published Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

Chattanooga Public Library ramping up efforts to engage adolescent readers

Samuel Thompson, left, and Joshua Kvale talk about computer games in the Teen Center at the Chattanooga Public Library.
Samuel Thompson, left, and Joshua Kvale talk about computer games in the Teen Center at the Chattanooga Public Library.
Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NEXT UP

On Saturday, the Chattanooga Public Library will cap off Teen Tech Week with "Maker Day: Thinking in 3D," a showcase of 3-D printing technology featuring local printers and their creations. The event will take place on the fourth floor of the downtown branch at 1001 Broad St. For more information, visit www.chamakers.com or call 757-5310.

WHAT'S HAPPENING

The Chattanooga Public Library frequently updates its website (Chattlibrary.org/teens) with information on new arrivals and programs targeting adolescent readers. The library's Teen Center also maintains a Facebook page at Facebook.com/ChattanoogaPublicLibraryTeenCenter.

BY THE NUMBERS

• 90 percent of U.S. libraries offer young adult services

• 52 percent of libraries employ a full-time staff member for young adult programs

• 50 percent of young adults own e-readers or tablets

• 57 percent of 16-17 year olds read daily

• 38.5 percent of 30-49 year olds read daily

• 72 percent of 16-17 year olds used a library in 2012

• 58 percent of 30-49 year olds used a library in 2012

Source: American Library Association, Pew Research Center

TOP TITLES

Here are the most popular volumes in the Chattanooga Public Library's young adult collection:

1. "Catching Fire" by Suzanne Collins

2. "Mockingjay" by Suzanne Collins

3. "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins

4. "The Last Olympian" by Rick Riordan

5. "The Lost Hero" by Rick Riordan

6. "The Lightning Thief" by Rick Riordan

7. "The Battle of the Labyrinth" by Rick Riordan

8. "The Titan's Curse" by Rick Riordan

9. "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Dog Days" by Jeff Kinney

10. "The Son of Neptune" by Rick Riordan

There are rows of Dell laptops for browsing the Web and updating Facebook profiles, stacks of the latest Japanese manga and a big-screen TV equipped with a trio of video game consoles and dozens of titles.

Oh yeah, there's also a secret stash of Nerf guns behind the desk guarded by a not-so-fierce bearded dragon.

This isn't a lavishly appointed den and it isn't an Internet gaming cafe. It's the Chattanooga Public Library's Teen Center. (The bearded dragon -- a small lizard that isn't as fearsome as its name -- is a kind of unofficial mascot.)

Video games and Facebook may seem out of place in the traditional library setting, but Youth Services Coordinator Lee Hope says that, in order to capture teens' attention, facilities around the country are adapting with tablet computers, e-book readers and widespread Internet access.

"It's important for lifelong learning to keep them in a place where there's so much information and technology available," Hope says.

In 2008, the Chattanooga library used about $73,000 raised through its annual Club Lib fundraiser and a $10,000 Tennessee Community Enhancement Grant to turn a first-floor alcove in the Broad Street library into a space designed to attract teenage readers.

Every week, 75 to 100 teens -- ages 12 to 18 -- use the center. Most visit on Saturdays, but the busiest season is during summer break, says Teen Center Director Della Phipps.

By offering a safe place with free access to the Internet, video games and other equipment, Hope says, the Teen Center is trying to eliminate the income gap that prevents less-fortunate teens from becoming familiar with technology that will shape society in the future.

Improving literacy is still a priority at the library, administrators say, but instilling a love of reading among teens has meant acknowledging that the goal can't be solely accomplished with books.

Playing the video game "LittleBigPlanet," reading blog posts and dungeon crawling in a tabletop roleplaying group may seem like frivolous diversions, but Phipps says these activities ultimately can lure teens to the 6,000 volumes lining the center's perimeter.

"There are so many teens who think they don't enjoy reading, but they don't realize that they do read a lot when they're on Facebook or reading gaming magazines or graphic novels," she says. "There are so many things that we can offer them besides books."

And if boredom sets in, Phipps is more than willing to whip out the Nerf guns and fire up some excitement by blasting the sagging teen spirits.

MORE TO OFFER

Thanks to an ongoing expansion, the Teen Center soon will provide teens with even more reasons to come to the library.

By the end of the month, the Teen Center should be finished relocating into a section of the second floor that currently houses the adult non-fiction collection. Once the move is complete, the center will occupy about 40 percent of the second floor, which also is home to the children's literature section.

The new location triples the square footage, and Phipps already has grandiose plans to use it by adding a snack area with healthy-food vending machines, a shared activity space and separate, quiet spaces for doing homework or working in study groups.

Plans for the new location were developed in conjunction with the Teen Advisory Board, a group of 12 teens who provide feedback and suggestions for programming and other activities at the Teen Center.

Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences senior Samuel Thompson, 18, has been a member of the board since its inception. Next fall, he will be attending Berea College in Kentucky, but he says he's looking forward to taking advantage of the new space for at least a few months.

"With where we are now, we have to live with the other parts of the library," he says. "Upstairs, we'll be less restricted."

Eventually, Hope says, the library plans to repurpose the other half of the second floor to create a "Tween" Center targeting 8 to 12 year olds. That plan is based off a similar facility in a Swedish library that Hope visited last year while attending an international children's library Conference in Copenhagen.

The idea, she says, is to combat the dropoff in library attendance that begins when children who love to read turn their backs on books when they hit their teens.

"That way, we can keep them [in the library] instead of trying to get them back as teens once they've already left," Hope says. "A Tween Center was the answer; it was obvious."

No date has been set for the Tween Center or the complete realization of Phipps' plans for the second-floor Teen Center. The process is ongoing, administrators say, and will be achieved incrementally.

REINFORCEMENTS

For four years, Phipps worked in the Teen Center part-time, splitting her time with the public services desk. Within days of taking over as library executive director last March, Corinne Hill assigned Phipps to work in the center full time. The decision set the library among the 52 percent of facilities around the country that have a full-time staff member devoted to working with teens.

While she says she enjoys reading young adult fiction and creating programming for teens, Phipps admits that it's much harder to generate new ideas alone.

"After almost six years, I'm starting to run a little dry," she laughs.

Soon, however, she will have reinforcements. On April 22, Justin Hoenke will join the Teen Center as its second full-time staff member.

An ebullient 32-year-old, Hoenke is moving to Chattanooga from Portland, Maine, where he has worked with teens at the Portland Public Library since 2010. Some librarians, he says, have trouble relating to adolescents, which can make them come across as uncool, a dealbreaker for some teens. Hoenke doesn't claim a perfect record of being cool, but he shares enough in common with teens that walking that line is a little easier.

"You're always sort of on edge as a teen librarian," he says, laughing. "You want to relate to the teenagers without seeming desperate.

"I'm not going to roll into work wearing a Justin Bieber shirt, but I need to know what he's up to at all times."

While Phipps is more focused on books, Hoenke says his specialty is introducing teens to new technologies, something he successfully achieved in Portland. He hasn't formed any concrete plans for the Chattanooga library yet, but he plans to spend a few months listening to Phipps and the teen advisory board to figure out what locals teens want instead of deciding for them.

And if his and Phipps' ideas don't work, the library will just go back to the drawing board, Hope says. They can't afford to give up on teens because there's too much at stake.

But failure isn't acceptable.

"It's not going to happen," she says, frowning. "If it does, we'll come up with other ideas."

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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