By Shannon Crawford Barniskis, Director, Lomira Community Library
Part 1 of this article synthesized the literature on civic engagement, art, libraries, and teen services to demonstrate how public libraries can transform the lives of their patrons and the communities they serve. This case study responds to the top-down view of this topic generated by adult researchers by creating a bottom-up, teen-validated grounded theory. In my thirteen years as a teen librarian, it seemed that something special was occurring in the art programs I hosted or observed in public libraries. Teens were not simply creating steampunk sculptures, they were also appeared to be connecting with one another in interesting ways and talking about serious social issues while playing with glue. Yet I remained aware of my own biases: Did I simply want to believe my work had an impact on the teens I served? I decided to ask the teens.
The problem facing teen librarians in particular, and public librarians in general, is that they may host art programs, but no one has yet developed a theoretical foundation to explain how and why, or if, these programs are widely beneficial. One could construct a theoretical foundation from the existing corpus of literature on art, teens, and civic engagement, such as one derived from the metasynthesis in Part 1 of this article. However, such an adult-centered theory may not reflect the worldview of teens in libraries. In the research study described in this paper, the teens who participate in library art programs appear front and center, recounting their own experiences and ideas.
This qualitative study asked the research question, “How does art programming in public libraries affect civic engagement in teens?” Teens who participated in library art programs reflected on questions such as:
- What does civic engagement look like to teens?
- How engaged do teens feel within their communities?
- What are the barriers to civic engagement?
- How can art affect this sense of engagement?
- How do libraries support civic engagement? How can they support it better?
- How do libraries support teens? How can they support them better?
Based on their responses, a grounded theory developed, which situates the teen within his/her community, within the library, and in relationship to art and civic engagement. Librarians can learn how the library can affect both the teens and the communities they serve through programs already being held in most libraries.
Assumptions and Limitations
Throughout this project I referred to Ehrlich’s definition of civic engagement: “working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.”1 The concept of the public sphere, where people come together to share experiences, including art experiences, is critical to the idea of civic engagement and community-building. Giroux defines the public sphere as the “mediating space between the state and private existence…rooted in collective self-reflection and discourse under conditions free from domination.”2 Libraries are the least-mediated public sphere in most of our communities, when compared to our other public, religious, economic, or social institutions.
Teens have few places to gather that are not seeking to make money from them, or to further a particular educational or religious agenda through them. The motivation of the librarian is simply to serve (not educate, proselytize, or sell), and there are also sincere attempts to minimize informational filters by ensuring that the user can access the widest-possible range of materials, ideas, and services, without censorship.3 In addition, teens can find few outlets in which to engage in creative activities that are not schools, churches, or commercial enterprises. In many communities, there is no access to art that is unfiltered by pedagogical, commercial or religious goals. Free access to art may occur only within public library situations. This is certainly the case in the rural community in which the research site is located. There are no clubs, museums, or services that offer free art programming outside the library.
One main assumption resonates through this project: Civic engagement is necessary and desirable for our democratic system to thrive. This article treats this idea as a given. As a researcher, I value libraries, art, and civic engagement highly (and participants may not value them at all) so there was a danger that carefully crafted a priori conceptualizations would not overlap the study participants’ ideas and values.4 By grounding the theory in the narratives of the participants, this study reflects the lived experience of the participants, not the researcher’s values. At the same time, grounded theory rhetoric allows the language of the participants to shine through the theoretical framework.
The benefit of being a researcher situated within the library context is that some of the participants already have a relationship with me; new relationships were built through the act of making art as an equal participant in the programs. The participants were comfortable speaking to an embedded researcher. The drawback is that some teens may be reluctant to say negative things about the library or librarian. Ultimately, I steered the research away from the participant’s judgments about the librarian role, which limits the information garnered on the importance (or lack thereof) of the librarian’s role. Objectivity was not possible; the researcher is present in the data, in the codes and categories, and in interactions with participants in the focus group and interviews. I reflexively examined all identified assumptions, treating them as data, whether the assumptions were mine or those of the teen participants.
The study examines subjective data and assumptions about the power of libraries, art, civic engagement, and teens’ described experiences. The subjectivity of the data is what makes this theory idiographic, personal, and contextual, but that does not mean it is invalid in a scientific sense—merely that its external validity may be limited, depending on the epistemological stance one takes in relation to positivist and post-positive theory generation.5 The qualitative information gathered both from my assumptions and biases and those of the interviewed teens merge to build a holistic picture of what art programs mean to the participants in this study, including the researcher. This does not render the research less rigorous, but merely renders it in human scale.
There are other limitations. For example, the sample size in this study is small enough to preclude any meaningful quantitative data. The exploratory surveys offer limited quantitative data, which served to expand upon the qualitatively gathered data and to seed questions for the interviewees so they could muse upon the applicability of the survey data to their own experiences. Inferential statistics tests require larger samples to assess probability. The experiences of these rural teens may be only loosely generalizable when compared to those in urban libraries or those with more access to the arts.
