Reaching Teens Subversively through Passive Programming

Looking for a way to implement programming at your library, but strapped for cash, staff, or time? Want an easy—and maybe even subversive—way to reach teens? Passive programming is the answer.

Defining Passive Programming

Passive programming engages teens in the library without requiring much from staff in terms of supervision. It can be applied by those of all experience and comfort levels, making it an ideal solution for those who aren’t necessarily teen experts or when staff is simply spread too thin. It’s non-threatening, as well as flexible for implementation and participation.

There are two aspects of passive techniques: programming and readers’ advisory. The first focuses on activities teens can do in or with the library. The second focuses on highlighting the library’s collection while providing reading recommendations for and by teens. Both allow for incorporating local interests and hitting popular trends. For example, book displays or reading recommendations could highlight books for teen fans of Downton Abbey or Glee, and these interests could be met through simple programming like word searches, puzzles, or trivia contests about either of these television shows. Often, passive programming and passive readers’ advisory can be one in the same—if you develop a display of books for teens who are fascinated by My Little Pony, you could use teen-written reviews to promote those titles. 

By providing passive programming, teens experience something novel each time they return to the library, encouraging them to continue coming back. It’s also of benefit to staff, as it requires little in terms of time or money, and it can help avoid issues of burn out. Passive programming fits in any size space and within any library structure. Making it a part of regular library services showcases commitment to and interest in building and sustaining teen-focused services.

Who Does Passive Programming Reach?

Reaching teens is complicated. Often, those who would likely be involved in library programs have other after-school activities competing for their time. Teens may find it tough to commit to traditional programs, or may not remember when to show up for an event. Passive activities, however, encourage library use on teen schedules—not yours.

Moreover, not every teen who comes to the library wants to engage in traditional programming. Introverted teens—who account for nearly half of the teen population, according to author Susan Cain (Quiet, Crown, 2012)—have different needs than those who aren’t. Traditional programming that may be loud and crowded can make introverts uncomfortable, especially if they’re surrounded by strangers. Quieter teens aren’t going to show up because putting themselves out there in these environments is unappealing.

We tend to cater programming to the teens who are more vocal and more visible in the library since they’re easiest to reach. By doing that though, we miss a wide swath of teens, some who may want to be more involved with the library but aren’t likely to approach a librarian. Likewise, it’s easy to overlook the teens who aren’t library users but could become regulars, particularly if they can be involved through social media. Passive programming helps prove you are interested in reaching teens on numerous levels and through more than one avenue. Offering passive options invites teens to participate in ways that make them feel comfortable, in their own space, and on their own time.

Passive activities can serve as a gateway to traditional participation for teens suspicious of your enthusiasm for them and their well-being. If you are consistent with implementation and teens observe that, they will internalize the belief that the library is a place to do interesting things. Passive programming is subversive—teens see, engage, and connect with the library without ever once being told what they’re doing is good for them. And bonus: the input you get from teens via these programs helps you better tailor your collection, your services, and your knowledge of your own teen population.

Passive Programming Ideas

Now that you have an idea of why passive programming matters and who it reaches, how about some actual program ideas? Remember: some of these will work better than others, some may pair well with one another, and some may become so popular you choose to offer them more regularly than others. Every library is different, as is every teen population, and there is no shame in failing.

  • Butcher paper questions: Ask teens questions about anything—pop culture, books they’re reading, their favorite class at school, what their dream jobs are. The point is to let teens share. The benefit of such a simple program is that it also gives you an idea of what teen interests are locally, allowing you to adapt your programs and collections accordingly.

  • QR scavenger hunt: Leave clues around the teen area in the form of QR codes.

  • Traditional scavenger hunts: Use digital photos to lead teens through clues or hide something in the library for teens to discover through a series of clues.

  • Themed word searches or puzzles: You could incorporate prizes such as movie tickets or books if it corresponds with the search. For example, raffle a pair of tickets to see “The Mortal Instruments” when it comes out next summer to teens who complete a corresponding word search.

  • Shrinky Dinks: Keep a toaster oven/hair dryer/heat gun at the reference desk for teens to use. Bonus if this can happen at a teen service desk, as you’d have a chance to engage with teens as they create their projects.

  • Ninja challenges: These quiet, minute-to-win-it type skill challenges can also involve social media. Have teens build creative card houses or marshmallow castles with toothpicks, snap pictures and post them to the teen Facebook page.

