When Erin Hoopes applied for a grant to bring Teen Reading Lounge (TRL) to the Philadelphia City Institute (PCI) branch of the Free Library, she was searching for a way to attract that notoriously opaque demographic: teenagers. As Branch Manager, she envisioned a thriving community of teens who felt valued and were invested in the library. “Teens were a largely forgotten demographic group at PCI because we had such a strong tradition of programming and services to adults and families with young children,” said Hoopes. “But I knew that if we could just make PCI a more welcoming place for teens, they would feel invited to attend programs and that the library was an important part of their lives.”
The idea of a library bustling with engaged teens who put down their phones to talk deeply about books might sound a little utopian, but Hoopes, who was named by Library Journal as one of their Movers & Shakers of 2018, was undaunted. After receiving a grant from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) in 2015 to start Teen Reading Lounge, she quickly drew in teens for regular book discussions and activities. The bottom-up pedagogy of the program fostered the sense of teen-ownership she was craving and an authentic community began to grow. “The dynamic nature of the TRL program and the relationships it fostered has helped our teens experience that feeling of being deeply valued,” said Hoopes.
Philadelphia City Institute is positioned next to stately Rittenhouse Square. The library’s upscale location belies its diversity of patrons who come from throughout the city, including the most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. PCI provides a safe place for young adults from all backgrounds where they can build skills and explore issues inspired by reading books together. Hoopes has seen the teens’ confidence levels improving as they support each other in articulating their feelings about the complex ideas and current events that are important to them. Her observation supports a recent survey by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, which found that 80% of Teen Reading Lounge participants reported improving their communication skills and 77% said they strengthened in the areas of critical thinking, problem solving and creativity.
Civic engagement is central to PCI’s approach to Teen Reading Lounge and over the months of readings and discussions the cohort of teens build up to a cumulative project. The latest one involved creating a video about gun violence and “fake news,” which had a few courageous teens approaching city residents in Rittenhouse Square with tough questions. The experience taught them firsthand about the difficulties and rewards of engaging the public in meaningful dialogue. “Those interviews became some of the most moving parts of the video they made and they were especially proud of each other’s bravery in asking tough questions to people without knowing how they might respond,” said Hoopes. These civic engagement activities are challenging and empowering — a big part of what makes the program so popular with young people.
“Miss Erin teaches us that we have a voice and that our voice is powerful,” said Timmy, a senior in the Philadelphia School District who helped create the video. “She’s a great mentor so, of course, she’s going to make a great program that’s really going to open people’s eyes.” Timmy and the rest of the group at PCI were recently asked to write a blog for the Young Adult Library Services Association about their experiences with Teen Reading Lounge. Reflecting on the impact of the program, the teens concluded, “Through TRL, we have become better, more empathetic individuals, and more conscious about the world we live in.”
The youth community sparked by Teen Reading Lounge continues to be a benefit to PCI, initiating new opportunities for growth at the library. “The foundation I was able to establish with TRL was a great springboard for more teen programming and services,” said Hoopes. In July, PCI hosted the attention-grabbing Social Justice Symposium for Teens with workshops on subjects like youth homelessness and activism through art. It featured a talk by Husnaa Hashim, the 2017-2018 Philadelphia Youth Poet Laureate. Erin Hoopes’ spearheading of such compelling programming and innovative events leads the way for how libraries can meet the needs of teens — and how developing a thriving community of engaged teen readers is no utopian fantasy.
Teen Reading Lounge is made possible by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services as administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Education through the Office of Commonwealth Libraries, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, Governor. Additional support is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities.