Thursday, 15 December 2016

“A Place Free of Judgement”: Youth Taking Over UK Libraries

by Bryan Voell

On Saturday, October 29, 2016, something very cool happened in three British public libraries. Capping off several months of ambitious partnerships, teen-centered workshops and arts-based collaborations, the late October event was both a celebration of libraries and an affirmation of the power of teenagers to redefine these public spaces as “places free of judgement.”  The event, part of a larger initiative called A Place Free of Judgement, was brought to life by teens from the United Kingdom cities of Cannock, Telford and Worcester, teens who staged a thirteen hour takeover of their libraries with live performances (including a live web broadcast), storytelling, and a whole lot of art, personal stories and “strange ideas.” 

Photo credit: Marcus Haydock

A Place Free of Judgement was a months-long initiative that brought together teens, the award-winning artists’ collective Blast Theory and author Tony White in order to “engage with new audiences and build library membership by breaking through barriers to engagement– both geographical and psychological and unite communities across the region.” Teens were encouraged through a series of workshops led by Blast Theory and Tony White to “re-imagine libraries, storytelling and their place in the world” at the Cannock Library, Telford Southwater Library and Worcester St John’s Library. 

While the October event was a culmination of sorts, it is not the end of the project. A collaborative book created throughout the duration of A Place Free of Judgment will be published in 2017.

The entire endeavor was made possible by Grants for the Arts from Arts Council England.

We were lucky to connect with Sue Ball, Services & Activities Manager with the Staffordshire Libraries & Arts Service, who shed a little more light on this fascinating project. 

Library as Incubator Project (LAIP): Talk about the teenage takeover aspect of this project. Why was it important to have teens at the center of this project?

Sue Ball (SB): In terms of having teens at the centre of the project – it was really important that we changed young people’s perceptions of libraries.  Teens have always been one of those difficult groups to encourage into the library for us and by engaging with them we wanted the young people to see the library as a space for them and a relevant service.

LAIP: In the weeks since the teen takeover event, what has been the public response to the project?

SB: We find working with children much easier and we work with parents, schools and other organisations to access children.  There is so much competition for young people’s time and they are busy thinking about exams and their future options it is understandable that public library use often drops off. During 2015/16 9.9% of young people aged 12-24 years in Staffordshire were active library members so we want the project to improve this figure. 

LAIP: What did you learn from helping make A Place Free of Judgement a reality?

SB: In terms of learning I was impressed at the confidence & ability of the young people involved and it felt very uncomfortable to me initially to let go of the library and hand it over to the young people.  It was really important to work with our IT Department on the project, especially as the control centre was at Cannock.  I also learnt about the power of social media in young people’s lives.  We know that many people viewed the live recordings.

Bryan Voell is currently the Local Arts Librarian for the Johnson County (KS) Library. He received his MLIS from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2007 and has worked for public, academic, and research libraries in various capacities since 1997. He is also a collage artist and you can see more of his art here.

from Library as Incubator Project

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