  • Trivia: Traditional, lift-the-flap, look-in-the-bag, butcher paper, and scavenger hunt trivia can also incorporate incentives and/or tie into traditional programs you may have planned.

  • QR book displays: Link to trailers made professionally or by local teens. Encourage teens to make a vid and you’ll put the QR code on the book/display.

  • QR book reviews: Link to teen book reviews on your library’s blog/Facebook page with a QR code on the book jacket or in a bullet board with a copy of the book jacket.

  • Voting: Have teens vote for state book awards, YALSA’s Teens Top Ten, the new paint color in the department, new furniture, or what new manga series to purchase next. Teens love having their voices heard, so give them the chance, and take their suggestions seriously.

  • Shelf talkers: Write—or have teens write—small recommendations for favorite reads or favorite movies in the teen area and display them on the shelf near the item.

  • Window painting: Let teens paint your windows for youth art month in March or tie painting to themes for summer reading, the seasons, or anything else. You could also make this a contest by assigning teens an area to paint and then voting on the most creative/scariest/funniest during a set period of time.

  • Guess the book by the tweet: Write a series of 140-character tweets from characters in popular teen books. Have teens write and share their own. Here’s an example of this program. This could be done with Facebook statuses too—what status would a famous character write?

  • Blackout poetry: In April, use library discards and allow teens to make their own blackout poetry. Here’s an example of this program.

  • Book facing: Have a display of books with faces on them, then have the teens match their faces with the ones on the book cover. They could use their phones to take the photos and post to the library’s Facebook or email to the librarian to post. Post the pictures on your Facebook/blog and had teens vote on their favorites. Carroll County Public Library keeps a great series of book faces to show you how to do it.

  • Origami: Print out instructions, leave some paper, and let the teens fold away. Have a space for teens to display their creations.

  • Crosswords and coloring: Give teens puzzles and a place to get out creative energy. Leave a cup of colored pencils or crayons out.

  • Magnetic poetry: Have a white board/magnetic object that’s portable (but not too portable) with a box of magnetic poetry on it.

  • “Program in a box”: Create a series of “programs in a box” that can be checked out from the ref/service desk for teens. Have a few rolls of duct tape in a box with ideas for creating duct tape items, thread and instructions for making friendship bracelets, supplies and instructions for marble magnets, embroidery floss and instructions for covering iPod earbuds, and other simple craft ideas that can be done without supervision. This could be a great grant-seeking project.

  • Guerilla positivity: Promote positive activities like Poem in a Pocket, writing positive messages on paper hearts and leaving them in books or other places in their daily lives, creating Post Secret-style confessions and sharing them in the teen department, sharing favorite jokes or fun facts and posting them in the teen area or in other places they frequent.

  • Photography/art contest: Give teens a photograph challenge on a theme or ask them to redesign a cover in the teen department using art or digital techniques. Load the entries onto Facebook and have teens vote on the best one with the “like” button.

  • Popsicle stick bookmarks: Put craft sticks in the teen area with markers or sharpies—depending on your comfort level—and let them create. You could do the same with other materials, such as paint swatches, fabric, or scrapbook paper.

Implementing Passive Programming

Passive techniques can be as simple or complicated as you make them. Start small—write up a few shelf talkers featuring book reviews written by you or, better yet, reviews written by teens. Tack up a length of butcher paper to the end of a stack or a wall in the teen space and ask teens their thoughts on why they loved or hated a recent movie or what they thought of the KStew/RPatz relationship. It doesn’t have to be soul searching or even directly related to library services. The point is to get them to engage with the world around them and to foster that engagement as it connects to the library.

Planning and prepping passive programs in advance can help with consistency. When work gets busy or inspiration is running dry, having a list of ideas from which to pull makes implementation easier. It’s also beneficial in thinking about how you’d like to run passive programming—how regularly do you want to swap out ideas? Do you want to wait until materials run out? Ideally, you want something new each time a teen is in the library, so running programs on bi-weekly or monthly intervals may be best. Putting that to paper makes it a commitment.

