For those born in the Digital Age, it is generally assumed that all technology is ubiquitous.

Yet, knowing how to navigate the newest social media app and create an entirely online persona does not automatically lend to the digital literacy needed to navigate the new norms of everyday life. This is further exacerbated with varying levels of internet and digital access. To classify an age range as “digital natives” drastically oversimplifies the digital divide.  Libraries and their staff come into play as a public access point with dedicated teen spaces. However, in the advent of makerspaces, library staff that look to create teen-dedicated areas with creative technologies must also be prepared to embrace flexibility — go beyond the coding class; media production workshop — and be prepared to become the emotional and knowledgeable resource that offers training and education in the digital skills needed to fulfill modern life functions.  When young adults need to apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or to college, or even navigating through their high school teacher’s Wiki for class, young adult librarians and staff have a prime opportunity to provide a safe haven that also serves as a means for creative expression, capable of addressing a young person’s most immediate informational needs.

The notion of prioritizing flexibility and being hyper-responsive to user needs during the creation of these teen spaces borrows from the Connected Learning pedagogy. Connected Learning occurs “when a young person is able to build the skills and knowledge to pursue a personal interest or passion in an environment that provides support from friends and caring adults, and can link this learning and interest to academic or career success or to civic engagement.”1 By keeping this pedagogy in mind, it facilitates a design for a “…space that supported digital and traditional literacy development and was welcoming of, engaging to, and easily accessible by teens”. 2 It is contingent on the staff who are creating young adult spaces that the environment (including staff, floor plan, resources, etc.) is welcoming and engaging enough for teens to feel encouraged to pursue any number of possibilities — even perhaps be open to vulnerability in voicing their needs. Such an environment does not assume any prior knowledge of the user; instead, it places the focal point on a youth’s information needs and encourages the young patron to engage to with the space at their own pace and intensity.

Much of the qualitative evidence of the site observations that follow remains informal and unpublished and stands as accrued experience that have been found to be integral in shaping teen spaces.

Site Observation: Ft. Lauderdale, FL, June 2016 – December 2016

In Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, the Broward County Library’s flagship currently hosts a robust teen space, The Studio. Launched in June of 2016, The Studio was formally introduced as “…the premiere digital arts studio at the Library for young adults, ages 14 – 19, in the Downtown Ft. Lauderdale area and Broward County… free and open to registered teens so that they can have access to new technology.”3 It was emphasized that the space be “open, accessible, and accommodating space for teens to learn sans requirements and grading scales” and that users would be encouraged to “pursue their own interests and become creators of unique content and digital art.” While their learned skills in digital media production could be as simple as “providing an artistic outlet,” ultimately these skills would empower them to “creatively respond” to the issues they feel strongly about.

In analyzing the neighborhood’s demographics, some sharp economic disparities are evident in light of the ongoing gentrification of the area. American Community Survey 2016 5-year estimates and current comparable Census Data of the Ft. Lauderdale zip codes show that nearly 90% of the 63,000 individuals living in the 33311 zip code are Black with an average household income of $43,671; in the adjacent zip codes of 33301, nearly 80% of the 14,000 are White with a median income of $134,437.4 Similarly, in the zip code 33304, nearly 82% of the 17,000 residents are White, with an average household income of $85,725.5

Pew Research indicates that households with lower incomes and racial minorities are less likely to have broadband access at home; when non-broadband users were asked why they did not have access, they stated that the monthly fee was just too much.6 In 2015, surveyed non-adopters also recognize that not having access puts them at a “major disadvantage of some sort.”7 Maintaining access to thriving public spaces such as libraries within formal learning environments and digital access for those individuals who do not benefit from gentrification becomes that much more necessary. This can be especially detrimental to the youth who continue to have thrust upon them an unrealistic expectation of being completely digitally literate.

