November 17, 2017

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Denver Teen Programs Revived, Thanks to Asset Mapping

New buddies relaxing in the Idea Lab at Denver Public Library. Photo courtesy of Denver Public LIbrary.

New buddies relaxing in the Idea Lab at the Central Library in Denver. Photo courtesy of Denver Public LIbrary.

On Fridays after school, pre-teens and teens gather at the Denver Public Library’s (DPL) Hampden Branch to play video and board games or do a craft activity. Every few months, they take over the branch after hours and play capture the flag. A new teen advisory group has also organized a book chat. A separate community room is dedicated as a teen space, the Idea Lab, for which the users set the rules.

It wasn’t long ago, however, that activities for teens didn’t exist at all. “We really had absolutely nothing that was specific for teens other than summer reading,” says Cara Fulmor, a library program associate at the Hampden branch, which is near schools and apartment buildings in an economically and ethnically diverse neighborhood in the southeastern part of the city. Now the teens are bringing their friends in and pushing to have a library sleepover.

“I would like to do [the sleepover] because there are obviously kids who are not coming into the library whom I would love to get in here,” Fulmor says, adding that a newcomer recently told her, “’I didn’t know libraries could do things like this.’ That just made me feel really happy.”

“They’ve taken ownership of the library in a completely different way,” Fulmor adds of the advisory group. “They’re into reading, and they want to get other kids excited about books and reading.”

The branch’s fresh focus on serving teen patrons is the result of a detailed community research project launched in 2013 by Michelle Jeske, city librarian for the 26-branch DPL. As a participant in the Public Library Association’s Leadership Academy, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, she needed to develop and implement a “real-world” project.

The video game and recording equipment in Hampden's Idea Lab are big draws.

The video game and recording equipment in the Idea Lab are big draws. Photo courtesy of Denver Public LIbrary.

 

Enter asset mapping

Jeske says it was clear to her that the Denver library system had a “poor history” of serving teens. While there were certainly staff members who were passionate about reaching that age group, the branches did not have teen librarians and there were no dedicated teen spaces. “Not only were we not serving them,” she says, “but we were not aware of what was going on out there.”

Led by Jeske, a committee of four other staff members turned to the work of Jody Kretzmann and John McKnight of the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, who created a process called Asset-Based Community Development. The model identifies community strengths instead of focusing on gaps. This “asset mapping” is actually the opposite of the more common term “Needs Assessment.” But the bottom line of both is often the same—increased funding.

The committee followed these clear-cut steps:

  1. They examined not only what was available within the library system for teens, but also identified organizations across the city that serve teens in some way. The final roster listed 45 groups, including departments within Denver Public Schools, agencies that are part of the city and county of Denver, and a wide variety of nonprofit organizations.
  2. They drafted questions for conducting interviews with representatives from those groups. While the committee’s preference was to do the interviews in person, 18 were conducted by phone or email. The questions were centered on what population of teens each group served, what issues they addressed now, and any challenges they anticipated in the future. They also asked about how the organizations reach out to teens and how they determine whether they are achieving their goals.
  3. Over 140 front-line staff members were surveyed to gather information on not only what library branches currently provided for teens, but also any barriers the service.
  4. Finally, through focus groups, the committee interviewed the members of the five teen advisory boards that existed at the time, as well as additional invited teens.

The takeaways

The committee identified some key themes about young people in Denver. Many teens show “a lack of preparedness” for a career, college, and life as young adults and are not thriving in a traditional school model. They found that many teens also lack support from family members at home and don’t have adequate access to health care, food, and housing. Some have also faced trauma in their lives. Perhaps most interesting, they also learned that a “community of emerging adults” over 18 was not being served and could still benefit from programs that target high school students.

As far as what was learned about staff that serve teens, both those from libraries and the outside groups said serving teens is challenging because their interests cover a wide range and are always changing. They vary “from location to location and from teen to teen,” they wrote in their report. “For example, what teens stated they want from their community ranged from food trucks to music festivals to shopping malls to teen social events.”