It’s tempting to repeat a successful program, but even if you have the great success with craft programs, balance them with other tactics or you risk limiting your audience. As your passive programs grow, you could offer more than one activity at a time, giving more leeway if one is more popular than another. To reach as many teens as possible, it’s important to try new things and make as many options available as possible for all teen users. Not all teens want crafts, so balance it with tech games, scavenger hunts, and other challenges.

Passive Programming Challenges

Be prepared to fail. It’s okay and it’s inevitable.

Not every activity will be a success, and it might take several months for your teens to catch on to your programming. Be willing to let go of total control over everything. Sometimes materials will walk, and that’s okay. If you are concerned about losing supplies, modify your programs based on what you are willing to lose. Don’t get worked up over minor things—you can replace paper or pencils. If you fear greater theft or damage issues, reevaluate how the program is set up. Could it be moved? Require checking out of material? Assess your comfort with potential loss before implementing a program: if you’re okay losing some crayons for coloring, then leave them out. If not, have teens borrow them from a service desk.

Keeping an eye on passive programs doesn’t require more from you or staff than what you’re already doing—part of the daily routine likely involves wandering through the area where the program lives periodically each day, so maintain that practice. Check on the set-up, straighten it, refill supplies, and take care of anything that may have cropped up since your last tour. Teens can get an unfair reputation when it comes to their behavior, but chances are they respect the activities and space provided to them. If you do encounter problems, though, talk with the teens and remind them the library expects the same level of behavior as their school does. Teens don’t want to lose their privileges, and laying out the rules clearly reminds them of this.

Technology is both a blessing and a curse with passive programming. Be conscious of the digital divide when planning. Make sure if you use technology and have the resources available in your library that teens have access to it, and always try to provide alternative means of participation. For instance, if you do a program that incorporates QR codes, and your library has an iPod that can be used, make it lendable to teens. If you have to, limit when it can be lent to times when you are on the desk, and note that on your publicity. Use QR codes in conjunction with website addresses for those teens who may be unable to access a device that reads QR codes or want to run through the program when a lendable device is unavailable. And as with any theme, swap your programs so that you don’t offer only tech-heavy programs regularly.

Publicizing Passive Programming

We like to frame passive programming as a subversive way to reach teens, but teens still need to know what’s going on and where to find it. This necessitates some level of publicity. It doesn’t need to be hard, though—use resources you already have in place, like your blog, website, and social media outlets like Facebook. Contact local schools and provide signage and table toppers, or have them share your programs during daily announcements. Get in touch with the school’s newspaper or A/V club, if they have them; there is an opportunity for the teens themselves to write about or come into the library and showcase what’s there for them. Hit up the school yearbook group, too, and have them highlight projects students are working on in the library.

Likewise, talk about passive programming during your normal class visits or set up a table at lunch and let students give the activities a try. Work with teachers and consider themed curricular tie-ins. Just make sure to keep them fun and to a minimum so it doesn’t seem like homework.

The most powerful tool for promotion you have is word of mouth from the teens themselves. Talk to teens in the library, and use your teen advisory groups—they can not only help you promote passive programming, but they can help you develop it, giving them ownership. They’re also your beta testers: try your ideas out on them and use their results to gauge interest and success.

It can be challenging to get a new program started, particularly if participation doesn’t require teens to “attend” anything. Continuing to leave materials available, switching up the programs, and showcasing the art, book reviews, and other artifacts that come from those who participate will make it more obvious to other teens what’s going on and that they are welcome to get involved. Continue to talk up programs whenever you get the chance. See a teen looking bored, or edging on disruptive in the library? Direct them to your teen area/where you’ve got programs set up.

Incentivize Passive Programming, or Not?

Incentives are a loaded practice and can get expensive. We don’t want to create a culture of rewards, since many activities are a reward in and of themselves. However, some programs can lend themselves to special incentives, and there are many options for offering incentives that don’t cost anything. Often these are the things that teens find exciting—it’s something that can make them feel special and appreciated. Be creative with what you already have. Ideas include:

  • Extra time on public computers.
  • Ability to reserve their favorite table or chair in the library for a given period of time.
  • Allowing teens the chance to make overhead announcements of events or closing.
  • Giving a backstage tour of the library.
  • Offering first crack at checking out brand new books, movies, games, or music.
  • Ability to choose what the next program for the teen department.
  • Letting winners have display input through:
    • Choosing month-long displays on themes.
    • Creating the displays themselves.
    • Have the displays in the teen area be of that teen’s favorite books (i.e, this month’s favorite books brought to you by Tessa, 16, who won the passive program titled “x”).
    • Feature their art/hobby/collection on display if you have a display case.

