clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Michael Moran

Filed under:

Young adult architecture

Public libraries offer teenagers space where no one tells them to sit up straight or be quiet

In 1978, South Kingston High librarian Linda Wood decided to remake a room at the Rhode Island school into something she called the Un-Commons: a furniture-less room with cushions on the floor, album covers mounted on the walls, 10 headphone jacks, and stacks of paperbacks, from science fiction and fantasy to mystery and romance.

Teens with a free period could choose a record, sign out headphones, and just chill out. The books didn’t even require a sign-out slip.

“The magic happens because there is hardly a teenager alive who isn’t ‘into’ music,” wrote Wood in the Wilson Library Bulletin. “While their parents shake their heads in disbelief, teenagers manage to read, study, write research papers, and do calculus, all to the beat of rock.”

Forty years later, Wood’s son Dan would have his chance to make an Un-Commons: a teen corner, tucked behind a bookshelf, at the back of the Kew Gardens Hills Library, in Queens, designed by his firm, WORKac, and opened in 2017. “The teen space was one of the reasons why they wanted to expand the library; it was the only new program they were adding,” he says.

WORKac was designing the Children’s Museum of the Arts in Manhattan at the same time, where a primary goal was separation of teens and younger kids. In Kew Gardens, despite the library’s small, roughly square footprint, the kids and teens were assigned opposite corners. The angular roof pops up by the kid area, giving them a view out at their eye level and an array of citrus-colored furniture.

Kew Gardens Library.
Bruce Damonte

In the teen corner, the roof slopes down, the colors are muted: “The teens have almost no access to light; it is a very dramatic space where the roof comes down to the ground,” says Amale Andraos, Wood’s partner and dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

“We just said confidently, ‘Teens are going to like this space,’” says Wood. “The day after the library opened, there was a very goth-looking teen sitting in the corner where there was no light, looking as happy as a goth teen can look.”

Today, it is hard to find a public library that isn’t investing in teens or, in librarian parlance, young adults. New central libraries in Austin, Texas; Billings, Montana; and Dayton, Ohio (among many more)—not to mention the revamped Mid-Manhattan Branch of the New York Public Library and the under-construction Hunters Point Community library on the Queens waterfront—make space for young adults a priority.

Like the Un-Commons, these spaces feature slouchy, floor-oriented furnishings, the latest in technology, and shelves of books kids like: science fiction, fantasy, mystery, graphic novels, movies, and college prep. Why? Kids have playgrounds, adults have Starbucks, but where else can teenagers meet indoors, without charge, and do whatever: play video games, do homework, craft, chat? Linda Wood’s innovation aside, it wasn’t until the 1990s that public libraries realized their most loyal patrons were teens—and started giving them room to act like teens.

The first young adult library space opened at the Los Angeles Public Library in 1994. Local teens named it Teen’Scape and the name was the most fashion-forward thing about it.

“I was a young adult librarian in what was considered a gangland territory branch during the LA riots,” says Anthony Bernier, who went on to get a doctorate and is now a professor in the School of Information at San Jose State University, as well as a consultant on library design.

“I was appalled at the way the media was blaming young people, and I started to think about the role the library had in dealing with young people in a real way, as opposed to institutional responses.”

One of several reading lounges in Teen’Scape at the Los Angeles Public Library.
Tom Bonner/Los Angeles Public Library

Bernier got reassigned to the recently renovated main library, and with colleague Ann Hoffman was able to set up an area for teens: “no redesign, no furniture, no permanent status, no directional signage, or even a place in the building directory,” he later wrote in VOYA magazine.

The experiment proved so successful that the Teen’Scape grew up: In 2000, the LAPL opened a 3,780-square-foot, purpose-built teen zone, right in the middle of the 1926 Central Library. Now there is a “Cyber Zone,” round tables with circles of computers, and enclosing banquettes, entered under a scalloped teal awning. The “Living Room” had a 50-inch plasma screen television, sofas, and movable furniture. A self-checkout system allowed the teens to avoid the adult lines downstairs, while life-size cutouts of Buffy (the vampire slayer) and Yoda (the Jedi master) tried to make reading heroic.

“The catchphrase I developed a long time ago is that there is far more design energy and space given to bathrooms in libraries than there is to teenagers,” says Bernier. “Even after 15 years, spatial inequality remains.” Too often, he says, teenagers are left out of the design process—or adults think that labels alone make an area YA.

View of the Cyber Station in Teen’Scape at the Los Angeles Public Library.
Tom Bonner/Los Angeles Public Library

Bernier also introduced me to the concept of “postural tyranny.” As he and Mike Males wrote in a 2014 article for Public Libraries, “When children tilt back in chairs they are frequently reprimanded and sometimes disciplined. When two teens share a library chair they may receive a negative reaction from a librarian,” but such policing of posture is counterproductive and may indeed go against nature.