A qualitative case study design was used for this study. Teens were asked to reflect on their experiences during and after a series of arts programs hosted by the “H Public Library” (see Table 1). The teens in the focus group each attended five of the six programs. The teens that were later interviewed individually attended at least two of these six programs and had attended similar programs at this library previously.
|Graffiti||A graffiti artist gave a brief presentation on the history, importance, and styles of graffiti. He then demonstrated basic techniques, and gave the teens many test sheets to practice and play with. He helped the twenty-two teens in attendance create a 4×8’ graffiti sign reading “teenspace” for the teen area of the library. 2 hours.|
|Digital Photography||A local photographer gave a presentation on designing a shot and how to use digital cameras to get the desired effect. The sixteen attending teens were paired up and told to go practice these techniques by finding the “alphabet” in the town. The teams returned to the library and shared the photos. The winning team was awarded Amazon gift cards supplied by the teaching artist. 2 hours.|
|Modern Dance||A modern company and its advanced students performed several brief pieces for the audience of fifteen teens, twelve adults, and four children (most of which had been choreographed, costumed, and musically directed by teenaged dance students). The company director and dancers introduced each piece and spoke of the creative process. A couple of professionally-choreographed pieces were also shown. A question-and-answer period followed. 1.5 hours.|
|Artist Trading Cards||A teaching artist explained what Artist Trading Cards were and talked about how artists exchanged them internationally and/or locally. She briefly demonstrated a few basic techniques of stamping and collage, but mostly let the sixteen teens play with the wide array of materials. Each teen created several ATCs and exchanged some of them. 1.5 hours.|
|Poetry Reading||Six poets of various styles/ages/genders/ethnicities read poetry to the audience of eighteen teens and nine adults. The poem varied in length, subject matter, level of comedy, etc. Teen volunteers acted out in gesture and posture Gwendolyn Brooks’ “we real cool.” A lengthy question-and-answer period followed. 2 hours.|
|Manga Drawing||An artist and illustrator taught the techniques of manga-style drawing with a PowerPoint presentation and a demonstration of various styles and aspects. The teens practiced their own drawings and shared them. The teaching artist provided individual feedback to the sixteen teens and five adults who attended. 1.5 hours.|
Table 1. The art programs.
The Research Site
The “H Public Library” is nestled within a small community with a service population of about 5000 in south-central Wisconsin. At the time of my research, I had been the Youth Services Librarian at the “H Library” since 1999. While the choice of this library as the study site represents a convenience sample, it is also fairly representative of small-town Midwest life. The county in which this library resides is similar to other rural upper Midwestern counties in the percentage of people under age eighteen, the median household income, retail sales per capita, and other randomly chosen demographic data.6 The research site is located in a county that could stand in for any number of counties throughout the Midwest, and the town could be any town in those counties.
Teen programs and services have been a top priority of the “H Library” since late 1999. While little historical data could be located to determine whether teen programs were part of the library mission in earlier years, teens have participated on a limited basis in the Summer Library Programs since at least 1993,7 and probably for as long as there has been a Summer Library Program. Unfortunately, few records were kept to establish the historical context of teen programming at this library. Also, few records were kept that separate programs for children under age twelve from those for teens. Until 2009, the Department of Public Instruction Annual Report didn’t separate programs for teens from those for younger children, but lumped them all together under “juvenile.” However, in 2009, the “H Library” hosted 64 programs for teens, and 374 teens participated in them.8 In 2010, there were 62 programs for teens at this library, with 472 teens participating.9 About a dozen of the 2010 programs were small teen discussion groups, another 30 were gaming events, and the rest were art programs, with an average of ten teens attending each art program
The research site is located in a library system consisting of twenty-six libraries. Of these libraries, only two had greater teen attendance at library programs in 2009, and those libraries (“B” and “W”) were 594% and 1048% larger than the research site library. The “W” larger library is the largest library in the system, and has the system’s only dedicated Teen Librarian. Of these twenty -six libraries, only fourteen held any teen programs at all in 2009, and two of those libraries held only one program each. The “H Library” holds more teen programs than other libraries in Wisconsin of a similar service population size. In fact, when looking at twenty-four libraries that are closest in teen program attendance to “H Library” throughout the state, the average service population of those libraries is 22,039, or 386% larger than the “H Library.”10 All of this data is to show that the “H Library” takes teen services and programs seriously, and tends to provide far more teen programming than other similarly-sized libraries in Wisconsin, and more than many significantly larger libraries as well. The impetus for the increased teen services was due to several factors: The teen librarian saw a need for services aimed at teens in the small community, the community responded to the increased services with increased attendance and positive feedback, the mission of the library supported programming as a main function of the library, and the local businesses and granting agencies monetarily supported the successful teen programs.
Fourteen teens aged twelve to eighteen participated in this study (see Table 2). They do not reflect a statistically representative sample; instead they represent the widest possible range of social, economic, and age factors, especially those identified as correlates to civic engagement. In this way, it was possible to gather a wide range of narratives from varied experiences of the different teens.
Table 2. A description of the participants.
The study participants generated data in several ways.
Surveys: Participants completed an exploratory survey before the art programs began and a second survey after the programs ended (see Appendix 1). The survey questions included demographic data such as annual family income, gender, age, and so on. In addition, the survey asked the participants how strongly they agree with statements that loosely situated the participant in their feelings about social, civic, and consumer activities. Some of the questions were relevant to this research, such as “I am willing to take action in my community to make things better.” Others were “throwaway” questions that were intended to keep the participants from thinking too much about civic engagement issues, such as “Texting or otherwise staying in constant contact with my friends is important to me.” The survey did not explore these questions in depth; there was not a large enough sample for inferential statistics or any meaningful analysis of this data. However, the rate at which teens agreed or disagreed with civic engagement statements was used as fodder for the focus group interview. The data from the pre- and post-test surveys were integrated into the resulting theory only when they were spoken about during the interviews. Since this data couldn’t be meaningfully parsed statistically, it only shaded the interpretation of the data gathered by the interviews when the teens spoke directly to their interpretations of the results. For example, the level of agreement with the statement “I feel like a valued member of my community” was examined during the interviews. Teens talked about how and why the level of agreement shifted from a high level of disagreement before the series of art programs to a fairly high level of agreement after the programs.
Focus Group and Individual Interviews:
Ten teens participated in a focus group interview. Each of the teens had attended at least five of the six art programs together. They were interviewed at the library after the series of six programs had ended (see Appendix 2 for a list of the questions used during the focus group interview). Later, six of the ten teens helped to code the date and validate the theory that was generated.
