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Teen Space Spotlight: MLK Branch TeenZone of Oakland Public Library

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Walk into the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in East Oakland on any given Wednesday afternoon and you will know this isn’t your parents’ library. Every corner of the small branch buzzes with youth; every computer taken by happy young gamers and the occasional adult attempting to get something done.

Surrounded by schools, King Branch has long been a haven for youth in the afternoon. Then in 2018, staff transformed our small corner Teen Zone from an uncomfortable space full of book shelves into a cozy hangout with comfy seating, teen-related art work, a computer and large hanging TV screen. The big-screen, which goes on afterschool and on Saturdays, was the final touch on a series of teen-driven updates for the Zone that has secured our place as a real youth magnet. Now on any given day youth can play single-player games like Fortnite that don’t require supervision, or do gaming with a Switch, PS4 or Xbox.

Two high school interns helped develop, implement and evaluate a teen survey that informed how the space was designed. They also helped select the furniture purchased. We had not anticipated how much authentic teen input would change what we did with the space. To help build community, a white board wall was painted in the space and teen interns put up weekly questions for youth to answer.

On busy afternoons, staff lure some of these youth into crafts and a weekly hackerspace program (including our own 3-D printer, thanks to a grant from our Oakland Public Library Friends).

Identifying and enforcing an age limit was an early concern of the Teen Zone. Should it be 10 and up, or 12 and up? This is difficult since many of the youth at the library are in the eight to twelve-year old range, and sometimes older youth are in charge of their younger siblings or cousins. We chose to make participation in gaming age 10 and up. It was immediately popular, and kids lined up to get on the list to play and watch. Some teens argue for a 13 and up rule to be in the Teen Zone.

After a while, staff noticed that girls were not joining in gaming. To address this, we created a Girls’ Gaming Friday, and purchased new games at some of our teens’ recommendations. Almost immediately, girls started hanging out there more. It’s still all boys at times, but the dynamics have shifted.

Recently, a teen gaming advisory (TAG) group was created to shape gaming at King and set rules for the Teen Zone. The group was formed in response to the rapid increase in usage due to the popularity of Girls Gaming, and the resulting behavioral challenges. Although the overarching goal behind the formation of the TAG was to increase tween ownership of the space, in the process, and with staff guidance, tweens are also learning leadership skills. We originally aimed for teen participation, but given who was interested, we included tweens.

King Branch is also home to the Oakland Original Scraper Bike Team’s Shed in our backyard, another great draw for youth in this area. The Shed is a place for the community, and especially youth, to fix and decorate bikes, learn bike safety, explore Oakland on bike rides, and learn leadership skills. When the shed is open, teen presence increases at the library.

These programs have made our library super popular. Some afternoons there are so many youth, it can be overwhelming for staff and adult patrons. Our library is very small, and we sometimes struggle to serve diverse needs. To that end, we have configured our public PCs so adult walk-ins can have access. It’s an ongoing effort to balance the changing needs of our community hour by hour each day.

What do kids say about the Teen Zone? We asked our teen interns Rafeial Wrights and Stephanie Sanchez to collect some feedback from teens. Among what they said: “Fun;” “fun staff;” “great library.” “I come for the activities.” “Coming here relieves stress.”
What they don’t like? “Non-following of rules;” “only for older kids;” “back talking” from other kids, and “a lot of controversy” about gaming.

One of the benefits of our smallness at King is staff’s ability to make adjustments as needed, build relationships with the youth and do our best to keep King fun, safe, and a place our community wants to come to and be a part of.

If you are ever in the neighborhood (we’re a few blocks from The Oakland Coliseum at 69th Ave and International Blvd.), come see what we are up to and say hello!

Written By King Staffers Alison Bowman, Library Assistant, and Celia Davis, Branch Manager

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