In recent years, many new libraries have opened with buildings that break the stereotype of library as warehouse for books.  Their innovative designs embody the notion of reinvention; reimagining the library as a community gathering place with beautifully appointed meeting and performance spaces, welcoming cafes and playful children's areas, some even boasting outdoor learning environments.

But like many not-so-new libraries, some of these new-model libraries open their doors to the community lacking one vital element: a dedicated space for teenagers.  

Anyone working in a public library knows, simply because a library lacks a teen space doesn’t mean teens aren’t using it. Chances are teens are in your library and are an exuberant user group. Also, chances are that teens regularly gather in a particular space (or spaces) in the library. They may commandeer part of a meeting room, or consistently occupy the same portion of a lounge space. Through this self-selection teens, in essence, create an unofficial teen environment for themselves in the library – they create a fugitive landscape.

From fugitive to formal

This idea of ‘fugitive” uses of the library by teens is not new. At IFLA's 2014  Conference, Anthony Bernier PhD. presented a paper entitled “Informing the “Naive Triangle": Evidence-Based Transformations in New Young Adult Library Spaces”. In the paper, which presents the first evidence-based research in pursuit of spatial equity for youth in libraries, Bernier proposes the idea of “fugitive postures” – the notion that teens use traditional furniture (seating options offered in teen spaces) in nontraditional ways and that this instinctive use of seating is often at odds with the way the furnishings are “supposed” to be sat upon. He calls these nontraditional modes of use “fugitive postures.”

Beyond seating options,  teens use  “traditional” library spaces in fugitive ways, too. If libraries don't offer a dedicated teen space, teens will most likely create one through spontaneous and improvisational use of available space to meet their needs. Public libraries typically offer spaces for children and rightfully so. Children are an important user group with distinctly identifiable needs and defined services and material types. Children are also, most obviously, small which precipitates practical space considerations. Perhaps because teens often look like adults, it is easier for libraries to overlook their unique service needs and to present spaces and fixtures that are at odds with teens' natural tendencies to use space.

Teens naturally congregate, collaborate and work cooperatively with peers. In your library, you may observe teens rearranging furniture to accommodate a group, improve comfort or privacy, or sit clustered together to share online/mobile phone content. These are natural things for teens to do but when they do them… that's where trouble can start. This adaptive use may be perceived by librarians as not how a space is supposed to be used.

If the impression of staff is that teens "take over” or invade general areas of the library (particularly after school), this may be viewed as a challenging issue to contend with when, in fact, it illustrates a need for space that is responsive to teens’ requirements. When teens regularly use a particular space  in the library they define and create spatial experiences that are not intentionally offered by the library's design. This may point out a user need that may have been overlooked in the planning of a new building. This also presents a unique opportunity. Paying attention to and identifying usage patterns related to teens, space and furniture  is the first step in shifting a fugitive teen space into a formal teen space.

Shaping a teen space

In making this shift from fugitive to formal, talking with teen " regulars" is vital.  Finding out why they favor a particular location helps the library move towards understanding the ways teens wish to use space, the activities they wish to engage in and the physical needs (furniture, fixtures, equipment) required to accomplish those activities.

Devising simple (no cost) ways for teens to take ownership of their space

Many libraries will be faced with creating a formal teen space without additional resources to do so.  When confronted with a teen space that may solely exist in the form of linear feet of shelving, steps can be taken to send the message to teens that they are the owners of the space.  Simple  steps within the stacks, like: replacing front facing books with displays of teen-created art and invitations to teen- led library activities or asking teens to decorate the end caps of shelves, to display their drawings, poetry, photos sends a message that the library respects and celebrates their capacities an interests. Will it always look polished and perfect?  No, but it will look welcoming and inclusive.

Understanding functions and flexibility

Growing from a range of shelves to a teen area that accommodates teen programming, it is easy to imagine a variety of activities that might take place in the space– from the most traditional to the most experimental.  Rather than imagining space to accommodate specific specialized activities,  it is best to keep the space arrangement balanced and neutral. Thinking in terms of balanced functions, libraries should set up opportunities for: participation – where teens can work together on projects or play games together; contemplation – where teens can work or read independently; engagement – where teens can gather for conversation, relaxation, activities or even performance.

Neutrality  it key. if there is a single thing to strive for in a teen space it is neutral  flexibility. This is particularly true for small teen spaces because these spaces  may be called upon to function in many ways simultaneously or throughout the course of a day. Fixtures should be flexible and serve many purposes. And speaking of flexibility,  library rules against more than one person per chair and prohibitions against sitting on the floor should be reconsidered (or, preferably, abolished) in a teen space. Asking teens to modify the natural ways they desire to use space and furnishings reinforces fugitive usage and does not provide optimal opportunities for teens to take ownership of their library experience.

And, I can't resist clarifying…. We are talking about teens here, not older children — sometimes referred to as “tweens.”  Nothing will drive teens away from a designated teen space faster than having it occupied by 10 year old kids. Libraries that mix tweens with teens can end up with two children's spaces with displaced teens developing a secondary  fugitive space away from the designated teen space in order to avoid mixing with children. That's just a fact.

So, the message to libraries without dedicated teens spaces is, chances are, you already have one —  it was established by teens and is there for the library to discover.


Jennifer Velásquez
Coordinator of Teen Services for the San Antonio Public Library System, Texas US
Lecturer in the iSchool at San Jose State University, California US
Twitter @jenVLSQZ