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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Teenagers, Libraries, the Digital Age

Why Pundits So Often Get the Future of Book Wrong

Yesterday, I heard the YA novelist Sara Ryan in her  librarian mode give a presentation about teenagers to fellow librarians. As she spoke about teenagers, brain development, behavior, the use of libraries, she made two really important points: libraries serve a crucial need for teenagers — a "third space" that is not school or home, a social space, a place where they can be with friends, be accepted, be respected; and, libraries are eager to provide for and work with teenagers’ digital interests — gaming, creating videos, podcasting. The library is both a welcoming physical space, and an environment receptive to teenagers’ digital knowledge, curiosity, and interests. Of course, libraries also have a lot of books.

The prophets of the death of print simply do not know that libraries both allow for teenagers and evolve their services in response to teenagers’ interests. They see "digital native" teens as the harbingers of the future, in which books will be gone. But those very teenagers are finding one of the only places that really suits them is one filled with books, devoted to books, staffed by people eager to show them books that they may enjoy, or learn from, or find useful. Sure you could argue that teenagers just go to the libraries to do digital stuff and socialize, and ignore the books. But that does not seem to be the case. And that is because the libraries are not binary — books or sites, past or future. Rather they offer teenagers many different forms of entertainment and connection, which is exactly what teenagers want.

There is something really interesting and important about the teenager-library fit. Too often teenagers are seen as troublesome. Too often libraries are viewed as marginal. Somehow — as in a novel — the outsiders find each other and build something strong and useful together. I think that the next person to write an article, or do an NPR report, on the digital future, must spend some time with teenagers in libraries, and use that mixed environment as a predictor of our mixed future.