In this particular observation, Teen J, 17, had a heavy interest in illustration. He kept many of his pieces in his notebook and in an analog format. Upon coming into The Studio, and being exposed to Wacom Tablets and instruction from mentors, he learned to color his art digitally on the Adobe Creative Suite. His frequent attendance and use of the resources in the library’s newest teen-only digital media space propelled his digital art in immeasurable bounds.  However, one evening, he asked for help at one of the available desktops. On this occasion, the Wacom tablet was put aside and on the computer was the Florida Driver Motor Vehicle homepage. He asked how to navigate through the page properly to ensure he would receive credit for the exam taken.It was an interesting juxtaposition to witness; this teen, by all intents and purposes, had become proficient in navigating a trade software for designers and artists, but still requested point-of-service help on a government website. It was not asked why he came to take the exam in a public forum, though it was previously confirmed that he did not have access to a printer at home. At the time of his first entry into The Studio, Teen J confirmed that he lived in the neighboring zip code 33311 which could indicate (but not confirm) a lower level of access to broadband or digital services that often coincides with a lower average household income.

Since 2005, Pew Research has noted that of all the age demographics, teens are the creators of original online content more than any other bracket.8 Now, with the prolificness of mobile devices, any social media app can make nearly all teen smartphone users content creators in a heartbeat (provided with data connectivity). A 2015 Pew Research survey found that nearly three-quarters of teens have or have access to a smartphone; of the remainder, 30% have access to a basic phone and 12% have no cell phone of any type.9 In situations like Teen J, smartphone access and advanced knowledge of content creation does not quite bridge the gap of basic digital knowledge. Library professionals become that bridge to “necessary” life tracks that are now only accessible online.

In a similar situation, Teen L, 15, was a frequenter of The Studio who routinely engaged in maker activities of The Studio and learned to be more comfortable working with Mac OS. Teen Lhe was also an incoming freshman in high school who had not yet experienced a full academic year and was enrolled in her very first Advanced Placement class in Human Geography. Her teacher hosted his content and study materials almost completely online; while this ideally should have promoted easy access, the website was found to be not user-friendly . Unlike the ease she felt navigating through social media, the site created by her teacher was initially indiscernible. Chapters and assignments could not be located without going through multiple links. When the semester first began, Lisa needed one-on-one assistance to print the items needed for her homework assignments. When she was unable to highlight certain texts due to a script error, she was instructed on how to screenshot material. Her informational needs at those moments required the librarian that could help her navigate an unwieldy course website.

Upon entering The Studio, teens were asked if they would provide their name, age, and zip code for statistical capturing; though they were not required to provide all of the information, 133 of them did. Tallies of the teens’ home zip codes demonstrated that young adults from the targeted service area were in the most attendance in the space. According to Drew Davidson of Carnegie Melon, with just the exposure to possibilities and hanging out (within the framework of Connected Learning), a teens’ awareness of the things that they could do gets raised.10 With 58 teens who frequented The Studio living in the zip code of 33311 where the average household income hovers slightly above $40,000, the hope is that the research stands true through the test of time.

Between June 1 and December 2, 2016, 230 teens were exposed to this informal learning environment full of maker activities, digital media production tech and safe space for engagement and collaboration, well beyond the initial goal of 100.11 Yet, even with the emphasis in creative tech, staff maintained flexibility to be sure to address the digital literacy needs of the The Studio’s users which varied from teen to teen. To see the space, a Virtual Tour of The Studio can be found here

Site Observation: Midtown, Manhattan, March 2017 – Current

Midtown, Manhattan is an area not known to necessarily have a large teen population. Within City Council District 4, where Mid-Manhattan Library of The New York Public Library is located, less than 6% of the population were teens in the year 2010.12 However, in a nearby branch within the same District, 53rd St Library saw robust teen attendance at programs. This was also congruent with the teen services at the library’s former iteration, Donnell Library and its Teen Central room that served as the system’s largest collection of YA materials until early 2000s.13

Prior to Mid-Manhattan Library’s closure for renovation, a temporary teen-only area was created to gauge interest from prospective young adults in the area from March 2017 to July 2017. During this time, the following data was informally gathered from teens who arrived: their age and their school, if applicable. Though attendance was minimal, the 113 young adults that arrived came to this particular library in the middle of their commute from all five boroughs and New Jersey, with 54% attending school in Manhattan.

