When you think of libraries, you might picture the maze of bookshelves and tables and chairs. Or maybe even the squeak of an ungreased wheel as a librarian comes by with a cart of books. All of that disappeared when the pandemic hit. But King County teens eventually found a new way to hang out at the library. RadioActive Youth Media’s Emily Chua has more.
[RadioActive Youth Media is KUOW’s radio journalism and audio storytelling program for young people. This story was entirely youth-produced, from the writing to the audio editing.]
hen tenth grader Shilten Kenzhegazy needs something to do, she often turns to the library.
She told me about one of the first programs she attended. It was an online workshop in which she made a map of an imaginary fantasy land.
“I actually still have the map that I drew,” Kenzhegazy said.
About a year after the pandemic shut down, Kenzhegazy searched the King County Library System website. It was there that she discovered the programs the libraries offer, from gaming sessions to cooking classes. A few programs, including map drawing, caught the artistically gifted teenager’s attention.
This is how she came into contact with a group of teenagers who plan these events for the libraries.
“I’ve been to some of their meetings and at the end they give you this questionnaire to fill out,” Kenzhegazy said. “And at the bottom it said, ‘Would you like to join?’ And I say, ‘YES!’”
Kenzhegazy volunteers with the Federal Way Library Teen Advisory Group – one of several teen advisory groups in the King County Library System.
Before the pandemic, Kenzhegazy said she used to visit the library a few times a month to find new books. Now she meets online every week to plan events for other teens.
“Currently we are trying to host this cooking event and we have been trying to host this book club. We also had some bullet journaling events,” Kenzhegazy said. (Bullet journaling lets you organize your thoughts, goals, and to-do lists in one notebook, but with a little added artwork and design flair.)
All of these programs are held online, but this has not always been the case.
Rachel McDonald oversees youth programming for the King County Library System. She said the pandemic shutdown has forced her into uncharted territory.
“When we first closed our libraries to the public, we figured it would be two weeks,” McDonald said. “We realized we needed to think about how we wanted to serve our community differently without our buildings being open, and that was a big shift for us. We were 100% in person and suddenly we were 100% online. “
The King County Library System made this massive transition in just a few weeks. McDonald said it was a little bumpy at first, but they made it.
“And we’ve done it in a better way than we ever thought possible,” she said.
Part of their success was that the youth advisory groups were willing to get involved and work together to organize cool events.
It was difficult for teenagers to hang out during quarantine — chat messages in virtual classrooms were a sad substitute for catching up in the hallways. But online library programming turned out to be a great place for teens to talk to their friends. In the library, teenagers found sanctuary by just sitting back and doing things they liked.
Kenzhegazy said the library programs are simple and worry-free.
“It’s like taking things off your shoulders so you can relax and have fun,” she said.
And while some teens yearned to be social, others found ways to give back.
Linh Tran is a teenager who signs up online as a library system reading partner—someone who helps young children learn to read. One of her fondest memories is watching this really shy kid grow into a more confident reader.
“He didn’t speak at all the first time,” Tran said. “The next day he came back. He started talking more, he started reading, and eventually it got to the point where he read all the time.”
Tran says she loves the energy of young children and appreciates their unique creativity.
Stories from volunteers like Kenzhegazy and Tran point to the resilience and willingness of teenagers to adapt during the pandemic. Last year, teenagers hosted and served in 130 programs for King County libraries.
Perhaps we can all take a page from her book and let our human need to connect lead us to new possibilities.
This story was created in KUOW’s radioactive Advanced Producer Workshop for high school and college students with production support from Kyle Norris. Edited by Liz Jones.
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