I interviewed four more teens to fill in theoretically unsaturated areas of the grounded theory. Each of them had attended at least two of the six art programs and had attended similar programs in the past. They had all applied to be in the research study, but had not been chosen to be in the focus group. The individual interviews occurred over the course of two months, after the focus group interview, data coding, and initial theory development, and took place at the library and at a nearby coffee shop. In grounded theory methods, theoretical sampling is a vital step to developing a fully fleshed-out theory. After an initial coding and sorting of the codes using constant comparative methods, it becomes apparent that some categories are “thin” or need more data to explore them completely. The researcher must then gather more data from those people most likely to have had the experiences under study. In this study, the theoretical sampling interviews took place as new gaps became apparent in various categories. I used the same list of questions as I did for the focus group (see Appendix 2) but received more in-depth data due to the one-on-one nature of these interviews. Two of the theoretical sample teens helped to code and validate the theory once it was complete.
Coding and Memoing:
During the research process, the thoughts and insights of the researchers, including the teen coders and validators, were recorded as “memos” and treated as data. This process is inherent to grounded theory methods, and allows the researchers to reflexively examine their own assumptions in a systematic way.12 Table 3 provides an outline of the research questions, data gathering, and data analysis process.
|Research Question||Method of Collecting Data||Method of Analysis|
|What are the barriers to civic engagement?||Interview questions such as (if teens mention not feeling valued or inclined to do things they identify as civic or community engagement) “What stops you? What could be changed to help you [feel more valued/engaged in engagement activities]?”||Open and focused coding|
|How can art affect this sense of engagement?||Interview questions such as “Do you think art can change how you feel about your community? What about participating in art programs with others that you may not normally hang out with?”||Open and focused coding|
|How do libraries support civic engagement? How can they support it better?||Interview questions such as “Do libraries affect civic/community engagement? How could libraries do a better job with this?”||Open and focused coding|
|How do libraries support teens? How can they support them better?||Interview questions such as “Do libraries support teens? How could libraries do a better job with this?”||Open and focused coding|
|Questions like these were explored during the interview(s), but are not fully resolved in the resulting grounded theory. These questions are intended to help us look at the research question “How does art programming in public libraries affect civic engagement in teens?” from multiple perspectives.|
Table 3. Research questions, data-gathering, and data-analysis methods.
After all the data was collected, participants were invited to step inside the research process to help code and reflect on the data, making it their own, and crafting a personal reality in which the research results are meaningful in their own lives. Grounded theory methods were used to analyze qualitative data and answer the question “How do art programs in public libraries affect civic engagement in teens?”
I invited all of the teens to participate in the study further, as part of the research team. Six teens volunteered to assist in the coding process by changing, adding, or expanding on codes. They were shown a video on the constant comparative process. Then I showed them the codes that I had developed based on my analysis of the data and spoke briefly about the coding process. This initial training was minimal because the teens learned as they worked by talking through the process with me. The teens were asked to change, add, or remove codes, but to reason aloud why they were doing so. Two teams of teens worked on this—one team of three and the second team of four. One teen worked on both teams. The first team worked on the coding just after I had completed the initial open coding, which simply described the action taking place on a line-by-line basis in the transcripts. For example, the transcript stated “I see poetry more as art now; I mean, before that poetry thing at the library, I just thought…saw poetry as kind of a nuisance to have to do in school.” I coded this statement as “considering art as a nuisance” and “seeing things as art that weren’t seen that way before.” The initial coders added a more abstract code: “liking art more.” This team coded for an hour and fifteen minutes, working solely with the focus group interview transcript.
The second team of coders worked for two and a half hours on transcripts of the focus group interview and three of the individual interviews. They worked at a more abstract stage of the coding process, and sorted the codes into categories. These teens compared different codes, original statements, and categories such as “art changes my mind about engagement?” and “political overload.” I recorded the coding sessions with the teens and coded the transcripts of those recordings in turn. The teen coders clarified what they originally meant in the interviews during the coding process. Those clarifications helped me understand the nuances of the teen experience.
The teens and I ultimately developed sixty categories that collocated more than 2,000 lines of open coding. One example of the categories used to build the theory is “Art changes my self-image.” The code manual description of this category reads, “Any post-art changes in a teen’s self-image are collected within this code family, from feeling ‘better’ about doing art to feeling appreciated after doing art. Both negative and positive ideas are gathered within this one family, as are both internal and externally-motivated changes to a teen’s self-image.” The codes that make up this category include “feeling welcome anywhere their art is displayed” and “feeling appreciated when people see teen’s art.”
This research revolved around the perceptions and experience of fourteen teens, ranging in age from twelve to eighteen (see Table 2 for a description of the participants). Notably, only two of these fourteen understood what the notion of civic engagement meant. The teens developed a concept of civic engagement based on the interview interactions. When they indicated ignorance of the concept, I offered the teens a wide definition based on Ehrlich’s, emphasizing that it encompassed anything aimed at making a community better. The themes generated from the data here are specific to these participants, but through a grounded theory approach, they contribute to and inform theory of the library’s role in promoting civic engagement.