Building from the initial survey, a second iteration of the Teen Zone was formed in the interim location for the library. This smaller space was intentionally formed as an area that could encourage youth to take advantage of a drop-in area available to them, with laptops without timed-sessions and a staffed service desk. The Teen Zone is configured to ensure that young adult patrons would have deskspace and supplies for their homework needs, alongside mobile furniture to facilitate group-work and other conversational needs. Tucked away in a corner, the space allows for conversation and noise levels not permitted in other areas of the library. With minimal budget for tech, a lack of data-connectivity capabilities, and square footage, many maker- or digital media learning activities would have to be exercised via portable or loaned hardware. Staff also focused on YALSA Guidelines, past experiences, and collection curation in a minimal space in order to make it as welcoming an environment as possible.

A schedule of programs was implemented to test response of youth patrons, most of whom were not aware of the opening of the interim location. While attendance was slow the first few months, it became apparent that the young adults in the area also included nontraditional students who resided in transitional housing. This observation was noted alongside the previous data collected from the original building. Even with the intention to encourage creative technologies, staff ultimately found that the flow of teens throughout the day due to varied schedules was a prime opportunity to meet the informational needs of the young patrons that began to frequent the library.

To keep the staff informed of patron needs and stories, tallies continue to be collected in the Teen Zone alongside anecdotal and informal notes from interactions with youth patrons. Small measures such as these allow the dedicated young adult services staff to exchange information in a busy day and provide catered responses to patron needs.14 Current data collected so far also continued to reflect the previous findings from the Teen Zone’s former space.

A chief concern amongst the young adults was job attainment. When posed with the query on how to “get a job,” staff first determined whether the young patrons had resumes before moving on to next steps. In a specific patron interaction in July 2018, Teen T, 19, who had frequented the library and was attending class to earn his General Education Diploma. As a nontraditional student (i.e. schedule deviating from the K-12 pathway for students in America), he was very concerned about spending his time wisely outside of class and wanted to begin working to support himself. Having come back from an unsuccessful job search, he presented to the librarian in the Teen Zone his résumé, which was saved onto a portable USB thumb drive. Unfortunately, the document included mismatched typefaces, odd indentations and spacing alongside inadequate word choice.

It became evident to the librarian that Teen T was unaware of how his résumé was visually unappealing and detrimental to prospective job searches.To gauge the level of knowledge behind formatting the document, Teen T was asked if he knew about the templates provided in the cloud-based word-processing tool provided by Google, Google Docs, and he indicated no. Upon reviewing templates and guiding him through populating the information fields, it was made aware that Teen T was uncomfortable with using the computer. Through one-on-one assistance, a service not often available at a general reference desk not catered to young adults, Teen T was able to create a brand new résumé that positively presented his skill-set. The following week, he came back to the library with a brand new job in hand.

Though background knowledge was not gained to identify why he was not yet already aware of the digital tools to craft an appropriate résumé, Teen T now had skills he could continue to use for professional correspondence. Similar cases in varying ages and education levels have been addressed throughout the year that the Teen Zone has been opened, proving that young patrons continue to need point-of-service transactions and catered attention. Staff have been able to address this information gap in broad strokes by implementing a “Getting the Job” series so that digital tools could be reviewed in a workshop setting for drop-in youths. Evident among many of these instances included the following digital literacy gaps: unfamiliarity with job search engines, inability to distinguish legitimate job postings from questionable ones, and unknowingly incompleted online applications because a “submit” button has not been clicked off.

