A Branch Library Builds Trust with Local Teens

“Teens never come to the library” – this is a classic problem in the library world. When the staff and volunteer group at Aaby branch library in Aarhus Denmark were asked what what challenge they would like to address in an exploratory project with participatory budgeting, the lack of teens was identified as the most urgent issue.

The staff had multiple explanations, most of them along the lines of: “The young people today find the library boring”; “teens are to hyperactive to find a library-setting attractive”; “our activities are not funky enough” – and then finally someone said: “We don´t even know them…”

We started this project getting to know the local teenagers. We conducted multiple workshops at their schools and afternoon activity clubs, where we talked to them about what libraries mean to them, to society and what could make libraries relevant in their lives. They told us so much we didn't know, but most importantly: they told us that they didn't feel welcome or comfortable in the library. What a painful insight that was.

So we shaped our How Might We-question to that insight: How might we, through participatory budgeting, involve local teens in transforming the library to a place where they feel welcome and comfortable?

Once we identified our How Might We question, we did more workshops and a collective brainstorm through digital installations in the schoolyards: this gave us more than 100 ideas to work with that we conceptualized and prioritized with the teens. We ended up with 10 strong concepts and asked the teens to vote for the best one - there was a participation of 80% of all 8th grade students from the community. 

And the winner was: The Chocolate Corner; a remake of a corner of the library with soft furniture, boardgames, playstation, an electric tea kettle, mugs and most importantly 5000 DKR set aside for a stash of hot chocolate powder of hot cocoa powder (Our budget for the entire project was 25.000 DKR or 3,500 USD, so a large percentage was spent on hot cocoa).

The teens helped out decorating and choosing furniture and really helped shaped the space. The value of the cozy corner with hot chocolate is greater than just having a special treat. It creates a sense of ownership and community, they feel the space is theirs and they have something there that they chose and they can enjoy together.  

Now the library, and this space in particular is flooded with teens – especially on chocolate Tuesdays and Thursdays. And there is a clear spill over effect on the rest of the week plus a lot of other citizens enjoy the chocolate corner for mother group meetups, students studying and families relaxing.

The next How Might We question for us is: How might we transform our services to fully express this sense of community and ownership in the library?

Helene Bruhn Schvartzman