Sssshhhhhhh: When Libraries become Active Youth Spaces

At the library we expect a lot from our kids when they join us for after-school programming.

We expect them to be attentive, respectful, relatively quiet, productive. We expect them to be able to engage with complex projects that demand focus and concentration. We expect them to do all of this after a long day of school. We expect them to do all of this after a long day of school where they most likely did not have recess, or gym class, or any sort of physical activity. We expect them to do all of this after a long day of school where they may have struggled with frustrating course work, classroom situations, and interpersonal conflicts. 

We expect all of this because we are adults, and because we are running programming in a library. Our libraries have changed a lot since the days when the stereotype of the stuffy, uptight, sshhhusshhhhing librarian reigned. While this stereotype was never an accurate one, librarians are increasingly recognized as the innovative community leaders they so often are. Libraries around the country are changing to look more like hubs of community engagement, adjusting their model to adress multiple types of literacies and provide new kinds of access.  However, a library is not a rec center. There is no running in the library, and there is no shouting in the library. The library maintains it’s aura of quiet order. 

There is nothing wrong with these rules. In a free and public space with a large number of patrons filtering through each day, it is necessary to stave off the chaos. However, as an educator facilitating youth after-school maker programming, on the floor of public libraries, I’m constantly made aware of the limits of the library as a space for a certain type of exploration. When the kids I work with filter in, they have a lot of energy. How could they not? Sometimes it’s angry or anxious energy, and sometimes it’s gleeful. It’s always big, powerful, a force of nature. 

As the shepperd to this noisy and ebullient flock, I often cringe as I feel the glares of library patrons or staff on me. I have to remind the kids that this is a library, and that kind of behavior is not appropriate in here. Daily, there is the strain of trying to fit a program that’s about youth, choice, and sometimes chaos, into a space that’s culture revolves around adults and order.  

It’s become increasingly clear to me that this boiling over of energy is one of the biggest obstacles to participants having more meaningful engagement with projects. But what are some ways I can help the kids I work with release some of that energy without further transgressing the orderliness of the library?

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