make a big difference. If we keep doing this then we will be able to get kids to want to go to the library more." Librarians explained to youth traditional ways they had networked with schools to promote library activities and resources. One savvy teen noted, "If you only rely on school counselors you only reach a certain kind of kid."

Teens and Programs

Most teens that were library users fondly remembered their younger years in libraries. They remembered programs, nice staff, and books they liked to read. Many of these same teens were surprised that the library offered teens programs. Teens were confident that given an opportunity they could not only promote existing library services, but could create some exciting new services of their own. They wanted to showcase their talent and the talent of their peers. Teens warned, "Kids must be involved".

Can We Be Cool?

The universality of these findings was the hardest and most surprising lesson learned in the Public Libraries as Partners in Youth Development planning year. The bad news is that we have a way to go toward ultimate teen coolness. The very good news is that teens are willing to help us get to where we want to be. The ball is in the library court and our challenge will be to listen, learn, and act. Teamwork with teens should bring us into a new and exciting age of services and space. Ideally this work will usher in the next generation of library enthusiasts as well as those seeking careers in public libraries. The future truly is ours for the taking — if we think cool!