New Ideas for Libraries to Engage Families and Youth

Jun 11 2018

Learn how libraries are engaging families with school-age children to learn together, explore cultural topics, and find resources to plan for their future.

Libraries focus many of their efforts on engaging families with young children—through story times, hands-on science activities, and crafts. But we’re seeing in the latest entries submitted to our Living IDEABOOK that library leaders are also broadening opportunities for families with school-age children to learn together, explore cultural topics, and find the resources they need to plan for their future. Through art, in- and out-of-school learning experiences, and digital media, libraries are finding innovative ways to strengthen connections between parents and children, building on the assets of their communities and being responsive to local needs.


 1.     Engaging families and youth through art

In 2016, Project Zero, based at Harvard University, released a book (Participatory Creativity: Introducing Access and Equity to the Creative Classroom) showing that there are multiple ways for students to participate in the creative process, and that cultural heritage and social justice are vehicles for encouraging innovative ideas.

That’s what’s happening in Los Angeles, where families are exploring these themes through art projects and exhibitions that take place in the library and in other community settings. In Art Without Walls, for example, the Hammer Museum and a downtown-area branch of the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) teamed up to give families opportunities to create art inspired by themes in children’s literature and by works on display at the museum.

Members of the Los Angeles community were also involved in the planning for Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in L.A., a multigenerational initiative that increases awareness of migrant communities and provides an array of opportunities to experience part of the city’s history. Also comprising multiple partners, the project gives students and families a variety of ways to participate—watching a film, listening to audio, attending public readings, and doing hands-on activities.

At Converse Public Library, outside San Antonio, Texas, children gained confidence as readers and learned about different cultures through the Día Family Book Club. The weekly gathering also included a craft activity related to the book’s topic—an aspect of the program that has continued even though the original state grant that supported the effort has expired.

These examples show that art and literature can connect families to their personal histories and to those who are just now learning about their family’s culture.

2.     Engaging families through in- and out-of-school experiences

Libraries complement and build on what students are learning in school and give family members opportunities to participate in their children’s learning in ways that might not take place during the school day. These connections are even stronger when librarians form partnerships with educators. In fact, partnerships focused on learning can create several touch points for family engagement across a community.

That’s what’s happening in Wisconsin, where Sue Abrahamson, the children’s librarian at Waupaca Area Public Library, encourages all staff librarians to attend PTA meetings. “The results have been rewarding,” she writes in this post. News about the library is now included on the agenda of PTA meetings. In addition, the partnership for learning has led the local school district to loan its technology devices to the library during the summer so that that students and their families have more access to digital learning resources.  

Although cooking encompasses many math, science, and literacy skills, schools often don’t have time to include meal preparation in the curriculum. At Lindenhurst Memorial Library in New York, however, families are cutting, measuring, and mixing ingredients for a main dish, snack, or treat they can take home to cook. The program, created in partnership with a local chef, helps family members bond with each other and teaches students important life skills.

Libraries are also giving teens opportunities to apply 21st-century skills as they prepare for their future. In Arizona, the Pima County Public Library’s Teen 365 program allows students to pursue their own interests through volunteering, internships, and leadership opportunities, while these activities also contribute to supporting the youth in becoming members of a more skilled workforce. Through certificates of accomplishment and prizes, teens find ways to share their interests with family members.

In some cases, students are out of school because of issues beyond their control—such as natural disasters. But libraries are showing they can be part of a recovery effort and keep learning opportunities flowing when families are in need. Following the devastation of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, the Dallas Public Library worked with emergency management personnel to bring library services to families displaced during the storm. When the city’s convention center was turned into a shelter, librarians organized story times and craft activities, and fielded requests from other professionals who wanted donate time, books, and other resources.

3.     Engaging families through digital media

Technology permeates all aspects of family life—from parents using apps for ideas on how to create learning moments with toddlers to giving teens and adults media literacy skills so they can safely navigate their way in a digital environment. In Children and Families in the Digital Age, several researchers make the point that digital media can serve as a catalyst for individual and co-learning in families and open conversations about the digital lives of youth. 

When Julie Kinney of the Marathon County Public Library in Wisconsin consulted teens on issues of online safety, she learned that they wanted their parents to have a better understanding of how they use social media. She worked with the teens to create a presentation for parents and incorporated local data from a youth risk-behavior survey. “Acting as a bridge between our teens and their parents allowed the library to have a meaningful impact on helping families to understand cybersecurity in a new way,” she writes.

And as several teachers from the local school system served by Wisconsin’s Waupaca Area Public Library retired, they asked parents and other community members to donate to the library in lieu of personal gifts, since staying on the forefront of digital trends and acquiring the latest technology requires considerable resources. This generous act is representative of the growing partnership between the library and its community.

Keep following our Living IDEABOOK for more inspiring stories of how libraries are leading the way on family engagement, and we encourage you to submit your own examples.