While these gaps are evident in necessary tasks such as job searching and résumé writing, it becomes even more apparent when prospective college students attempt to navigate college websites and FAFSA–sites dense with information,and highly important for a traditional teen students’ transition into adulthood. This past summer, Teen L, 17, held a conversation with library staff in the Teen Zone about applying to college and in a moment of vulnerability, spoke about her undocumented status in the United States. Because her parents had not previously experienced the American education system, they lacked the prior knowledge and experience in applying for FAFSA, taking standardized tests, and how to advise Teen L on applying to college itself. Due to the entire college application process is completed online, the information gap that Teen L experienced also exacerbated her digital literacy gap in appropriately navigating these platforms. During her free time, she continued to visit the library not simply to study, but to take advantage of the individualized assistance that staff provided in the Teen Zone as she navigated through websites of prospective colleges and filling out the Common Application website: a portal through which she could apply to multiple colleges at once. The instruction staff provided could also be applied to other instances in which she has to navigate through websites that can have a legal-consequences and life-long impact.

The consequences of digital literacy gaps can be potentially staggering, especially for youth who may eventually have no choice in how the necessary functions of securing a livelihood and pursuing educational, economic, or recreational interests can be performed today. Correspondence, applications for nearly every school, employment opportunities, and even the capacity to distinguish legitimate sources are contingent on access to connectivity and the ability to appropriately use the technology. It is an odd position for youths to be surrounded by an abundance of data and tech capabilities throughout their young lives and yet still have barriers stemming from a variety of reasons through no fault of their own.

Prioritizing teens’ needs to identify gaps and cultivating operations can ensure that they are not overshadowed by the insertion of creative tech and gadgetry when we cultivate teen spaces. Addressing their needs then can open up avenues of their interests that could turn into educational and economic opportunity. These remain superficial investigations into practices of bridging digital literacy gaps stemming from various factors. Further investigation, alongside concrete metrics, would certainly be needed to continue to determine how we, as library professionals, can most efficiently address the user and their needs in library services.

By Ricci Yuhico, Managing Librarian, Young Adult Services

The New York Public Library



1.  Institute of Museum and Library Services. “Learning Labs in
Libraries and Museums:Transformative Spaces for Teens.” Accessed October 2018.

2.  Kiley Larson, Mizuko Ito, Eric Brown, Mike Hawkins, Nichole Pinkard, Penny Sebring, “Safe Space and Shared Interests.” Accessed October 2018.

3. Ricci Yuhico, “The Studio Operations Manual,” (unpublished report for administrators, Broward County Library, December 2016).

4, 5.  “Income by Zip,” Cubit Planning, Inc. Accessed October 2018.

Data of the most recent U.S. Census Bureau aggregated by Cubit Planning Inc’s Income by Zipcode website.

While this article does not delve into the history of race and segregation of the area, it is imperative to make note of it and its ongoing influence. 

6, 7. John Horrigan, Maeve Duggan, “Home Broadband 2015
The share of Americans with broadband at home has plateaued, and more rely only on their smartphones for online access,” Dec. 21, 2015. Accessed October 2018.

8.  Amanda Lenhart, Mary Madden, Aaron Smith, and Alexandra MacGill, “Teens and Social Media,” PEW Research, Dec. 19, 2007. Accessed October 2018.

9.  Amanda Lenhart, “Teens, Social Media & Technology Overview 2015,” PEW Research, April 9, 2015. Accessed October 2018.

10.  Greg Toppo, “Digital library aims to expand kids' media literacy,” USA Today (Chicago, IL), Oct. 10, 2011.

11.  Ricci Yuhico, “The Studio Soft Opening Review,” (unpublished report for administrators, Broward County Library, 2016).

12. “Census Demographics at the NYC City Council district (CNCLD) level.” NYC OpenData. Accessed October 2018.

13. “Teen Central: Donnell Library Center | The New York Public Library.” The WayBack Machine: The New York Public Library. Accessed November 2018.

14. Further emphasis on quantitative data collection are needed to provide metrics to enhance the qualitative evidence provided here.