The coded, categorized, and abstracted teen narratives form a complex tangle of related themes that describe how library art programs support teen engagement. Seven main themes, described in Table 4, resonated throughout the interviews.
|Theme||Description||Example of a Teen Statement||Examples of Categories||Examples of Codes|
|Art moves us||Art changes the way teens feel about other people, themselves, their communities, and political ideas.||“It’s definitely not something that I would ever think about normally…I had a picture of a prostitute at night smoking a cigarette and it’s all dark, and you see this outline of her in this coat and she has a cigarette and it’s lit and it just…you won’t think of it but once I saw that picture, I was just like, ‘Oh, she’s got a life, too.’”(Rachel)||Art changes my mind about my community; Art changes my self-image||Art changing response to things;Art enlightening teen;“Art has never changed my mind”|
|We want to connect, we want to open up||Building social connections and the often-accompanying feelings of enlightenment, empathy, or support.||“I’ve taught chain mail to a woman that was, I believe, was like 67 years old and she picked it up like that…I have done some knitting but it’s not my thing. But I respect and appreciate it. It’s actually a good—you can really brainstorm with people from different generations that have different ideas on the same things.” (Eric)||Out of my comfort zone; Tolerance/empathy||Changing mind about kids after seeing their art; thinking library art programs discourage teens from ignoring others; identifying engagement as social|
|It’s an adult’s world||Teen perception that the world is based on adult realities, adults have all power, force adult forms of engagement.||“They’ll never even listen to your idea of what happened. It is like you’re a ghost—they don’t even hear you.” (Ashley) “They just have their own reality and it doesn’t have anything to do with your reality.” (Emily)||Adult ideas of engagement; Voiceless||Adults having guaranteed voice; not being engaged because no one listens; adults thinking helping others is community engagement|
|Creating a community that supports us||Creating a community where teens feel supported, valued, and listened to, and defining what that means.||Community is “a network of people working together to decide and accomplish something.” (Kayla)||Identifying the positive in the community; We want our own world||Escaping to the city to find art and things to do; feeling local venues wouldn’t be interested in teen art; identifying teen programs as support for teens|
|We want to help, but don’t push us||Discussion of the resistance to engagement that sprang from a sense that teens were pushed or manipulated by adults, and how (and how much) teens prefer to engage.||“I don’t personally like to take leadership when it comes to it, but if someone would…ask me something like, ‘Hey, let’s do this,’ I’d totally be for it.” (Maria)||Feeling forced; Wanting more involvement||Feeling pressured to contribute; feeling listened to while volunteering; needing a ride to engagement opportunities|
|Libraries can make a difference for us||Discussion of how or if libraries can make a difference in teen lives or in teen civic engagement and teen perceptions of libraries.||“I definitely do feel closer to the libraries that I go to after going through a program. So it is like, the more programs that you go, to the more it feels kind of like home in a way. Not a real home but like a really comforting awesome place.” (Eric)||Do we belong in libraries?; Why gave art programs||Thinking adults wish teens weren’t in library; performers [artists] relating to teens; ideal library offering art space|
|Does our engagement shift?||Examination of who engages, whether there was a change in participant engagement, why engagement shifted.||“If you only feel like you are valued and you aren’t actually valued, then you’re not going to get any sort of civic stuff done.” (Rachel)||Leveling up; Defining engagement||Having something to offer to community makes teens feel more valuable; engaging occurs when person is comfortable in their role; defining civic engagement as participation|
Table 4. Theme descriptions and examples.
The theoretical model shown in Figure 1 captures how the seven themes wind through the way teens experience art programs in public libraries, and how this experience affects civic engagement. The themes are so entwined that it is difficult to tell where one leaves off and another begins. Each theme (to a greater or lesser extent) addresses a slightly different aspect of how the experience of teens in library art programs plays out. In this way, the theory forms a holistic web describing teen experiences of library art programs and the programs’ outcomes.
Figure 1. Theoretical Model of the Connection between Art Programs and Teens
The theme at the center of the web is “Libraries can make a difference for us.” The library was the physical and social context in which any changes took place, in which the art programs were experienced, and in which the research was conducted, and thus the hub of all the other themes. However, the most thoroughly-explored theme was “It’s an adult’s world.” Teens spoke of the many ways in which they were powerless to engage in an adult-driven civic context. The second most important theme, to the teen participants, was “We want to connect, we want to open up.” Many statements of “being enlightened” and “moving out of my comfort zone” resonate through the interviews, not just on the topic of art or engagement, but also in connection to adult attitudes and feelings about the library. The only clear theme that emerges as a motivation for the change in levels of civic engagement that the participants describe is “Art moves us.” Through the exploration of the experience of the art program, as well as the skills gained through the art programs, the teen participants connected more deeply with each other and with their communities, and became more willing to try new things, including engaging in a civic world into which they had previously only dipped their toes.
Ideally, the themes could be arranged linearly: The teens arrive at the library from a world in which they have little power and feel unsupported; they experience art programs that move them, that inspire them to connect and open to possibility; and the teens leave the programs and library feeling as if they want to engage and that their engagement shifted. In reality, the data reveals a spiraling interconnectedness and non-linearity in each theme. For example, “It’s an adult’s world” is the background of the teen experience when they arrived at the library, but it was also a theme challenged by the programs, celebrated in some senses within the programs (when teens looked up to the adult artists), and remains the context in which teens will have to engage when the programs are in the past. The impetus, processes, and results of change cannot be so easily unraveled.
This discussion addresses the question “How can public library art programs affect civic engagement in teens?” by describing attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs that changed or were identified as changeable by the teen participants. Overall, participants believed that these programs can positively affect empathy, a sense of belonging, social networks and connections, creativity, a sense of being listened to and valued, and other cognitive and emotional shifts. Teens, who often felt ignored or unwelcome in their communities, valued the teen-centric context of the art programs. These changes, while necessary to civic engagement actions, are not actual civic engagement behaviors.
The Ehrlich definition of civic engagement has two parts: One part speaks to the social capital required to engage (skills, values, motivation), and the other part describes active engaging behavior (working, promoting).13 This study supports the theory that art programs in public libraries builds social capital and the building blocks of engagement.
However, the direct effect of these programs on civic engagement behavior is less well-supported. While 71 percent of the participants indicated that art programs could affect teens in general to be more civically engaged, 20 percent of that majority said their own engagement was not affected. The remaining participants avoided asserting that library art programs could not affect teen engagement, but did not answer the question. They may have agreed or disagreed with this hypothesis. Participants who agreed that these programs could affect engagement wavered when confronted with the question of their own behavior shifts.