Young adults head to the library for social interaction. “One butt to a chair” policies—and the straight-backed chairs that go with them—work against collaboration, conversation, and hanging out.

Once I learned the phrase, I saw teens subverting furniture everywhere. Lying flat on a plus-shaped ottoman at the Hamilton Grange library, while carrying on a conversation with two friends straddling an L-shaped bench. Lying on the floor in a middle school hallway, heads together, completing a drawing. Rearranging chairs into a semi-circle around the cardboard trifold of a science project. Their backpacks were on the chairs, most of them cross-legged on the floor. My joints hurt just looking at them, but their limbs were relaxed, their focus on each other.

Furniture has become the great differentiator of teen spaces: Children get toy corners and pint-sized tables and chairs. Adults get study tables and high-backed seating. Teens get a little bit of everything. Sometimes they even get to choose it.

The game-changing library for designers was Will Bruder Architects’s Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix. When it opened in 1995, the five-story, 280,000-square-foot library was a striking addition to the city’s skyline, with sail-like sunshades stretching up its glazed sides, an airy reading room up top, a desert garden at its foot, and the 7,000-square-foot, purpose-built Teen Center in the middle.

“If you are 12 going on 13, or 17 going on 18, the last place you want to be is at the edge of the children’s section,” says Bruder. When YA books are clustered at the edge of the kid zone, he argues, designers alienate “teens from the library. We want to locate the teens as far from the kids as possible. At Central, or Billings, on their way to find their cool space on the edge, they see the whole adult library.”

Bruder’s team and the librarians held five workshops to gather input on which books, which computers, and which periodicals were needed. Central’s teen space had a dance floor, with music available on request. It had the only vending machines in the library. It had stainless steel tables that were both indestructible and, at five feet, ideal for collaboration. Other pieces of furniture were chosen by the teens themselves.

“We came to them with colors and gave them a talk about color theory, and then we got a whole bunch of samples of modern design furniture classics,” he says, including the ultrasuede Togo couches I’ve long wanted for my own home. “Those are really comfortable, you sit on them and you never want to get up. That shows them not just the intellectual, but the fun part of it.”

Bruder has recently been back in Phoenix: his firm just completed a restoration of the library after a devastating interior flood in July 2017. When the building reopens in June, the biggest change will be the insertion of a makerspace and two glazed computer study rooms. A big blue ellipse of Marmoleum will serve as a central spot for potentially messy craft activities for all ages. But the teen space is staying put.

After a successful $187 million bond issued in 2012, the Dayton Metro Library has been upgrading branches across the Ohio city, with a design team led by Group 4 and with LWC Inc. as the local architect of record.

“When we started our survey of our existing libraries after the bond issue passed, most of them were 50 to 75 years old,” says Jayne Klose, community engagement manager for the DML. “At that point, people designed libraries for adults and kids. We had been carving out corners, putting bean bags in there, adding game tables.”

The design steering committee included a teen librarian, and she worked to engage teens across the branches in the design process, having them submit their own drawings, and creating word clouds with different groups. “G4 uses a lot of dot voting,” Klose says, where people place colored dots on photos of spaces and furniture to indicate their preference—and the teens did that too.

“The teen specialist summed it up: comfy chairs, gaming, being able to eat food.” So, everything you are told not to do? “Exactly, exactly.”

Dayton Metro Main Library
Courtesy of Group 4

David Schnee, a principal at G4, considers Bernier a mentor, and they have worked together on a number of projects. “In Dayton we basically did a complete gut and expansion of a 1960s building” for the main downtown branch. “At the center is this beautiful valley and bridge-inspired atrium, with large stairs, so you are drawn up to the second floor. That’s where you encounter the teens. There’s a media lab, tutoring, and group study spaces of their own. Teens in flowing space that’s close and central is one of our themes.”

Schnee says G4 often puts children and teen spaces close together, because, in projects like the Oakland 81st Avenue Library, they found sibling groups would visit the library together, and older and younger kids did not want to be too far apart. Through planning workshops with young adults, “often administrators and direct users learn tremendous amounts, not just about how creative they are, but how serious they are.” He also likes to let the teens test the furniture, either at the showroom or by bringing samples to meetings.

But alongside that list of teen wishes, the architects and librarians have been able to customize the individual branches. One located right in front of a high school has become a de facto afterschool lounge, with five group study rooms that are in constant use. Another, near a high population of homeschoolers, has a small conference room adjacent to the children’s area for daytime use by homeschool co-ops.

“In the Troutwood branch we are designing right now, it is an inner-ring suburban branch, and the school is rated the third-worst in the state of Ohio,” says Klose. “They see the library as an important partner in the effort to turn that around.”

The next group on the design horizon: tweens. In a town near Boise, the youth services librarian created a tween advisory board and let the children, ages approximately 9 to 12, repurpose a children’s program room after school for gaming, crafts, and reading.

