Digital Media in Community Libraries, Part 2: Teen Websites

Teen websites are separate (cyber)spaces within the library environment (or places as Anne Balsamo cited Michel deCerteau’s distinction between the two). Contrasted to the offline, “brick and mortar” libraries typified by quiet and decorum, these websites represent spaces only for teens, and appropriated by teens. Just as libraries are now embracing mobile technologies, evidenced in Cara’s last post, so too are they embracing Web 2.0 technologies. As long as libraries have had websites, they have had pages dedicated to kids and teens (as well as other patron groups like teachers and adults). This recent iteration of teen websites represents a marked progression from merely providing information to opportunities for participation, creation, and social connection. We are calling these web sites and not web pages because of the extent to which they go beyond the one-way transmission of information and utilize new digital technologies, offering numerous links that truly contribute to a “networked distributed learning environment.”

The Pew Internet and American Life Project study cited by Maura Klosterman in a previous post (Estabrook et al, 2007) found that “more people turned to the Internet than any other source of information and support, including experts, family members, government agencies, or libraries” (p. v). Libraries have websites for the same reasons they embrace mobile technologies. Cara stated the following reasons; 1) to expand the range of content available, 2) to offer a fuller menu of services, and 3) as a new mode of public outreach. Teen websites, however, are targeted to a more specific group defined solely by its age, but possessing features such as informal, sociable, with a propensity for play and experimentation. Teens are more eager for participatory experiences, more receptive to visual and aural stimuli, and more comfortable using new technologies. This is also a group marked by personal struggles and peer pressures as teens pass through this transformative life stage. As community libraries, these modern institutions surpass their historic charge to preserve their collections by providing a public service and fostering a sense of community (in the all-embracing modern sense of a public, not the Habermasian elite public). It is this social responsibility – directed partly, but significantly to youth – that drives libraries to provide greater access to their collections online, to have strong educational programs and offer opportunities to participate, share, and contribute, both onsite and online. Teenagers are future library patrons, writers, and even funders and public officials, and libraries are keen to cultivate their interest, involvement, and loyalty from an early age, much like the corporate sector that fosters early habits of consumption with their brand communities.

New Efforts

First let us look at a few noteworthy library teen websites in the US, and then we can discuss what is meant by these online communities, as well as some of their benefits and repercussions. In Colorado, the Denver Public Library named their teen website eVolver, because evolving minds want to know… The sidebar has the following sections: Homework Help, Ask a Librarian, Look it Up, Find a Good Book, Get Involved, Entertainment/Media, and Life. The site features staff and teen picks for books, teens’ top ten nominees, a tag cloud for their new catalog, sign up for e-newsletters, my library card (personal account), teen events and classes, and a link to their MySpace page with a teen blog. eVolver also has an account on Flickr for teens to post their photography and art, and on Twitter. Teens can post original writings in the Writer’s Realm and write book reviews, there is help on how to start a blog, links to an external teen chat forum, and podcasts created by teens during the Teen Tech Week podcast workshop. An online scavenger hunt encourage teens to get a book from the library and read it to win prizes, and there is live chat 24/7 with a librarian, as well as contact email and telephone information. There are numerous external links for writers’ resources, online games, comics/anime, online magazines, and information related to many personal topics in the Life section (money, sexuality, spirituality, safety, body, future, world, relationships, etc.). The Get Involved section also provides information and links regarding activism and volunteering.

The New York Public Library’s teen website is called Teenlink. Much like Denver, there is Homework Help, Events @ the Library, Library Services, and lists of recommended books by the library. Wordsmiths is “a Web anthology of writings by teenagers” including poems and short stories that can be submitted online. Link-o-Rama has links to authors, books and ‘zines, and NYC Teen info; also Weird & Wacky has other fun links, and a link to eNYPL provides free video/audio/eBook downloads. Teenlink’s account on Facebook currently has 6,539 fans, and they present MP3s created by teens at the library called Turn it Up! @ the Library (NYC Teens Talk out LOUD). Also like Denver, there is a section called Teen Life with information and external links on issues including consumer education, spirituality, family, health and well-being, relationships and sexuality, activism, and links to jobs and hotlines.

The Chicago Public Library’s website is called For Teens (Teen Volume), and includes Library Programs and Partnerships, Popular Topics, How to…, Book Reviews by teens, Homework Help, Teen Volume Reads (author interviews by library staff), and Internet Safety. There is also an online events calendar for teens, Ask a Librarian (by telephone, email, or physical visit), and a section called Brain Candy listing books related to personal topics such as money, dating, sex, teen rights, parents splitting, and getting fit.