If you want to promote a special program or have a little extra cash in your budget, a few monetary rewards could include:

  • movie tickets;
  • finished copies of books (or Advanced Reader Copies, a no-cost incentive for staff who have and donate them);
  • coupons to local businesses;
  • fine reduction cards;
  • money toward printing or copying costs at the library; or
  • coupons for free DVD/game rentals if your library charges for them.

Involving Staff

Continuously updating and communicating with staff is essential. Let them know when programs are going to be switched up, when they may be asked a question about supplies or how a program works, and whether they might have to lend items to teens from a service desk. Have staff participate in some of the programming themselves to become familiar with it. This promotes a sense of ownership and familiarity, especially important with technology programs. It also encourages staff buy-in of new ideas—if you take the time to let them try their hand at something, the likelihood of staff encouraging teens to participate increases.

Be sure to set clear expectations of what staff will do within any program. Passive programming isn’t staff intensive, so there should be little or no role for them, aside from answering a periodic question or lending materials. They need not be responsible for things like cleaning up or changing out the programs unless explicitly asked.

Measuring Outcomes

How do you know if you are successful? Some passive programs lend themselves to easier data collection than others. If materials needed to be checked out, that’s easy to count. For incentivized programs, prize entries are an easy way to count participation. For non-incentivized programs, note how many supplies were used—if you print word games and leave them in the teen area, keep track of copies made and how many times materials were refilled. Get creative with technology, too—keep track of hits to your blog, comments, and “likes” on Facebook for different programs you run through social media.

Remember this is subtle programming. Because it’s not meant to be in the teens’ faces, there might not be a good way to measure outcome. Give staff a heads up, and have them mention it to you if they see a teen engaging with you are doing. Have tally sheets in the staff area for staff to mark each time they see teens interacting with your passive techniques. A big part of passive programing is giving up some measures of control, and accurate statistics and usage counts is an example where letting go may be necessary.

Personal Experiences

On a personal level, we’ve found passive programming to be a great addition to traditional offerings in each of our libraries. Kelly, who worked for a small library serving a population of roughly 10,000 at the time, found a more than 500 percent increase in teen participation in the summer reading club, and she credits much of it to restructuring the program so it included a significant passive program component. Teens were able to join in fun by not just reading to earn prizes, but also through doing word puzzles, creating art, and doing other library-centric activities on their own time. Likewise, her implementation of a QR code scavenger hunt for Teen Tech Week in 2011 invited rural teens to explore technology in a safe environment and in a way that they may otherwise not have had the opportunity to, due to not being in a tech-centric community. Book displays and shelf talkers—passive readers’ advisory techniques—throughout the teen area of her current job at a semi-urban public library serving roughly 45,000 have invited teens to explore new titles and meet new genres.

The community Jackie works in is a mix of urban and suburban, and while city residents number just 36,000, it is a hub city just north of Seattle, so the library serves a much larger population than those who live within city bounds. Extensive retail options draw vast numbers into the community everyday. In 2012, 478,000 people came through the library doors ,and 1.2 million items were checked out from her library, with almost 90,000 of that number from the teen collection. Jackie will admit that she knows more teens who head straight to the nearby mall than to the library after school. However, her teen advisory board (TAB) has run with passive programming. At least 60 percent of the upcoming ideas have come from that group, who named it The Weekly Whatever. They stressed to Jackie that they absolutely must have finished examples and a way to share (and show off) results with other teens. The ownership and enthusiasm that the TAB has taken out of this project has been the unexpected reward—increased traffic is a side benefit!

Final Thoughts

While we might want all teens in our communities to recognize the hard work, creativity, and awesomeness that goes into teen services, we have to remember that patrons of all ages interact with the library in different ways and on different levels. That’s absolutely normal. Passive programming gives teens another avenue and level in which to interact and connect with the library. It will hopefully lead to larger, more obvious engagement, but even if it doesn’t, even if a teen never once actually participates in a passive program, those teens will still have seen the effort. Whether or not they embrace the activities, it communicates to them that they are wanted and valued; that the teen area is truly their space. That’s the long game. We want patrons, no matter their age, to understand that they own the library.

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