Public Libraries are a Promising Resource for Teens in Low-Income Communities

Several trends have come together to intensify interest in how public libraries might best support the development of youth in their communities. In 1999, the Wallace Foundation launched the Public Libraries as Partners in Youth Development Initiative (PLPYD). The goal of the initiative was to develop innovative models for public library systems to provide high-quality educational enrichment and career development programs for underserved low-income children and teenagers. This report presents key findings and lessons from a 4-year evaluation of the effects of PLPYD programs on youth, libraries, and communities. It also examines what it takes to implement and sustain high-quality youth programs in public libraries.

What we did

Researchers gathered evaluation data from a variety of sources in nine library systems, including interviews and surveys of youth, library staff, and community informants, program observations, and a review of administrative records. Researchers conducted a study of youth participation at three sites. The programs at four sites were the focus of an in-depth examination of cost and financing issues.

Researchers examined four questions:

  • Are particular youth programs and implementation strategies more or less effective than others in furthering the goals of the initiative?
  • What are the costs of developmentally enriching youth employment programs for public libraries, and how might they be financed?
  • What were the most important benefits and the most difficult challenges for participating youth, library staff, and the overall library system?
  • What lessons does the initiative offer the broader field about the capacity of public libraries to provide services, programs, and jobs that meet the developmental needs of youth?

What we found

The PLPYD Initiative provided a valuable opportunity for public libraries to explore new means of enhancing youth programs and services. The Initiative produced a rich and diverse set of projects that offer important lessons regarding the opportunities and constraints for public libraries attempting to expand their youth programs and services. Taken as a whole, the evaluation of PLPYD demonstrates that:

  • Public libraries have the potential to design youth programs that provide developmentally enriching experiences to participating teens. These programs can have a positive impact on youth services and the library more broadly.
  • Implementing and sustaining these projects can be complicated, time consuming, and expensive. Many library staff expressed a belief that libraries are understaffed and underfinanced. Given that youth are only one of the many constituencies libraries serve, staff raised questions about institutional capacity and mission.
  • Libraries should identify how they might take steps to build their capacity to develop youth programs and their expectations about what such programs should accomplish, both for youth and the library.
  • Libraries should consider how to invest in providing regular staff training on youth-related issues and in establishing space for teens, where feasible.

What it means

Because they are present in most communities, public libraries are a promising resource for youth in low-income communities who have fewer opportunities for developmentally enriching experiences. The implementation of the PLPYD initiative suggests that public libraries have the potential to provide an important developmental support to teens, especially those in low-income communities. Beyond providing quality collections, information, and professional guidance, libraries can also offer safe and welcoming places, adult relationships and role models, and meaningful activities. However, the role that libraries should play in meeting the developmental needs of youth depends largely on their capacities and resources. It also depends on the strength of other community resources, such as schools, parks, and other youth-serving organizations. Public libraries should continue to strengthen their relationships with other community institutions and work with larger civic initiatives.

New on the shelf