Reaching and holding the interest of children who are turning into teens and moving on from high school is a prime target of the Cumberland County Library System.
Providing services and educational opportunities that appeal to both children and parents hasn’t been a problem for the county’s eight libraries, but “having the support of teens and families is very important” to the system’s success, said Jonelle Darr, the Cumberland County Library System’s executive director.
Reaching those teenagers is also something people want, Darr said, based on survey results from the community. While children’s services have always been strong, the surveys revealed that teen services required some attention as an “emerging need,” she said.
Teen program statistics were first collected in 2007, but the numbers gathered have largely remained stagnant or fallen since then. There were 203 teen-related programs in 2007, attended by 4,925 teenagers. Last year there were only 3,958 teens attending when 212 programs were available.
Darr said a factor in the lower attendance rate in 2012 is Bosler Memorial Library’s renovation project in Carlisle.
Teen materials, meanwhile, showed a dramatic increase over the last 10 years. Statistics from 2003 indicate 34,750 items were circulated from teen collections. Since then, the number has jumped to 87,976.
“That’s a 153 percent increase in the number of items borrowed from the teen collections,” Darr said.
Since teens seem to be a tough crowd to attract or keep, Darr said the library provides spaces for them to hang out, use technology and borrow resources for free.
Darr said some libraries are able to have staff members devoted to teens, while others are not large enough to accommodate that need.
Local libraries, regardless of size, have a common goal to attract young adults to the library. Darr called the programs “essential,” and said she firmly believed such programs — which she termed enjoyable — worked to keep teens coming back to the library.
“They (teens) wouldn’t show up if they didn’t enjoy them,” Darr said.
Then there’s the challenge of keeping them interested and keeping them coming back.
“I think one of the challenges is that our young adults ... they’re at a different point in their life,” said Jeffrey Swope, incoming director at Bosler. He said they are typically going to school, beginning work or starting families. Once they have children of their own, Swope said families tend to return when they want to introduce their own children to the library. However, they often do not see the library as “relevant” until then, he said.
Linda Wilson, assistant director and teen-services librarian at the Joseph T. Simpson Public Library in Mechanicsburg, noticed a similar trend.
“We have such a strong children’s programming, and it seems like they kind of fade out in the middle years,” she said.
Christine Davies, teen services coordinator at Camp Hill’s Cleve J. Fredricksen Library said keeping programs and materials relevant is essential to keep teens coming through the doors. “We have to sell ourselves to them,” she said.
Davies, who has been working with teens in the library for 15 years, said it is not necessarily more difficult to attract them today. Letting them know that the library has books, movies and video games to lend for free, she said, will bring them in the front door.
Wilson said competing with other activities and working to keep up with technology also provides challenges in keeping young adults coming back. “We don’t like to turn kids away,” she said. “We want them to be there,” she said.
There’s always the challenge of adequate funding for libraries throughout the county.
Darr said funding has been cut by 41 percent by the state in the last couple years, and 37 percent in 2004. She said the cuts begin to add up “when you lose half a million dollars a year and start adding that up over the last three years.”
Swope praised the Cumberland County Commissioners for the board’s “incredible” support with funding. He said the library uses a budget that supports what they do, and that libraries tend to be good at working with what they have. While that funding might be tight, Wilson said that “for our library, we’re doing okay,” adding that the library has “a wonderful friends organization that does a lot of fundraising and gets a lot of local support for us.”
“Libraries are always going to need more money, it’s just a fact,” Davies said.
Justifying the need for further funding helps, especially when libraries can prove attendance is increasing across all age levels, librarians agree.
Currently, young adults are the “smallest group of borrowers” at Fredricksen, Davies said. Although their numbers taper off as they get out of high school, she was confident that would change.
Davies said it was important to create a “community” atmosphere in the library, and not be a place to simply do homework. She said the library should become a social place. “I think (the number of teens) could definitely increase,” she said. “We have to look at what they’re wanting from us.”
Swope said the best way to attract new users was to go to where they are and engage them. Once that relationship is created, he said it would become easier to keep students in the library.
“Are we going to struggle to now get that connection and engage that section of the community? Yeah,” Swope said.
He said he was confident the library would maintain those connections as long as library remained committed to them. He stressed, however, that the library is not reliant on strictly the younger audience.
“Everyone should have a public library card in their wallet,” he said.
Wilson linked the library’s future success at keeping younger adults to the need for space. She also referred to the library as an “extension” of the schools’ libraries where work can be completed. The key for success, she said, was catering to the educational and social needs of the young adults.
Darr called the future for libraries “a moving target.” She said they are becoming a third place away from work or school that people can come to enjoy without spending money.
She also stressed the need for libraries to overcome the typical library “stigma” with teenagers — that they are quiet places with an abundance of rules. Darr said libraries are turning into more social places, and that teen collections have more content that reflects events in teens’ lives.
“Just like society, libraries are changing,” Darr said.