The uneven support for the hypothesis that library art programs increase teen civic engagement behaviors appears to be partially a result of the fact that many of the participants seemed willing to conjecture about other teens’ experiences, but unable to summon the assurance that these conjectures were entirely valid. These teens were too aware of the individuality of experience to offer sweeping statements of non-relativistic truth. They hedged. Meanwhile, the self-awareness displayed throughout most of the interviews seemed to unravel when teens were specifically confronted with the idea that their own personal level of engagement could or perhaps should increase. “I’m good where I am,” said Laura; “I’m already doing it,” responded Rachel. Their statements about their own level of engagement may be, objectively speaking, wrong. The teens may be presenting themselves as more engaged than they actually are, or they may be unaware that they are not really performing many civic engagement actions. Or the teens may be actually engaged at a high level. This research didn’t examine this issue, but it’s easier to talk about being engaged than it is to actually be engaged, and this is true for all ages. Rheingold’s “activation gap” between interest and involvement in civic engagement activities may be in play here.14 Future research could quantify how large this activation gap is in those who participate in library art programs.
Regardless of the few specific statements that individual teens were not convinced that library art programs affect their civic engagement, questions were asked about the shift in engagement in several ways. The answers to the less point-blank questions make it apparent that these fourteen teens were affected.
The data collected in this study spoke to relationship-building. Teens described how they perceived relationships with each other and with various adults. The relationship between teens and librarians was not deeply interrogated, largely because I straddled the role of librarian and researcher. Thus, the following musings on the teen-librarian relationship somewhat derive from my memos created during the research process, when I was reflexively examining my role in the research and arts processes. These thoughts were validated by the five teen readers of the resulting text.
The teens described the best possible teen-librarian relationship, which involves an adult who obviously likes and cares for a teen while having no extrinsically mandated stake in how the teen turns out. Unlike teachers or parents, librarians are in a position of appearing entirely on the side of teens. The relationship is not based on coercion; none of these teens felt forced to come to the library, interact with the librarian, or perform tasks in the way they did with teachers and parents. The teens considered the librarian an advocate. For adolescents who feel they have few allies and little power, such an advocate may have an effect on their social capital and engagement. There were hints of this advocacy idea in the data collected in this study, but it was not sought or developed further. In this study, the librarian occupied multiple roles: While making or experiencing art, I was just one of the group; I was the one who created the programs and brought exciting programs into the community; I asked questions about teens’ lives and genuinely wanted to hear their answers; I invited the participants into the usually adult role of researcher and ensured that my analysis reflected what they really meant; meanwhile, I was still the person who embodied the authoritative role of the library as institution, with all the preconceived notions teens, and I, have about librarians and libraries; I am the parent of one of the teens at the programs (although not in this study); I provided the pizza and snacks; I have the keys to the library. These multilayered roles are complex. An examination of the teen-librarian relationship is critical to fully explicating the ways in which libraries and their programs support teens. The roles of the researcher and librarian were too intertwined to be able to attempt that explication in this study.
Aside from the relationship built between the teens and the librarian, relationships amongst the teens also originated and developed during the art programs. One of the main reasons to hold a focus group interview, in which ten of the participants answered questions while eating pizza and candy, was that they enjoyed being with one another. They had just spent about fourteen hours creating and sharing their art, chatting, and laughing together. They had built a community centered on art in the library. The participants were unlikely to feel voiceless or disengaged when they were together.
In a couple of the programs, other community members stopped by or interacted with the teens. During the graffiti program, which was held outside, a city council member on her way to a council meeting was enthusiastic about the project. She asked teens to come and graffiti the side of her store. A banker came over and sprayed a symbol on the graffiti sign. One participant, Eric, stopped him just before he pushed the spray button while holding the can backwards, before the banker could inadvertently spray paint his suit. More interactions between teens and adult community members, with whom they may not have normally interacted, occurred during the poetry and dance programs. These interactions were entirely positive and signaled to the participants that some adults were paying attention and enjoyed some of the same things they did.
The participants mentioned the relationships they built with the artists who led the programs. The manga and graffiti teachers were in their early twenties, and the dancers were teens and young adults. Participants mentioned how much they appreciated that. The expertise of the young teachers was evidence of the “leveling up” that the teens could accomplish through art. All of the artists spoke a teen-friendly language, which participants particularly appreciated. Even if those teens never meet those artists again, they have associated a “cool,” sympathetic adult, a feeling of being heard, and a supportive group of peers, with the library. They learned that a community-based institution is available for them, to be co-created with them.
Librarians seeking to use this study to expand, guide, or initiate teen services have several pathways to take. The seven themes can help focus services. Many of the following recommendations (see Table 4), are based both on teen recommendations and my own brainstorming. During the interviews, teens often offered up a vision of how libraries could better support them and their engagement. Many of these recommendations are already in place in libraries, and are only examples of some of the ways librarians can meet the needs expressed by the participants in this study.
