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Why Young People Aren’t Utilizing One of Philly’s Best Resources – The Library

July 3, 2024 Category: Community Narrative

Disclosures

This article draws inspiration from a Generocity Community Newsroom hosted in Montgomery County in partnership with the Reuniting Family Bail Fund.  Community members were empowered to speak truth to power and assert their voices. By providing a platform for local voices to be heard, Generocity Newsrooms allow attendees to shed light on critical issues facing their communities and emphasize the importance of reporting on topics that truly matter to the residents of the Philadelphia Region. Generocity Newsrooms are supported by the Lenfest Institute of Journalism.

In the areas where libraries are most needed, our youth are underserved and ill-considered. Communities across Philadelphia lack librarians and, consequently, the relevant programs to truly educate, encourage, and engage those who would benefit the most. Schools are closed for summer, at a time when these resources are crucial, and branches across the city remain closed with delayed plans to reopen or are closing early due to limited resources. With Gen Z and Millennials making more library visits than any other age group nationwide and teens seeking safe places to be active and accomplish their goals, it is imperative that Philadelphia libraries increase their reach and relevance.

Libraries offer an incredible array of resources beyond just books. In addition to their extensive book collections and access to digital media such as e-books and audiobooks, libraries are also a hub for free internet access, educational programs and workshops, and peaceful study and collaboration spaces that foster interpersonal development. Yona Yurwit, a librarian at the Central Parkway Library in Center City Philadelphia, notes,

“People incorrectly assume that libraries are mostly a book place and that’s just not true. We have video games, bakeware, and even musical instruments.”

While the range of resources appears vast, a critical look at youth access to these resources shows that this reality is far from reach for those living on the outskirts of privilege and gentrification. Although there appears to be an array of opportunities and programs available to the public, libraries in the most impoverished regions of Philadelphia have yet to offer consistent teen programming.

 

Mark, a recent Temple University graduate and newfound library attendee, reflects on the invisible presence libraries have taken on, sharing,

“[Young people] are not against libraries, they just don’t know they’re there and they forget about them.”

These institutions have diminished in the minds of many young people, overshadowed by the immediacy and convenience of digital alternatives. Despite the opportunity libraries hold to support and nurture the youth, the lack of effective investment and visibility leaves them underutilized.

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A recent study found that Gen Z and millennials across America use public library resources at higher rates than older generations. However, this is not the case in Philadelphia, where most programming targets children 12 and under and adults over 50. There is a strong potential for libraries to engage with younger audiences, but many city youth have disconnected from the library since the pandemic, a time when physical spaces were inaccessible and digital alternatives became the norm. The shift to online learning and virtual entertainment options has left many young people uninterested in the resources libraries have to offer, when offered at all. Distracted by other options such as social media, streaming services, and online shopping, they often overlook the library as a space to value and utilize. Anthony Lewis, a Library Clerk at Central Parkway Library, points out,

“This social media age has blinded us so much, [young people are] so detached from reality and the physicality of reading and genuine connections with people.”

Despite having funding, the allocation and usage of these funds are often rigidly defined, limiting the library’s ability to adapt and innovate. Yona shares,

“It’s tough, because there is money being thrown at libraries right now. But it has tags on it. We have to use it for books, or we have to use it for programs. But the amount that staff is paid and how staff is treated is set by several people that [the public doesn’t] have direct access to.” Underhill from Cecil B. Moore Library advocates for permanent programming with “more continuity,” stating, “We’ve had some great programs in the past, but a lot of it was grant funded and once that grant runs out, you’re back to square one over and over and over again.”

This bureaucratic approach to funding allocation means that while libraries may have the resources, they lack the flexibility to invest in areas that could significantly enhance their appeal to younger audiences.

 

Moreover, the governance and funding structure often prioritize traditional services and materials, such as craft nights and chess clubs, over modern, innovative solutions that could better engage the youth. This rigid structure can stifle creativity and responsiveness, making it difficult for libraries to keep pace with the rapidly changing interests and behaviors of young people. Librarians working outside of Center City agree, saying,

“There’s a lot we could do. If you were to look at what the people are interested in here, like this video game thing…making your own beats, or having access to [updated] computers,” the question is raised, “What would make it nice and make it an attractive choice for a newer generation of library users to come here?”

While libraries might receive ample funds for purchasing books or running established programs, they might struggle to secure funding for new initiatives like digital literacy workshops, social media outreach, or creating dynamic, multi-use spaces that attract younger visitors.

 

Addressing this issue is multifaceted—library funding requires a more inclusive and flexible approach. By involving younger voices in decision-making, libraries can ensure that their strategies and services are more aligned with the needs of all community members. Additionally, revising funding policies to incorporate structural changes that allow for consistent and enduring programs can empower libraries to implement new ideas that resonate with and potentially retain younger patrons. Effective marketing is also crucial to making library resources more visible and attractive to young people. Mark emphasizes,

“I drive past this road every single day. And I see it, but [the library’s] not on my mind because there’s no flashy sign. There’s nothing saying ‘Hey, come in here! We’re doing fun things, We have an event’ or ‘We have more community outreach’. So I think there’s value in just telling people that it’s there.”

The proposed 2024 budget for the Free Library of Philadelphia aims to develop a strategic plan based on community input and boost social media engagement. This initiative is a key step towards reconnecting the city’s youth with the library.

 

Likewise, Judy from the McPherson Library shared that in understanding the community they serve, they choose not to advertise their programs online because many members of their community don’t have access to the internet.

“We have these ladies that go up and down the street, and they put a flier under everybody’s door and let people know we have a monthly calendar.”

With their most recent event garnering over 200 participants at the park outside their building, Judy attributes their success to the street outreach funded by their partnership with local nonprofit Impact Services. This collaboration between the library and a nonprofit is an example to branches across the city that it takes the community coming together to strategize on how to best reach their local network.

 

Several libraries across the country have implemented successful youth re-engagement strategies. Most notably, the Brooklyn Public Library with its Jay-Z retrospective, “The Book of Hov,” which “drew more than 600,000 visitors, marking a 74 percent increase in attendance at Central Library” and resulted in “more than 36,000 new The Book of HOV library card accounts being created” according to the library’s website. Another library, the New York Public Library (NYPL) has removed late fees to ensure equal access without penalizing overdue books, thus providing consistent access to library resources. In addition, New York City has introduced a participatory budget voting process that invites youth ages 11 and older to get involved and share their views. Through this inclusive process, youth feel part of the library and develop a sense of ownership and responsibility. This approach has led to the establishment of several Teen Tech Centers in the city that directly cater to the interests of young people.

 

Addressing the disconnect between libraries and young people involves diversifying library boards, revising funding policies, and enhancing marketing efforts. By adopting these strategies, libraries can better meet the needs and interests of the younger generation, ensuring their resources are effectively utilized. These changes will not only increase youth engagement but also foster a sense of community and ownership among young people. As libraries evolve to become more inclusive and responsive, they can continue to serve as vital community hubs that support education, personal growth, and social connections in the digital age.

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