In the same way that DPL was unaware of what existed in the community, many of the youth-focused organizations in Denver didn’t know what the libraries provided for teens. So one of the committee’s biggest recommendations was increased communication and coordination. In their report, they wrote that they “believe the Library can connect teens to organizations that are able to provide services that the Library cannot; in this way, coordination between organizations achieves a greater impact than organizations working alone.” How can libraries help the other organizations that serve teens? By promoting their programs and providing meeting space.

Jeske said that raising the voices of teens has been another boon. An additional nine teen advisory boards have been formed across the system, bringing the total to 14.

An upshot of this process was more funding.  The library system responded to the findings by adding six full-time positions to focus on teens and expanding its STEM programs. The system also created four part-time youth assistant positions to provide a pathway for those who might be interested in pursuing library work in the future or working specifically with youth.

A ripple effect

Mayor Michael B. Hancock’s Children’s Cabinet, of which Jeske is a member, has started a fiscal mapping process to determine how much the city is currently spending on programs for youth. The goal of the effort is to direct funds toward high-quality programs, to make better decisions about spending and programs and to work more closely with schools and other groups serving youth.

The library community nationally is also calling Denver’s asset mapping project a model for other communities. Beth Yoke, executive director of the Young Adult Library Services Association, said the organization “applauds the steps DPL has taken to investigate the needs of the teens in their community in order to align library programs and services to meet their needs. It is our hope that other libraries will make a strong commitment to improving their teen services and take a similar path to identifying what their own community’s teens need.”

Julie Biando Edwards, the ethnic studies librarian and multicultural coordinator at the University of Montana in Missoula’s Mansfield Library, adds that Denver’s asset mapping project is about recognizing that teens are part of their community. “When we think about youth, we should be careful not to think of them as somehow outside the community, but rather as a central, vibrant part of it,” she says. “When we can engage youth, when we’re open to learning from them and from agencies that work with them, we have the potential to strengthen both them and the library.”

Many of the older teens quickly become regulars at Hampden. Photo courtesy of Denver Public LIbrary.

Many of the older teens quickly become regulars at Denver’s teen programs. Photo courtesy of Denver Public LIbrary.

The future of asset mapping

DPL is actually among only a few library systems to take on an asset mapping process. Several years ago, the Halifax Public Libraries in Canada used asset mapping to identify services in the community provided to immigrants and to better understand how libraries could serve the area’s growing immigrant population. In a journal article, the project leaders identified a variety of benefits from the process, including meeting new people in the community, learning about services available to immigrants, and better understanding immigrant groups’ perceptions and use of the library.

The authors provided recommendations for other libraries interested in using asset mapping. These included training staff to follow specific procedures so the process is implemented consistently, and making adjustments to services based on the community feedback.

Edwards suggests that most librarians probably already have the ability to do this type of work in the community—what they need is a desire to have a “community-focused outlook.”

“We’re very good at connecting people with information,” says Edwards, the author of Transforming Libraries, Building Communities: The Community-Centered Library (Scarecrow Press, 2013). “This is a slightly scaled-up version of that, where we’re connecting organizations with each other and then with patrons.”

She added that she would like to see more libraries provide training, workshops and other continuing education opportunities to increase librarians’ skills in this area.

Kretzmann and McKnight’s Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern has pulled together a variety of materials for those who want to learn more about or conduct an asset mapping process. These resources include the “Mapping Community Assets Workbook,” a detailed guide developed by the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory. Resources on conducting a community assessment are also available from the Young Adult Library Services Association.

Asset mapping is part of a larger push to give libraries a more prominent role in the community. “I do think that libraries are much more interested in and practicing being community centers and connectors just in general,” Jeske says. In her book Biando and her co-authors write about how libraries can
remake themselves into centers of community life. “When libraries are more centrally involved in the community, which means getting out of the library and learning from the people and institutions and organizations around the community, they’re better able to recognize both community assets and issues and work with others to address them.”

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Linda Jacobson About Linda Jacobson

SLJ contributor Linda Jacobson is an education writer and editor based in the Los Angeles area.

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  1. DPL is doing a session on Teen Asset Mapping at PLA in Denver in a few weeks. If you’d like to learn more, please join us! We hope to see you all there!