Suggested Library Responses
|Art moves us||offer a multitude of art programs|
|make sure art that teens might not be used to is included in programs, but be sure to reflect teen interests with art programs|
|include time to reflect in art programs|
|display teen art, or ask teens to curate art already in the library or community|
|offer a studio space and supplies for teens to create art|
|host teen art shows for the community to enjoy|
|hire local teen bands|
|use teen-created music for library publicity, such as commercials|
|make the teen library website a digital venue for teen art|
|art for its own sake is enough to build social capital, there need be no “message” or point beyond creation|
|It’s an adult’s world||plan programs to encourage intergenerational communication (such as Wii bowling with grandparents or mother-daughter spa days)|
|offer adults a way to respond to teen programs, art, or activities|
|invite teens to community discussions and plan for their participation if they are interested|
|tell teens when they do things “right” in the library|
|create a Teen Advisory Board or other group to do collection development, choose programs, and raise funds for the teen activities|
|make sure library program teachers or program presenters understand the need to listen and respect teen attitudes and behaviors|
|We want to connect, we want to open up||ensure that programs and services allow time for teens to connect and socially engage with one another|
|encourage teens to bring friends to programs|
|add a social component to all programs (such as a competition or challenge), facilitate new friendships during programs|
|use social networking tools to encourage kids to connect before and after the programs|
|include ice-breaking activities in the program structure|
|encourage teens with similar interests to meet informally at the library to share their interests further|
|be willing to create on-the-fly clubs and group activities based on teen interests, and be willing to dissolve the groups when the interest passes|
|hire teachers or program presenters that are only slightly older than the teens, or who are teens themselves|
|seek out local talent for program ideas|
|informally touch on themes of empathy, tolerance, and enlightenment during programs—beware of didacticism|
|Creating a community that supports us||expand teen horizons by offering programs that they don’t expect in their local communities|
|invite teens to participate in the Friends group or, even better, on the library Board of Trustees|
|host teen discussions based on controversial topics that they face in school or at home|
|make the library a venue for both art and ideas|
|publicize programs and events that other age groups are participating in so teens can see civic engagement in action|
|post teen photojournalism on social networking sites to make the community aware of issues that resonate for teens|
|offer teen-only services, programs, and spaces|
|We want to help, but don’t push us||build partnerships with other community institutions, such as hospitals or senior centers|
|don’t expect teens to have a great deal of free time to dedicate to any library project|
|take on the unwanted organizational tasks of civic projects, allowing teens to steer the project while not being overwhelmed by it|
|offer ideas for civic engagement, but only follow up on plans that teens pursue|
|make sure engagement activities are creative, or speak to real teen concerns|
|facilitate teen plans for political engagement, such as letter-writing campaigns for teen library budgets|
|use library bulletin boards and/or websites to announce local opportunities to engage, such as protests, volunteer opportunities, or needed donations|
|didactic or adult-motivated messages about engagement may alienate or pigeonhole teens; art program “messages” should stem from teen requests of engagement, not adult belief on what teens will benefit from|
|Libraries can make a difference for us||ensure that teens feel welcome in the library with teen spaces, materials, and programs, as well as librarian attitudes|
|advocate for teen issues in the library and community|
|ensure that the library participates in local art or community festivals to build the sense of the library as an artistic community institution|
|go where teens are with library services instead of waiting for them to come to you|
|be willing to push the boundaries of traditional library service|
|offer gaming and social activities as much or more than literacy-based activities|
|teen librarian should participate in arts programs with teens as equally as possible to build the sense of a shared experience|
|Does our engagement shift?||take on any teen that offers to volunteer, even if it creates work for you, and make sure their work is recognized in some way|
|offer ideas on how teens can engage to improve their communities|
|ask teens to contribute to campaigns, such as “Geek the Library”|
|ask teens to contribute to or entirely take over the teen library website or Facebook account|
|ask teens to teach things they’re interested in, or at least mentor other teens|
|promote a secular version of radical hospitality for teens to welcome other teens to programs|
|connect library programs with real engagement opportunities (such as a knitted graffiti project after a knitting class)|
|host read-a-thons that raise money for causes the teens choose|
|let teens do the book-talking|
|ask teens to report on teen events both at the library and in the community, on the library website|
Table 4. Suggested library responses to this research
There is a danger in planning art programs with a goal of anything beyond the private intrinsic value of art—art for art’s sake. Earl and Schussman’s concerns over how “existing notions of what comprises civic engagement tend to ignore, devalue, and otherwise marginalize ways in which younger citizens are connecting with one another to collectively make a difference in their own worlds” are relevant here.14 Librarians who attempt to force civic engagement out of art programs may be disenfranchising teens and their need for self-empowerment and connection on their own terms.15 Facilitating engagement is different from enforcing it; if teens are not participating in the art programs, it may be because they feel that they will be herded into an adult vision of civic engagement.
Teen librarians already know that the art programs we provide improve the lives of their teens.16 Librarians may not know why or how exactly the benefits unfold, but they are obvious to anyone who games, does art, or has a lively discussion with a passel of impassioned teenagers. Nevertheless, even a small case study that evaluates the how and why of the benefits of library programs can be reassuring and motivating for librarians. It can be empowering for librarians to recognize that research exists describing how library programs for teens can meet the needs of the community and fulfill the mission of the public library, even when the programs are not obviously literacy-based. Parents, staff members, trustees, funders, other patrons, and even the teens themselves may question what making sock dolls, spine label poetry contests, and photo scavenger hunts have to do with the library. Having a theory of how public library art programs affect teen civic engagement, or at least build social capital and provide the building blocks of civic action, is a valuable tool for librarians who have to answer these questions. At the same time, skepticism is necessary. Future research will need to be careful not to over-emphasize the role of the library program or service in affecting the actions of the patrons or community. Attitudes may be more easily affected than behaviors. In addition, not all teens will be reached by library programs. Participant Ashley believed that art programs can’t affect “people [who] are so set that they don’t like reading and they don’t like hanging out at libraries. There’s no way you can change them.” Four other participants indicated that not every teen can or will be moved by library programs. Future studies should interrogate non-participation and lack of interest in libraries.
More research is needed to either continue the qualitative study of art programs in public libraries in other types of communities, or to quantitatively evaluate the theory generated here. For example, in this research, two of the teens had very little to say in the focus group interview. They mostly restrained themselves to comments such as “I agree,” and offered few opinions, even when asked to do so. This reluctance to speak up could have meant that they disagreed with what was being said, or they were not comfortable speaking on the topics under discussion, or they had nothing to add. They both indicated that someone had already spoken for them when they were asked to expand on various ideas. In future research of this nature, the investigator may prefer to focus on individual interviews. While the focus group interview encouraged a party-like atmosphere aimed at making the participants feel comfortable, some teens dominated the discussion, and others were less willing to speak. Nor did every participant fully participate in the interviews. A few teens stated ideas then retracted them partially, or agreed with ideas in one context, but disagreed in others, so there were occasionally uneven answers to the research questions. In addition, the case study nature of this research calls for further study of the adolescent experience of public library art programs. Future researchers could answer the call in several ways:
- Further case studies are needed to build an analytically generalized theory.