“They put up a sandwich board in front of the library that says, The in-beTween Is Open!” says Gretchen Caserotti, director of the Meridian (Idaho) Library District. “It is all pop-up, but we let them choose the furniture, and the kids will work out what events and activities to have. What an opportunity to harness these kids; they are choosing to be in the library!”

It’s a Monday afternoon, school is out, and the top floor of the Hamilton Grange library on East 145th Street is buzzing. Remodeled by Rice+Lipka Architects in 2011, the 4,400-square-foot room is Manhattan’s largest teen space, designed to serve the neighborhoods of Harlem, Washington Heights, and Hamilton Heights, where 30 percent of residents are under 19. (Kids have their own floor, one staircase below.)

At one end, three young men have colonized the blond-wood sittable steps, which would not look out of place in a tech company’s office, and are playing a street-fighting game on a laptop. At the other, a clear plastic cylinder, nicknamed “the Bubble,” holds a variety of multi-colored poufs, empty and awaiting a scheduled 5 p.m. video game session.

On desktop computers, four players are gaming; one is doing his math homework. Young adult librarian Katrina Ortega walks around the room, gathering participants for a 4 p.m. program called Mystical Mandalas. By the end of the afternoon, there will be up to 35 kids, from different schools all over the city, cycling in and out of the room.

Hamilton Grange Library
Rice+Lipka Architects

I’m expecting some chanting, or perhaps fun with beads or paint, but the program turns out to be more like low-key coloring. Gary DeVirgilio, from the arts-in-education organization Community-Word Project, shows the eight teenagers gathered at the central table online and offline pictures of mandalas. And then they are off, quietly gathering rolls of tape to trace circles, blending pastels with their fingertips, and joshing each other.

“Teens come in to use the space just because it is a free space,” says Ortega. “They aren’t obligated to do anything,” but she tries to incentivize partaking in programs like the mandala-making, Minecraft, duct-tape crafts, and so on, by offering free snacks, the opportunity to work off library fines, and community service credits. “It can be like pulling teeth to get teens to participate.”

But that’s just this branch: The NYPL has 70 different teen spaces, overseen by Caitlyn Colman-McGraw, manager of youth education and engagement. The design of those spaces is as varied as the programming; there’s no one size fits all. She’s wearing a shirt printed with tiny books, and rattles off a long list of programs designed to serve the different needs of teens across the city.

The modest teen zone on the lowest floor of the 53rd Street Branch, designed by TEN Arquitectos, has already been rearranged since it opened, at teens’ request, into long “Starbucks-style” tables between a couple of structural columns. Posters made by the staff indicate the position of outlets with emoji. Though hidden from adult view, central Manhattan hosts a number of high schools, and for students who may hail from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, the library is a convening spot.

Many of them focus on LGBT youth, with anti-bullying programs, talks by bestselling YA authors, and the annual Anti-Prom, which kicks off with a fashion show by students of the High School of Fashion Industries, then moves to dancing, gaming, and the crowning of royalty—“there’s no king and queen, it’s gender neutral,” says Colman-McGraw. This year’s Anti-Prom (theme: Under the Sea) will be held on Friday, June 8, in Astor Hall at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, and it’s all free.

The Mid-Manhattan branch, at 41st Street and Fifth Avenue, serves a number of homeless teenagers, who may be living at nearby shelters. Their teen space is open from 10 a.m. to closing time, because patrons may be pursuing their GEDs, or working, rather than being in school during the day. An Adulting 101 class teaches laundry skills, how to sew on a button, how to fill out a deposit slip. A recent Wired Wednesday tech program covered how to make a GIF.

“Two of our most frequent patrons have been homeless for some time now,” says Ricci Yuhico, head of teen programming at Mid-Manhattan.

“They’ve even started a program: Stop the Barcode—a self-care support group for teens. They produce the entire program from start to finish, every Friday. All we do here on our end is purchase supplies for their program (journals for the positive writing prompts and light snacks!).” It had to be explained to me that “barcode” was a euphemism for cutting; teen space at the library provides them with a time and location they can control, and be, themselves.

In the new design, children and teens will both have space downstairs off Fifth Avenue. Parents with strollers can go straight back to the elevators, while teens can flow downstairs.

“One time one of the kids said to me, ‘The library is the only place we are allowed to be, and just be,’” says Yuhico. “Not being watched over, not being lectured, not being kicked out because they didn’t order anything. That leads into them realizing there is a wealth of resources here. No matter what, we want to make sure we provide the services they need and they want.”

Critical Eye

New York Needs to Rethink Time, Not Space, To Actually Reopen

Critical Eye | From Curbed NY

New York City’s two biggest design stories of 2019 are also design failures

New York City

Navigating the new MoMA

View all stories in Critical Eye