Teen Idol: Librarian Amanda Barnhart Locks Teens Into Reading

Who says you can't rock out in a library? At least, don't tell that to Amanda Barnhart, young adult coordinator at the Trails West Branch of the Kansas City Public Library. And certainly don't tell any of her teens.

Last Friday at Trails, Barnhart organized a teen lock-in to celebrate the end of Summer Reading. Even though the kids present had all been born around the turn of the millennium, they came prepared to celebrate the party's theme, "You Weren't Here: The '80s," wearing headbands, heavy-metal tees, and neon accessories.

Between turns on Rock Band, the kids engaged in activities such as making wallets from felt fabric and cassette tapes and testing their librarian skills on a scavenger hunt through the stacks.

Like much of Barnhart's teen programming, the evening mixed fun with a little learning.

"Teens really keep you on your toes, they're always challenging you, asking, 'Why do you do that?'" Barnhart says. "It's a different outlook on life that I like to be reminded of. It's like being a kid again."

Devin Day demonstrates a new use for discarded audiobook cassettes.

In her nearly five years of working with teens at Trails West, Barnhart has had to get strategic in her approach to engaging younger customers. Times are different than when she first came to the Independence branch of the Kansas City Public Library eight years ago, following a stint in Outreach. In those days, teens were drawn into the Library by the computers. Now that many have Internet access at home, attracting them is more of a challenge.

"You have to involve them in the process," Barnhart says. "That's the only way it works. When they see their own ideas in action, you know they're going to like it."

Last year, the teens chose their own theme for the Summer Reading party: "Pirates & Ninjas" ("Who else is going to come up with a theme like that?" Barnhart says). Barnhart also motivates older teens by putting them in charge of organizing aspects of programs, such as presiding over the gaming room or helping with crafts.

The teens at Trails West also get credit for maintaining two of the most active (and colorfully named) book groups in the Library system: Oh My Teen! and Barely Legal. The former prefers YA fiction, while the latter goes for more grown-up reads in the realms of romance and sci-fi. The teens came up with the names.

Joshua Whorton (left) and Skye Harned work on cassette tape wallets at the teen lock-in.

Barnhart has recently extended her reach into the Library's community of teen readers by taking on administrative duties for the KC Library Teens Facebook page, where she and her team of fellow librarians, including Wick Thomas (Central) and Ashlei Wheeler (Waldo), post book-related quizzes, take readers' advisory requests, and update teens about events.

"Tools like Facebook are helping us change the way teens see literature as 'uncool'," Barnhart says.

Barnhart has already begun using the Facebook page to promote the YALSA Teens' Top Ten campaign, in which teens all over the country vote for their favorite books of the year from a list chosen by official nominating groups. (Barnhart's Trails teens were an official Top Ten nominating group for three years, from 2008-2010.)

For Barnhart, engaging teens on different levels, using different techniques, is part of a bigger goal.

"I hope to change the way teens see the Library," she says. "I hope they see it as a more friendly place that understands what kind of literature they want and can help them request books before they come out."

"We're always fighting that old image of: You're going to be shushed, you're going to be given the evil eye because you're there to use the computer,'" Barnhart continues. "I want the Library to be more welcoming, more friendly – more, What would you like to read next?"

About the Author

Jason Harper is the Web Content Developer at the Kansas City Public Library. Connect online at Facebook.com/kclibrary / Twitter: @kclibrary.