- Quantitative studies involving surveys could be used to nomothetically model a statistical generalization about the validity of the theory.
- Further qualitative studies could examine different aspects of the research question, such as the role the librarian plays in teen civic engagement.
Art programs are a popular way to reach teens in libraries. However, other library activities and services may also affect teens deeply. More research needs to be done on the outcomes of teen reference services, teen gaming programs, teen discussion groups, and teen collections. Libraries may be supporting adolescent development in a variety of cognitive, emotional, or social ways. For example, teen book discussion groups could be examined to see if participants have lower incidences of bullying. Teen perceptions of the young adult book collection could reveal changes in worldview, and art programs could be reexamined in the context of creativity or economic activity within the community. The literature on how library services affect teens is scant, but will hopefully be expanded by YALSA’s Journal for Research on Libraries and Young Adults. Furthermore, research on how programs affect other populations, including adults and seniors, could focus more on community-based outcome measures. The more research available to practicing librarians on the outcomes of library services, the better we can align these services with their goals and mission.
It is unclear whether the research process of this study or the art programs themselves caused the apparent shifts in civic engagement. From the shifts that are measured in the pre- and post-test surveys, which were administered before the interviews, teens felt that the art programs made the difference. During the interviews, teens explained why the shifts measured in the surveys occurred. The act of asking the teens to participate in a research project, and then asking them questions during interviews, may have impacted their answers—any researcher knows that the act of examining a phenomenon changes it somewhat. Future research may be able to clarify to what extent art programs shift engagement, and to what extent participation in research studies affects teens.
Participant Emily stated that art has “something to do with humanity.” Art programs are a fun and safe way for teens to express that humanity and the emotions, fears, and triumphs of being human. Art programs enlighten teens, expand their horizons, and offer a new vision of a community that supports them. Art programs reinforce and expand on the human connections between the participants in these programs. Libraries are well-positioned as non-coercive, free, and relatively unbiased institutions in nearly every community and neighborhood, even those too small to support other cultural institutions. If art programs are going to happen in a free, non-pedagogical, secular, and non-commercial way in small or poor communities, libraries are ready to serve. Even in large or wealthy communities, libraries are already serving. To encourage civic engagement behaviors in teens, libraries have the tools to shift attitudes and build social capital. Participant Eric, who had partaken of library art programs at four different libraries, and who has taught art classes in libraries, sums up the effects of public library art classes on teen civic engagement:
They help with getting people involved and showing them that … the library’s not lame, rather it’s one friend drawing another to the library, in getting them involved and like, “Oh, library, cool.” Or to somebody who didn’t know that [the] library had stuff to offer and they were in there checking books and to see it, “Oh, sweet.” And then they get like into the community. They enjoy it, they go to other things, they volunteer. It gets a lot more people active, I think.
Art has an intrinsic value for individuals, whether it is enjoying learning, enjoying creating, or simply enjoying. These intrinsic benefits often spill over into community benefits.17 Such community benefits can be promoted to funders as a reason for communities to support art programs in public libraries, but will not often be the reason teens choose to participate in them. Teens will say, “Oh, sweet” in response to art programs, and any civic engagement or social capital outcomes must occur free from coercion or didacticism, as a lucky bonus.
Libraries which offer teen-focused art programs are ensuring that an “engaged and diverse set of publics” are receiving the tools they need to act within the community and, ultimately, on the behalf of the community.18 The seven themes identified by the participants in this research describe how avoiding adult domination, finding friends and role models, and expanding the traditional concept of the library from book-place to creation-space can empower and motivate adolescents to create stronger communities.
- Thomas Ehrlich, Civic Responsibility and Higher Education (Westport, Conn.: Oryx Press, 2000), vi.
- Henry A. Giroux, Theory and Resistance in Education: Towards a Pedagogy for the Opposition, revised and expanded ed. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishers, 2001), 236.
- “The Freedom to Read Statement,” American Library Association, accessed September 1, 2010, http://www.ala.org/offices/oif/statementspols/ftrstatement/freedomreadstatement; “The Library Bill of Rights,” American Library Assocation, accessed September 1, 2010, http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/index.cfm.
- Virginia Walter, “The YALSA Research Agenda: Getting It Done,” The Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults (2012); Robin Moeller, Amy Pattee, and Angela Leeper, “The Young Adult Voice in Research About Young Adults” in Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults, ed. Sandra Hughes-Hassell (2011).
- Haridimos Tsoukas, “The Validity of Idiographic Reseach Explanations,” The Academy of Management Review 14, no. 4 (1989): 551-561, 555-556.
- United States Census Bureau, “State and county quick facts,” U.S. Department of Commerce, accessed September 12, 2010, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/index.html.
- Meredith Kelbert, “SLP Report” (Horicon, Wisc.: Horicon Public Library, 1993).
- “2009 Wisconsin Public Library Service Data,” Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, accessed August 28, 2010, http://www.dpi.state.wi.us/pld/dm-lib-stat.html.
- “2010 Wisconsin Public Library Service Data,” Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, accessed December 2, 2011, http://www.dpi.state.wi.us/pld/dm-lib-stat.html.
- “2010 Wisconsin Public Library Service Data.”
