On a sunny July afternoon, four teenage girls are sitting around a table, walled off from the rest of the Chinatown branch of the Chicago Public Library (CPL) by a green curtain. They are reading out lines from Macbeth but, despite all appearances, this isn’t summer school— it’s YOUmedia, one of the first Chicago Public Library programs devoted specifically to teenagers.
Started in 2009 at Harold Washington Library, YOUmedia has since spread to twenty-nine libraries in cities across the country, from Portland to the South Bronx. In Chicago, it’s now at twelve local branches and, according to one librarian, intake forms show that the program serves teens from every zip code in the city. Librarians at South Side YOUmedia sites in Chinatown and Back of the Yards say that the increasing popularity of the program comes as a result of its engagement with teenagers through new forms of technology. This engagement comes in ways both political, such as projects highlighting gun violence in students’ neighborhoods, and fun—video games are an effective honeypot. Research has also found that the independence given to YOUmedia’s participants leaves them with a sense of community, and a self-directed willingness to create their own workshops and projects.
That independence isn’t accidental; it’s built into YOUmedia’s educational philosophy, which centers around a three tiered model of “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out” or HOMAGO for short. The hope for the model is that teens will come to YOUmedia sites and spend time playing games or on Facebook (hanging out) where, with the programs and tools made available to them, they will try out a range of different activities (messing around), and then hopefully gain more specialized skills in a particular area of interest (geeking out).
HOMAGO is based on a three-year ethnographic study performed by the Digital Youth Project to investigate the ways in which teens make use of new media technologies in their everyday lives and how that affects the way they learn. The report, titled “Living and Learning with New Media” drew qualitative data from more than twenty case studies. It found that youth are developing new sets of media practices and that learning environments should engage with this “media literacy” in terms that are relevant to the specific social and cultural environments of teens.
That’s why YOUmedia centers provide a smorgasbord of gadgets for teens to play with: there are laptops, a flat screen television, DSLR cameras, miniature DJ mixing sets, 3D printers, PlayStations and stacks of games to go with them, all free to borrow for any teen with a library card.
YOUmedia site manager Heidi Gustad served as teen services librarian at the Back of the Yards branch library for a year before YOUmedia came to the library. Since the program arrived in 2014, she has seen a noticeable difference in the quality and frequency of library programming.
“I felt like my programming became a lot more relevant,” said Gustad. “I had to get really creative before I had access to this equipment…[now] I am able to give teens informal learning opportunities with twenty-first century equipment.”
Teens at the Back of the Yards branch have used the DSLR cameras to start a library news vlog and the circuitry tools to build miniature solar-powered cars. The branch has also partnered with the National Veterans Art Museum for a project in which teens make quilt blocks to express how they experience gun violence. These quilt blocks will be put on display around the city and then added to a national quilt in D.C.
One of the biggest draws to YOUmedia is gaming; video games, according to Gustard and Christina Freitag, the YOUmedia site manager in Chinatown, get teens through the door and using the library space where further informal learning opportunities can follow. Super Smash Brothers competitions attract as many as thirty to fifty players and are run by the teens themselves, who take responsibility for the planning and scheduling.
The organizational experience the teens gain from planning Smash Brothers tournaments demonstrates that playing videogames at the library often has the unexpected side effect of helping teens learn new skills. Freitag spoke about a group of teens that started a YouTube channel to make play-by-play commentary on the video game NBA 2K16. In the process of making these videos, the teens learned how to use the DSLR camera and microphone. That’s not the kind of learning opportunity one would find in a traditional classroom, but it’s exactly what YOUmedia is aiming for.
“We are trying to make things not feel like school as much as possible,” says Jennifer Steele, the YOUmedia Partnerships Coordinator. “We don’t want there to be any association that when our teens are coming in that they are going back to school. But, even with that, we do plan, we have clear outcomes.”
In addition to her administrative position, Steele also coached the YOUmedia slam poetry team.
“For me, being a writer and being a poet, [there is] opportunity to engage with young people who share the same interests,” she said. “So while at the same time we can discuss our interest in writing and practice writing, I also have the opportunity to help them develop creatively. More than just encouraging them to write, it’s also developing themselves as artists and understanding the industry and their options.”
YOUmedia teens at various branches have competed in slam poetry contests, recorded music, started podcasts and created a whole host of other “artifacts,” as student work is called. Chance the Rapper famously recorded his first mixtape at the Harold Washington YOUmedia site. As the Weekly reported in 2015, Chance and other local artists such as Calez, Vic Mensa, and Noname (formerly Noname Gypsy) established fan followings by building on support from the YOUmedia community.
YOUmedia represents a broader shift by the CPL to place a greater focus on engaging with teens. Two years ago—five years after the YOUmedia program had first been put in place—the CPL created a new teen services department, separate from the department of Children and Young Adult Services, which had previously encompassed all non-adult library users. The formative years of YOUmedia, said Steele, made it clear to the CPL that teens have a very distinct set of needs.
“When I was a teen you would get the occasional intrepid teen librarian who would be thoughtful enough to put all the teen books in one spot and label it, maybe get like a bean bag chair,” said Gustad. “And she would get an arts and crafts program once or twice a month and that was usually the extent of it, even as recently as ten years ago.”
Teen usage of the Back of the Yards Library has significantly increased, according to Gustad. The YOUmedia site has about fifteen to twenty regulars who use the space daily, and the group is considering a move to a larger space. Numbers are similar at the Chinatown branch and higher at Harold Washington, which is more centrally located and has larger facilities. The recording studio is always booked for producing music, podcasts, or other projects.
In 2013, the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago Schools Research partnered up with the Digital Youth Network to publish a study on the implementation of the past three years of the YOUmedia program. The study found that teens had been building communities in these public library spaces and considered YOUmedia a place where they “feel free to explore their interests and express themselves.” YOUmedia teens have begun to lead their own programming and take charge of their own learning processes, which is exactly what the program design intends for them to do.
“In the past, libraries were always connecting people with knowledge in the form of books, but what we’re doing is teaching kids where to access knowledge in any format,” said Gustad. “Whether that’s a book, an eBook, a YouTube channel on aquaponic farming, or a blog that’s all about designing e-textiles. Making those connections for the teens that they wouldn’t inherently get in another space—that’s why it’s the future of library services.”