It is important to note that public libraries in smaller communities are just as successfully incorporating digital technologies on their websites. The teen website of the Jacksonville Public Library in Florida (JPL for teens!) contains a chart on its homepage labeled library 2.0 with links to its pages on Flickr, MySpace (featuring a teen drawing contest), YouTube, their teen department blog (institutional), feeds, and teen book review podcasts. The Sonoma County Library in California is called teenspace, and has a blog with book reviews by teens, a list of teen events, tags, RSS feed, sign-up for email subscription and Next Reads (monthly book recommendations by email).

Online Communities

A community is comprised of individuals connected to other individuals, which are then connected to a larger entity that brings these individuals and groups together through a common bond based on shared interests, goals, or activities. An online community, much like any physical community, requires that individuals feel they belong to a group and understand the norms or rules of that group, that they share not only interests, but also goals, traditions and activities, that there is direct interaction and communication between individuals within the community, and that individuals contribute to the community. This last aspect is especially critical to knowledge-sharing communities of practice such as businesses, academia, open-source software, online publishing, as well as the modern community library.

Robert Putnam (2000) urges us to think about social capital as a public good that can be nurtured and used for the greater benefit of society, but today he cites a decline in civic involvement and a “breakdown of community.” By using their websites to facilitate social interaction, bonding already existing relationships and bridging new relationships, libraries can play their part in fostering a greater sense of community with their online patrons. Social capital can be accrued through social interaction and networking, both offline and online, based on reciprocity and trust, mutual obligations, and norms of conduct. While individual networking and communication is important, the larger social network is more important to provide the infrastructure for strong connections (links) within society. The well-connected library provides for well-connected individuals to achieve social capital that can then be used to benefit the community.

Communal action and a sense of community (to both the library institution and the general public) provide teens with valuable skills needed for a deliberative democracy. Robert Asen (2004) talks about how citizenship engagement is necessary for democratic societies, formed through the acts of “generativity, risk, commitment, creativity, and sociability” (1). Pluralism is prized within a democracy, and respect for pluralist ideas, opinions, and backgrounds is generated by these websites that present diverse examples of writing and artwork, and also diverse opinions and reactions by teens. By empowering teens with some decisions about the website design, book reviews, author interviews and podcasts, teens are learning to become more active and involved in public acts, thereby helping to produce a more engaged citizenry with strong leadership skills. The US Institute of Museum and Library Services’ (IMLS) final report of their youth programs from 1998 to 2003 (Koke & Dierking, 2007), as well as their companion publication, Nine to Nineteen: Youth in Museums and Libraries, discuss how to best include youth in the design and implementation of programs and provide valuable suggestions for practitioners (57).

In his recent MacArthur Foundation white paper (2007), Henry Jenkins presents a list of what he considers to be the literacies that youth need for the 21st century (play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, judgment, networking, negotiation, transmedia navigation, collective intelligence). Jenkins describes these literacies as “cultural competencies and social skills” for a participatory culture where the focus has shifted to community involvement, collaboration, and networking. Furthermore, he calls for “policy and pedagogical interventions” in order to foster these literacies, specifically mentioning schools, afterschool programs, and parents. We can add libraries to this list as a place of informal learning, and one already engaging youth in a comprehensive manner. Jenkins states, “Everyone involved in preparing young people to go out into the world has contributions to make in helping students acquire the skills they need to become full participants in our society.”

Analysis

Teen websites have the potential to actively engage teens for the purpose of encouraging reading, writing, and other creative and scholastic pursuits that are at the core of library goals. To accomplish this great feat, libraries must provide an online experience that is fun, relative to their lives, and allows for social interaction (both online and onsite). Teens must be given ample opportunities for discourse and self-expression (verbal, visual, and written), and also space for opposition to normative values that are often embodied by the very institution of libraries. In writing about online motivational factors for Wikipedia, Rafaeli and Ariel (2008) cite a study by Joyce and Kraut (2006) that determined “users who contribute more content to an online community were more likely to repeat their participation in that community” (249). Also a study by Ling et al. (2005) found that users contribute more “if they believe that their contributions are important to the group’s performance, if they believe that their contributions will be identifiable, and if they like the group they are working with” (250).

