The sound of youthful laughter carries down the hallway as I approach my destination, passing an 8-foot-tall graffiti mural. From the colorful couches, collage posters, and the lively mood, my first guess for the setting of this room would probably not be the Oakland Public Library.
Some may imagine the public library as a stuffy, silent echo-chamber staffed by a bunch of out-of-touch old cat ladies. A place that, as a teen, I might not have imagined too far off from the scenario in this classic All That skit:
But Oakland Charter High School freshman Nohami Sefer tells me that she comes to the library for the atmosphere. “It’s like my dream room,” she says of the Teen Zone. “It’s our place, where they let us be us.” She’s in the Teen Zone nearly every day after school to meet with friends from other schools, listen to music, and get in some obligatory homework. “We can do whatever we want. They trust us.”
Lana Adlawan, Teen Services Librarian, says, “the Teen Zone is built on a culture of acceptance, where all are welcomed and respected.” Signs demarcating the hater-free space are posted on the walls around the room.
The library is very successful at bringing in teens to use its services. Lana says it’s not enough to just get teens in the door. If you want them coming back, she says, you have to consider how to keep them engaged. Innovation and out-of-the-box thinking is the key to keeping teens interested and involved. It’s this unique approach that led Teen Outreach librarian Amy Sonnie to hook up a custom-built mobile library to her bike to ride around this year’s Life is Living Festival.
The library staff does an excellent job of collaborating with community organizations and doing community outreach in order to meet the teens where they are. Lana says the the important message they’re sharing is that “the library is not just in the building.” In line with its mission to “delight, inform, and inspire,” the library partners with organizations to bring fresh, new ideas to the institution. More importantly, staff seek to bring in outside resources to expose teens to the world around them that they might not otherwise have access to. The Summer Passport program is one example of this. It incentivizes teens to get out and explore free resources outside of the library in their own neighborhoods and around the city.
The library also offers numerous leadership development opportunities to Oakland youth. Partnering with Community Technology Network, the library hosts Ready, Set, Connect! to develop youths’ professional technology skills. Working in teams and individually, teens work to solve problems and tutor library patrons one-on-one in basic computing skills. Additionally, the Youth Leadership Council provides youth all over Oakland the opportunity to create and advocate for their own programs and make lasting mentor relationships.
The teen zone has been around for more than 13 years in the Oakland Public Library, and in Lana’s opinion, is well funded, well used, and well loved. There are currently six Teen Zones — larger recreational spaces like the one at the Main Library — at the César E. Chávez, Rockridge, Eastmont, 81st Avenue, and Asian branches.