3.3 Formats

Keep the building pathways and production centered principles of connected learning in mind while choosing the format of your program. How can your program best connect teens to the resources, skills, and knowledge they need or want? How can you empower them to create something meaningful? Remember the principles of HOMAGO (Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out), as well. Hanging out, messing around, geeking out — valuable learning can occur in each of these types of participation. A popular walk-up activity can have a greater impact than an intense workshop series if teens don’t attend.

These categories are not mutually exclusive. Get creative! For instance, Chattanooga Public Library has “pop-up” volunteer opportunities on hand for teens who come in looking for something to do. Many libraries and other educational institutions have mobile learning labs that can travel to neighborhoods or events far from the physical library.

Walk-up programming

Similar to an interactive museum exhibit, walk-up programming takes the form of a display or activity station that youth can walk up to and interact with as much or as little as they want. It can provide informal, interest-driven learning to youth with little or no guidance from library staff. Youth visit the station if it draws their interest, and are provided with enough instruction to mess around on their own. Board games, crafting activities, science experiments, and a set of writing prompts are examples of walk-up programming activities that have been used by libraries.

One-offs vs. series

Programs can be one-off or take place in series. One-off events may be good for testing an idea or partnership, but a series allows a group of teens to develop a big project or “geek out” on a topic. Another successful format is to have a regular time for your program — for instance, Saturdays, or Tuesday afternoons. You can vary the topic or repeat the same type of activity for as long as your teens are still interested. Having a regular program time makes it easy for teens to remember to show up, even if they don’t remember what the topic will be on that particular day.

Drop-in programming

Learning labs and MakerSpaces provide a set of resources that are out and available to teens to use as needed. The resources can be permanently out on the floor, or to save space they can be brought out at certain times or for certain events. Similarly, a “Cafe” program allows teens to socialize and “hang out.” Wright Memorial Public Library in Oakwood, Ohio describes their monthly Teen Cafe as “a laid-back evening of games, crafts, chatting and snacks, all with a video playing in the background” and a theme that is “loosely followed.”

“They say they want to do more hands-on things, but I feel like they don’t really wanna get pushed into anything. So if they… walked by and see, “Oh, I can make a little craft and chat with my friends and not feel like I’m being lectured at again, ‘cause I just left school and I don’t wanna be lectured at.” So I did a lot of crafting, drop-in and drop-out kinds of programs throughout the year, and that’s worked well.”

— Focus Group Participant

Pop-up programming

Pop-up programming can be kept “on hand” and used when a library worker encounters a teen with a particular need or interest. “Pop-ups occur when conversations with our patrons may lead us to pull out our metal stamping equipment or a robot to code, to project a movie matinee, or get creative with our nail art supplies,” says Megan Emery of Chattanooga Public Library. One southern suburban library system has created “programs in a box” that can be shared among branches.

“We just have kids who will just wander into the space and look around and be like, “Is there something for me to do here?” So what we’ve been trying to do is come up with a lot of small, in the moment, hands-on projects that someone could do in a half hour that we have materials for them to play with and try.”

— Focus Group Participant

Independent programming

“Independent” programming, also called “self-directed” programming is delivered to teens to complete on their own time, in their own space. It can be in the form of internet quizzes, puzzles and worksheets that at the library, or craft kits handed out at events. Salt Lake County Library uses all these strategies along with contests for art and other items that teens can create outside of the library or without a librarian’s guidance.

Volunteer programs

Teen volunteers don’t just provide help to the library — a volunteer program (or even a paid internship, if you have the budget) can be a valuable learning experience for teens. Teen advisory boards are very effective in some libraries, particularly if the teens can be given significant input and into creating programs.

“We’ve tried to do a teen advisory board in the past, and it was something that didn’t quite seem to have the teens’ interest. They could come for a couple of months, but then it would just kind of fall off and I think part of that was the way that we implemented it. We were asking them for their opinions on things rather than giving them the opportunity and the responsibility to make a teen program happen.”

— Youth Services Specialist at a rural western library

Long-term offerings

Connected learning “programs” don’t always look like traditional library programs. Long-term offerings like mentoring relationships can play an important role in a teen’s learning experiences.

Beyond the library

Connected learning encourages thinking outside of the library and making connections to other parts of the community. Some libraries are using mobile labs to take the library to neighborhoods and events to reach new teens. Partnering with community organizations or institutions can open up new spaces, new resources, and new audiences for the library. See the Community Partnerships module for more.

Tean Spaces in the Library

“We only have a few meeting rooms. We can take the false walls down and turn it into one large room, but it’s still not large enough and it’s awkwardly shaped… Everything that we do with the kids has to be something that we can easily and quickly set up and then put away somewhere in a storage closet.

— Young Adult Services Librarian at a rural western library

Space restrictions are a common problem faced by youth librarians.1 A few of the librarians we spoke to had newly built or renovated teen spaces, but many spoke of the challenges of working with a teen space that was too small, not configured well, or simply nonexistent. Just as in the design of teen programming, though, teens should have a voice in how the teen space (or the space where the teens tend to gather, even if it is not a dedicated teen area). This will help ensure that all the unique needs of your teens will be met, and also give them a sense of ownership in the space.2 As you create your programs, consider how you can take advantage of your space’s strengths and compensate for its weaknesses. Don’t forget about your virtual spaces for teens.3

Creating a great space for teens

3:02

YALSA Academy

Program design activity: Formats

Describe the format of your program. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this format? Why is it appropriate for your participants and desired outcomes?


1: Connected Libraries: Surveying the Current Landscape and Charting a Path to the Future, by Kelly M. Hoffman, Mega Subramaniam, Saba Kawas, Ligaya Scaff, & Katie Davis. ConnectedLib, 2016.

2: Teen Programming Guidelines. YALSA, 2015.

3: “Connected Learning in the Public Library: An Evaluative Framework for Developing Virtual Learning Spaces for Youth,” by Claire Valdivia and Mega Subramaniam, 2014. Public Library Quarterly 33, p. 163–185.