- “Art-Goers in Their Communities: Patterns of Civic and Social Engagement” (Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Arts, 2009); “The Arts and Civic Engagement: Involved in Art, Involved in Life” (Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Arts, 2002); “Come as You Are: Informal Arts Participation in Urban and Rural Communities” (Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Arts, 2010); Kevin F. McCarthy, Elizabeth H. Ondaatje, Laura Zakaras, and Arthur Brooks, Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts (Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand Corporation, 2004); Bonnie Nichols, “Volunteering and Performing Arts Attendence: More Evidence from the SPPA” (Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Arts, 2007); “Religious Service Attendance and Civic Engagement Among 15- to 25-Year-Olds” in Fact Sheet (College Park, Md.: The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 2007); Jennifer Earl and Alan Schussman, “Contesting Cultural Control: Youth Culture and Online Petitioning” in Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth, ed. W. L. Bennett (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2008), 74.
- Kathy Charmaz, Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide through Quantitative Analysis (London: SAGE Publications, 2006).
- Thomas Ehrlich, Civic Responsibility and Higher Education, vi.
- Howard Rheingold, “Using Participatory Media and Public Voice to Encourage Civic Engagement” in Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth, ed. W. L. Bennett (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2008).
- Jennifer Earl and Alan Schussman, “Contesting Cultural Control: Youth Culture and Online Petitioning,” 74.
- e.g. Jennifer Burek Pierce, “Patterns of Best Practice: Librarians Help Teens Make Tight-Knit Connections,” American Libraries 40, no. 12 (2009): 51; Natasha D. Benway, “Fine Art Programs, Teens, and Libraries Changing Lives One Program at a Time,” Young Adult Library Services 9, no. 1: 28-30.
- Kevin F. McCarthy, Elizabeth H. Ondaatje, Laura Zakaras, and Arthur Brooks, Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts (Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand Corporation, 2004).
- Mizuko Ito, S. Baumer, M. Brittanti, d. boyd, R. Cody, B. Herr-Stephenson, H. Horst, P. G. Lange, D. Mahendran, K. Martinez, C. J. Pascoe, D. Perkel, L. Robinson, C. Sims, and L. Tripp, Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2009), 39.
Shannon Crawford Barniskis has been the director of the small Lomira Community Library since January of 2012. She served as a Youth Services Librarian for thirteen years, and has worked in libraries for 18. She is a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Information Studies. Her research focus is on public libraries and content creation. This research project was the recipient of the 2010 Frances Henne/YALSA/VOYA Research Grant
Appendix 1: The Survey Instrument
Appendix 2: The Interview Questions
1. Tell me about your experience of the six art programs you just participated in here at the library.
a. What, if anything, is changed from the beginning of the program to today?
b. Specifically, do you feel closer to or further apart from the other participants, the library, or librarian?
c. Are you more or less likely to do art now or appreciate art now in new ways?
2. Describe what it means to you to be “engaged in your community.”
a. Do you think that’s different from what adults would consider being engaged?
3. Describe what the phrase “civic engagement” means to you.
a. Do you think that’s different from what adults would consider civic engagement?
4. How do you think art affects you?
a. Does it affect your empathy for others?
b. Does it change your mind about anything?
5. Do you feel closer to other people when you look at or experience their art or do art with them?
6. Do you feel more tolerant of others when you experience their art?
7. Do you think art in general can change how you feel about your community?
a. What about participating in art programs with others that you may not normally hang out with?
b. Do art programs like the ones you attended change how you feel about your community?
c. Do they change how likely you are to [do things teens identify as civic or community engagement]?
d. Do you think similar things happen for other people?
8. Can public libraries affect your ideas or feelings about things?
a. What things?
b. Do you think they can affect other people’s ideas or feelings?
9. Can they affect civic/community engagement?
a. How can libraries do better at this?
10. Do public libraries support teens?
a. How can they do this better?
11. How are you engaged either in your community or in the civic way?
a. Do you feel like you can or want to [mention things teens identify as civic or community engagement]?
b. Do you want to be more or less or differently engaged?
c. What stops/helps you?
d. What could be changed in the community to help you become engaged like you want to be?
12. Do adults listen to you?
13. If you made art, do you think adults would pay attention to it?
a. Do you think other teens would?
b. What you think would happen then to your feeling of engagement or being listened to?
14. Do you have a venue to share your opinions? Or your art?
a. Would you share it if you had a venue?
15. Let’s talk about respect. Respect others have for you or you have for others, respect you have for the library, or the library has for you, respect you have for the artists we just met or the artists have for you. What’s the story there?
16. I gave you guys a survey before the art program started and at the last program. I asked you all sorts of questions and I was a little tricky. I asked some questions that I’m not actually researching—for example, how important you think sports are, or the latest fashions. Those questions are interesting in that they gave a kind of picture of this particular group of people, but you can probably tell from the questions I’ve been asking during this interview that what I’m really interested in is civic and community engagement. So looking at the questions surrounding civic and community engagement in the surveys, there were some major shifts before and after. I want to ask you why you think these things changed. [Hand out graphs.]
17. What does it mean to be valued by your community?
18. Before the art programs began, several of you indicated that you really disagree with the statement “I feel like a valued member of my community.” After the six programs, no one said they disagreed with that statement, a couple people decided they strongly agreed, more people said they agreed, and everybody else was neutral. Why do you think this changed?
19. The statement “I am willing to take action in my community to make things better” also saw a large shift. Before the programs, some people disagreed with that statement and only a couple strongly agreed. After the six programs, a lot more people strongly agreed and nobody disagreed. Why do you think that happened? What kind of action are we talking here?
20. Other shifts occurred with the question about volunteering and the question about writing a letter to the editor. There was also a little change in people agreeing with the idea of remaining in this community after they turn 18. What do you think happened here?
21. Another change was how many people agreed that they were likely to join a club or participate in community events. Why do you think that changed?
22. Last question: How do you think other teens feel about art, civic engagement, and libraries? And how do you think adults feel about it?