Advice From the Experts: Getting Teens Engaged in Hybrid Meetings

Many of us feel confident hosting events in person, and after these last few years, some of us feel confident running virtual events as well. But it can feel a bit more intimidating to think of doing both formats at once in a hybrid event.

Depending on your goals, a hybrid option may work best for you. Jennifer Brinley, teen services manager at Scarsdale (N.Y.) Public Library, and Amanda Cawthon, senior librarian, youth services at Pflugerville (Texas) Public Library, each decided to give hybrid a try for their teen programs. I spoke to Brinley and Cawthon to find out what they learned in the process.

Illustration shows a group of people working in a library setting. Some people are working at desks with laptops open, others are browsing for books and reading.
Teens can be a tricky group to engage. How have you found successful participation from teens in a hybrid setting?

Can you start by providing a brief background of the communities that your libraries serve?

Cawthon: Pflugerville is a suburb of Austin, Texas, and is home to about 60,000 to 70,000 residents. There are a lot of businesses moving to the area, so it is growing very quickly. For instance, Amazon just opened up a fulfillment center here recently. It is a very diverse community.

Brinley: Scarsdale is just outside of New York City in Westchester County. It is the wealthiest community on the east coast. Our patrons love their library and just helped to fund a $21 million renovation. The library is located directly next door to the local high school, so we get a lot of high schoolers and recent graduates making use of the space. The teen services department and teen room are brand new and were created as part of the renovation.

Can you describe the teen programs that you facilitate in a hybrid format?

Cawthon: The DiversiTeen book club was founded in 2016 and now has about 16 teens signed up for the summer session. We meet year-round, once a month. One of the goals of the club is to expand the teens’ reading experience, so we try to read different genres, and I offer suggestions of books with a wide range of representation within the stories as well. Another important aspect of the club is to give the teens a safe space to come and share their thoughts.

The DiversiTeen book club originally started because the local high school didn’t have a GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) club, and even though now they do have one, we wanted to continue to offer a safe space for teens to come and meet.

Brinley: There was some strategic planning done as part of the library renovation, and the idea for the teen advisory board came from the momentum of that planning. The teen advisory board started in March 2021 and meets monthly during the school year. They help organize various inter-generational clubs for the library, including a crochet club for younger kids, a picture book club for children, and a chess club for teens and senior citizens. Another project is helping with the library’s TikTok channel, so I have a few teens who make the videos that we post every few weeks. It is great to tap into the expertise and energy that they have because I don’t know how to make a TikTok!

Jennifer, why did you decide to offer the teen advisory board meetings in a hybrid format?

Brinley: Once the Zoom option for meetings was created, I didn’t want to take away that option for people. We wanted the kids to know about this brand-new space and have the opportunity and excuse to come to use the new teen space in the library, so it made sense for us to offer this in a hybrid format. Teens have not always been at the forefront of libraries in terms of groups that have been welcome or catered to in the library space, so we are working to gain momentum in the community and let them know about the new teen room.

Amanda, how did your DiversiTeen book club meetings change as a result of hosting them in a hybrid format?

Cawthon: A downside is that technical difficulties can be an issue and can be a bit of a limitation. On the other hand, hosting the book club meetings in a hybrid format gives teens the ability to consistently participate, even if they can’t physically be in the library. That has always been a barrier for some teens, as there are very limited public transportation options in Pflugerville, so it gives those who don’t live close to the library an option to still participate.

What is the teens’ engagement like in the hybrid format?

Cawthon: The teens have fun with it! I do encourage them to keep their videos on and speak out loud instead of just using the chat function so everyone in the room can see and hear their contributions. It can be harder for new teens in the club to gain that camaraderie with their peers virtually, so it is great to have the in-person option to help gain that comfort with each other. The talking and chatting from the in-person group helps to draw out participation from the virtual group.

Brinley: Last month, we had four kids come in-person and two kids who Zoomed in. We normally have more teens on Zoom. I would wish for the meetings to be a bit more interactive on a continual basis, but there is always more engagement if a teen is discussing one of the upcoming programs that they are hosting or running.

What are the pros and cons of having these meetings hybrid?

Cawthon: The only cons are really the occasional technical difficulties that might arise and the fact that some of the virtual participants can feel a bit of a disconnect from the group, so it’s important to be mindful of engaging them just as much as the in-person group. The pro is that it truly offers so much more flexibility. We have some teens that are super engaged, come to every single meeting, participate in the conversation, and they attend virtually! I like that we can offer this format because otherwise, it wouldn’t have been available for those teens to come. In fact, one of the teens is in India for the summer, but they still joined the meeting even though it was 5 a.m. in her time zone. A pretty cool benefit of offering a hybrid program!

Brinley: The flexibility of being able to attend in-person or virtually is a great pro. The con is that the kids don’t get to know each other as well as they might if it was an entirely in-person group. At the same time, I definitely think that Zoom is a wonderful tool and can offer a great alternative for introverts to participate without having to see the group in-person and travel to the library each month.

What tips do you have for other librarians who might want to try hosting hybrid meetings as well?

Cawthon: I would suggest looking into the technology options you can set up to make your life easier. Make a point of laughing about any technical difficulties that you do have and don’t make it irksome or frustrating during the meeting. Also, it’s important to engage your virtual participants just as much as the in-person teens so that they feel united as a group.

Brinley: Hybrid offers the maximum accessibility for attendees. There can be assumptions of privilege in terms of everyone having the devices and technology to attend virtual meetings (for instance, access to a laptop, webcam and WiFi). If someone does not have that technology accessible to them, they are able to come in-person and be a part of the group in that way. Also, get feedback from the teens on what is working for them and what they would like to change. I am lucky that we are able to accommodate many of those needs as we have a dedicated teen services department now.

Funding for this article has been provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) as part of the American Rescue Plan: Humanities Organization Grant.