Imagine walking into a public library filled with PlayStations, Wii game consoles, and electric keyboards pumped up to maximum volume. Teenagers are munching on snacks, checking out laptops and slouching on sofas or beanbags. A carousel of computers sits in the middle, navigated to Facebook.
That’s exactly how one enormous room on the ground floor of the Chicago Public Library’s main branch functions. And this noisy library model is expanding around the country. The Miami-Dade Public Library in Florida was planning to open a high-tech teen room this winter. The Hartford Public Library of Connecticut will open one later this year. Four museums and eight libraries—from California to Missouri to Pennsylvania—recently received a total of $1.2 million in grants to design new teen spaces for the digital age.
The grants come at a time when public libraries are slashing hours, staff, and budgets, but are still trying to engage younger visitors by spending money on technology.
“Libraries struggle with how to stay relevant to teens,” says Amy Eshleman, an assistant commissioner at Chicago Public Library. Eshleman helps oversee the 5,500-square-foot space, known as the YOUmedia lab. “We think this is how libraries should look in the future.”
On a recent afternoon, youth mentors circulated through the airy room, teaching teenagers how to make films and work with multimedia. A group of girls was shooting a talk show, using a laptop camera and external microphone. Others played guitar and keyboards, or shared poetry and songs.
Yet some librarians caution that there are downsides to running a cacophonous disco inside the library. “I think it’s a violation of what some kids need,” says Barbara Stripling, a professor in Syracuse University’s school of information studies. “Some people could block it out. For others, it’s a distraction. It’s irritating. It’s too loud [for people] to be thoughtful and reflective.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2012 edition of Digital Directions as Louder Libraries for a Digital Age Opening Across United States