July 3, 2024

Inspiring Stories of Connected Learning Through Libraries: East Providence (RI) Public Library: Welcoming Teens in Library Spaces

Categories: Connected Learning, Educational Practice, Equity, Featured, Research, Youth Well-Being

Image: Photo of Community Service Tuesday at the Fuller Creative Learning Center. 

Teen services librarians have been innovating and spreading connected learning approaches ever since the framework was first developed. This post describes how the East Providence Public Library has put connected learning into practice, a reflection motivated by a collaborative research project with the Connected Learning Lab. It is also a teaser and the first of a series of blog posts tied to a project report that will be released later this month, Transformative Outcomes Through Community Engagement: How Public Library Staff Can Foster Connected Learning Teen Services.

A three-year project funded by IMLS, the Transforming Teen Services for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (TS4EDI) project investigated the challenges library staff face and the support they need for designing and sustaining connected teen learning experiences, including in rural and small libraries. Researchers engaged in:

  • A review of published literature and materials from IMLS funded initiatives
  • Partnership with 9 libraries representing a mix of rural and urban settings. 
  • Interviews with 13 partner library staff and 12 additional library staff to understand their experiences with connected learning in teen services. 

The project produced reports tailored to public library leadership and teen services staff, with key findings and recommendations, as well as checklists for how to put connected learning in practice. These publications, and related resources for library leaders, staff, and researchers can be found on the Connected Learning through Libraries resource page of the Connected Learning Alliance.

After reading the Transformative Outcomes report, I couldn’t help but dive into my photos and promos from the last few years to really see how our particular brand of teen services fits into this discussion. We are always looking to improve the quality and increase the impact of what we do for the youth in our communities, so it was inspiring reading about what others are doing to really create equitable engagement with their teen customers. It was also gratifying to have sections of this report shine a positive light on practices that have been long time staples of the East Providence Public Library (EPPL). As I sifted through the photos from successful – and some not so successful – programs, the thing that stood out to me most was this: the less complicated a thing was, the more engaged teens seemed to be.

Image: Photo of EP high school student performing at our Expressions in Verse night at Riverside Branch Library. 

In my two years as a teen services librarian, I have found that the connected teen learning experiences that have real impact are ones where teens are accepted and respected in the space. I believe the concept of holistic relationships is at the core of these experiences. 

Image: Our Facebook promo for our get caught studying program. This group was kind enough to let us take a photo.

Unfortunately, often the first interaction between staff and teens is a negative one, and teens often go un-greeted and unacknowledged until they do something wrong. When I first started at EPPL I ran the Get Caught Studying program at the start of the school year as a way to find out who was using the space and when. This passive program, which involved staff passing out raffle tickets for gift cards to local shops to teens using the library, gave staff and teens an opportunity to connect in a positive way. Teens had the chance to be seen and appreciated by staff, and it also gave the age group a reason to want to talk to library workers. It also gave staff a not-so-awkward chance to learn names– an added bonus! The teens we connected with in that program attended many of the other activities provided throughout that year, and came to us when it was time for community service, summer reading, and so much more.

We are very lucky to have three branches in East Providence, each offering a little something special for teens. The place I find the teens who are not avid readers enjoy the most is our Fuller Creative Learning Center. This non-traditional branch of our system focuses specifically on creative arts, programming, and STEAM, and has resources that can be used by the community on a walk-in basis. Teens come to knit and sew and use the VR headsets. It is not a designated teen space, but it is a casual space that is always ready for them to pop by. We started using the space for drop-in high school community service hours and the relaxed vibe has increased the frequency of visits by this age group overall. Towards the end of the school year we noticed that teens who had already finished their service hours continued to attend and did over 15 extra service hours just because they enjoyed the hangout time.

Image: Teen Community Service at the Fuller Creative Learning Center. We are going to miss this bunch – they are almost all seniors in the class of 2024. 

While our spaces are all very different, I think that most EPPL staff can find ways to provide opportunities for community connections. Whether inside the library or out in the community, teens need the opportunity to get to know library staff. We need to advocate for more time spent just being where the teens are and less time planning what to do with them if they show up – because as Jessica Chaney of the Memphis Public Library articulated so perfectly, “they’re not going to come to our programs if they don’t know you.” 


 

Guest Post by Danielle Skeldon

Danielle Skeldon is the Teen Services Librarian for the East Providence Public Library in East Providence, RI. With an MLIS from San Jose State University she began her professional librarianship in 2020. She serves on the executive board of the Rhode Island Library Association, and is the Chair of Cornucopia of Rhode Island, “a library community of color.” When she is not at work, she can be found crafting, or tending to her plants.