Ypulse Interview: Kim Bolan Cullin, 'Teen Spaces'

kimbolancullinToday’s Ypulse Interview is with Kim Bolan Cullin, author of the ALA library design resource guide Teen Spaces: The Step-by-Step Library Makeover, now in its second edition.

Kim reached out to us after our recent coverage of the ALA Annual Conference where she was also a speaker (see her presentations on “Teen Space: Design with Economy” and “Top Library Building Trends” on her blog The Indie Librarian).  Below, she fields some of our questions on the teen trends happening inside and around libraries. Or, as NPR called them, “the next big pop-culture wave after cupcakes.”

Ypulse: What are some of the biggest changes in teen spaces you’ve observed between the first and second edition of your book? What do you expect and hope to see continue to change in the next few years?

Kim Bolan Cullin: The first change is that there ARE actually teen spaces out there now. It was a struggle with the first edition to find teen library spaces in general; even more difficult to find libraries who were being creative and thinking outside the box. With the second edition, I didn’t even have to look for examples – people came to me – libraries big and small. One thing that hasn’t changed is that good public library examples still outweigh good school library examples. Model school libraries are still unfortunately few and far between. Although, there are several school media specialists out there trying to make a difference in this area too.

Over the years I’ve seen a huge shift in how libraries are thinking about space allocation and “space equity” for teens. This is happening with building revamps and renovations as well as with new building construction. More and more libraries are planning and designing space for teenagers as a priority rather than an afterthought. This is a huge step and I hope to see it continue. I have also been training people to “zone” their children’s libraries in order to create appropriate space for pre-teens, which is essential to this age group. This topic will be part of my upcoming book on Children’s Spaces so I hope to see more people reaching out to 9 – 12 year olds in the future.

Communities are also finally starting to build teen space to support teens because they recognize the benefits of [Search Institute’s] Asset Development, they want to give teens a sense of community involvement and belonging, and they want to build them a positive and safe environment for studying, socializing and recreational activities. I expect and hope this to continue. This is huge!

YP: How have changes in the youth culture related to books with phenomenons like “Harry Potter” and “The Twilight Saga” continued to affect libraries and teen spaces? How can librarians and other adult influencers continue to leverage that enthusiasm beyond blockbusters?

KBC: More and more library workers are working hard to understand and incorporate youth culture into library service. For many years, this concept was completely absent in public and school libraries. Increasingly there is an understanding that “adults are not teens” and adults cannot assume what is important or relevant to teenagers. With Harry Potter and Twilight, you’ll find that librarians understand that incorporating these things into the library, whether through collection development, program planning, or space décor, is essential to providing excellent service to this age group.

Many in the profession are looking at what’s behind these “phenomenon” and trying to understand the appeal and then incorporating what they’ve learned into how they program for teens and how they make recommendations for materials, whether books or media. As many know, youth interests evolve and change faster than the typical adult can keep up with, but “keeping up with it” is part of a librarian’s job and getting teens involved in the whole process, whether it’s by them educating us, or them helping us plan and/or implement, is the true key to success.

YP: What are the biggest myths or misconceptions around libraries and teens that you would like to dispel?

KBC: Libraries are no longer boring, quiet, dusty-book-filled places. They have grown, if you will, and continue to evolve into community and information places, technology centers, and social gathering spaces. The old fashioned stereotypes of the traditional library and librarian need to be dispelled.  I can’t say that all libraries are to 100% of where they need to be, but there are many creative and forward-thinking people out there who are doing fabulous things that are changing the face of “the library.”

I have issues with people that have issues with teens because they say they are too loud, disrespectful, lazy, unrealistic, etc. One of the most important concepts in my teen space planning process is understanding teens and teen involvement from start to finish. I have conducted hundreds of focus groups across the U.S. and have worked on numerous projects with teens of all ages, backgrounds, social groups, and interest levels. I’ve found them to be nothing but energizing, creative, practical, truthful, and inspirational. Sure, there are some teenagers who aren’t the most pleasant to deal with and out-and-out difficult, but isn’t that true for any age group?

YP: What are some of the challenges that persist in attracting teens, particularly boys, to libraries and reading in general? What are some of the ways school and YA librarians can address these issues?

KBC: The stereotype of the library and what people think the library is all about is a tough thing to overcome with both boys and girls. Traditionally speaking, library collections and programming have often been aimed (maybe not always intentionally) toward females. With the arrival of graphic novels, manga, anime, comic books, media collections, and better fiction geared at boys as well as the incorporation of computers, technology, and gaming into library services, more and more boys (and girls) are finding their way to libraries. Libraries aren’t just for people who like to read. The 21st century library is for people who want to experience, enjoy, and interact.

Again, collaborating with teens is the best way to meet these challenges and get kids interested in what’s going on. Get them directly involved, whether it’s in the space planning/design/implementation process or the collection development and program planning process (or both). Ongoing interaction and involvement is a must and has proven to be the key to success for many libraries. It’s also essential to involve teens of all backgrounds, interests, social groups, boys and girls, etc.  Libraries are here to serve everyone, not just studious teens or avid readers. Getting a well rounded perspective and “opening up” the library to everyone will make libraries thrive well into the future.

YP: Could you describe one or two examples of successful teen spaces and explain what elements made these work?

KBC: There are so many great examples out there – large and small! See my Flickr site for more.  It’s almost impossible to single out just a few, but I will say that the Phoenix Public Library (AZ) was my first favorite teen space. They’ve been doing terrific things for years. They were one of the original “library teen spaces.” Waupaca Public Library (WI), Leominster Public Library (MA), Rockhampton Regional Council (Queensland, Australia), East Brunswick Public Library (NJ), Queens Library – Far Rockaway Teen Library (NY), Farmington Public Library (NM), Palos Verdes Public Library (CA), and the Cape Central High School (MO) are also great examples, but definitely are not the only ones doing outstanding work in this area. Like I said, the number of model examples is far too great!

In general, the libraries that are thriving and have the greatest success are the ones that:

-  Involve teens right from the beginning and well after the space is complete.

- Understand that the space and the service is about relating and appealing to 13 – 18 year olds, not adults and not young children.

- Have embraced space equity for teens giving them the appropriate amount of space they need. These libraries are basing square footage of teen areas on demographics and need, not assumptions or personal biases.

- Create multifunctional, zoned spaces that incorporate areas for quiet, study, socializing, recreation, programming, technology, and more.

- Focus on Education and Recreation

- Incorporate technology in new and interesting ways such as gaming, digital creativity (learning things such as music and video production, etc.), and collaborative computing (more than one teen per computer).

- Are creative!

For more coverage of YA books and publishing, check out the Ypulse Books & Print Channel sponsored by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, publishers of ghostgirl: Lovesick.


  1. nancy nix

    Brilliant expression, about the greatly
    needed interest in positive venues for
    teens—this assists them with their search for independence within academic and social strutures of the current socio-logical confine.
    [An aside: the B-BOYS shall hold a break dance summit in San Diego, California October 3 and 4 2010]

  2. Teen Read Week Rocks To The Sound Of Books With A

    [...] patrons) we now know this type of experimentation and shift towards the social is happening in teen spaces of libraries everywhere. The introduction of collaborative technology, music, gaming (and yes, music games like Rock Band [...]

Got something to say?

NEW YORK, NY 10001