The following nine categories comprise a contextual framework for analyzing individual elements of teen websites to determine if they constitute online communities: 1) generates feeling of belonging to a group, 2) promotes shared activities, 3) promotes shared goals and interests, 4) dissemination of museum information, 5) provides an understanding of museum norms/goals, 6) provides for peer-to-peer connection, 7) community contributions, 8) connection to a physical community/museum group, and 9) provides for interaction/dialogue. It is important for teens to receive information about the overall library community, but it is equally important for them to be able to participate and share their opinions and creations with peers and the general public. Providing links to external organizations and institutions is also vital to creating a networked environment; the IMLS states that “many funding agencies consider partnerships an effective strategy for reaching audiences, leveraging resources, and building organizational capacity” (51, 2007).

Yet teen websites also might have unforeseen consequences to their success. In creating their own content, teens contribute to a displacement of hierarchical knowledge within the library as a pedagogical institution. Do libraries maintain their authority by controlling content from teen websites, and does this explain the marginalization of “teen” content that is labeled as such? Is the Internet an appropriate space for this struggle; is the library an appropriate place? Specific points for further study on the matter could focus on how online teen spaces differ from their physical programs (teen advisory councils), how the production value of these websites are incorporated back into the library, how much the websites are open to public participation, and what is the motivation to view and/or contribute. Also of interest is, if the segregation of the physical and online spaces is a factor of their success, what is the nature of such relationship, and how is success measured. The website participants may start as library visitors (and repeatedly return as members of library-based teen programs), but new visitors may have no knowledge of or even interest in the physical library. Does that even matter, and to whom?

Conclusion

Teens are now highly valued as representing the “pulse of contemporary culture.” Teens are studied extensively throughout the academic world, and they are the focus of market researchers and trend forecasters that depend on their constant search for the latest product, on their free spirit of experimentation, and on their strong social networks to spread information virally.

Feminist theorist Nancy Fraser states that public spheres are “arenas for the formation and enactment of social identities” (1992, 125). The teen websites are such a public sphere, critical for individual development because they reflect societal norms; they are spaces where public opinions are formed, and where participation and discourse are encouraged. Teens determine not only their individual proclivities through action, but also how they fit into society and negotiate their own identities. This is probably the best argument to maintain basic institutional control.

During times of change in our society, it is important to identify the spaces where change is taking place, where “public opinion” is being created, and where future leaders are being formed. Teen websites not only benefit teens with an alternative space for expression and sharing, but they also benefit the libraries that depend on teens as their future patrons and to fulfill their social obligation. The great challenge for museums will be to encourage the formation of individual teen creativity and identity within a larger communal (institutional) space that also has its own identity and history.

References

Asen, R. (2004). A discourse theory of citizenship. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 90, 189-211.

Estabrook, L., Witt, E., Rainie, L. (2007, December 30). Information searches that solve problems: How people use the internet, libraries, and government agencies when they need help. Pew Internet & American Life Project: Washington, DC. Retrieved from: http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/Pew_UI_LibrariesReport.pdf

Fraser, N. Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy. In Craig Calhoun, ed. Habermas and the public sphere (Studies in contemporary German social thought). Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1992.

Jenkins, H., Clinton, K., Purushotma, R., Robinson, A. J. & Weigel, M. (2007). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Chicago, The MacArthur Foundation. Retrieved from: http://www.newmedialiteracies.org/files/working/NMLWhitePaper.pdf

Koke, J. & Dierking, L. Museums and libraries engaging America’s youth: Final report of a study of IMLS youth programs, 1998-2003. Washington, DC: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2007. Retrieved from: http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/3c/18/f2.pdf

Putnam, Robert D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Rafaeli, S., & Ariel, Y. (2008). Online motivational factors: Incentives for participation and contribution in Wikipedia. In A. Barak (Ed.), Psychological aspects of cyberspace: Theory, research, applications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 243-267.

Author’s Bio Susana Smith Bautista is a Ph.D. student and Provost Fellow at the Annenberg School of Communication, University of Southern California, where she also received her Masters degree in Art History/ Museum Studies. Her Bachelors degree is in Government from Pomona College. Susana has many years of experience in the art world in Los Angeles, New York, and Greece working with museums, commercial galleries and non-profit art spaces, curating exhibitions, lecturing, and writing art criticism. She was Executive Director of the Mexican Cultural Institute of Los Angeles, Editorial Director of www.LatinArt.com, and Associate with the Daniel Saxon Gallery. Susana also served the city of Pasadena, California, as Arts and Culture Commissioner for six years. At USC, Susana is researching the role of museums in the digital age, how new technologies are affecting traditional museum practices, and the global network of museums, arts institutions, and governmental bodies.