Involving young people – Ruth Harrison

Ruth Harrison
The Reading Agency ( is an entrepreneurial charity which takes a strategic approach to library innovation. We develop innovative national programmes which aim to make a difference at a local level, often in individual communities. We work with public libraries, schools, youth services, publishers – and others to support our big mission – to get more people reading more.

Since 2006, we have been commissioned by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA to deliver the national young people’s library improvement strategy. We model a highly innovative youth-led approach which puts young people firmly at the centre. Our approach combines strategic thinking, new business models and innovative test-pilots. In 2009/10 our programmes involved more than 12,500 young people across more than 75 local authorities.

We are moving to an increasingly integrated model which combines all our experience and learning to promote youth participation and reading to build social capital.

We believe that it is absolutely essential to give young people the power to get involved and influence the running of library services. This isn’t just an aspiration, but a right.

The policy context
In England, Youth participation, providing “things to do and places to go” for 13-19s remains a priority for the new government. Obviously, detailed policy has yet to emerge, but young people’s active citizenship and achievement will continue to be a priority. This is particularly important in the current economic climate, with 926,000 under 25s unemployed (19.6% of all young people in this age group). The Coalition Government is particularly interested in developing social capital, building local community action and volunteering.

Library Offer to young people
Building on masses of research with young people, in 2008, the National Youth Libraries Board (which brings together central government, libraries, youth sectors), launched the Library Offer ( It articulates what young people can expect from libraries – safe, welcoming, spaces, inspiring learning opportunities and creative reading activities. It puts young people’s participation at the heart of services.

Youth Involvement Model
Based on our work with over 70 library services and young people, we have developed a model which articulates what the Offer might look like for young people. It creates a richer picture of how young people might get involved. The key to it is that it’s not a pick ‘n’ mix but a full menu. In this model, young people have a broad range and choice in how they engage with libraries –

• Information , Consultation , Taking part in positive activities
• Volunteering – in service delivery, activism, leadership
• Progression from one-off to longer-term involvement.

And this thinking now informs all our work with young people and with library services.

Big Secret
We’ve been working with young people from the North West on a Youth version of the Library Offer and model, by young people, for young people. It will include films, a blog and campaign pack resources for young people to advocate for and challenge libraries to deliver an Offer that meets their demands. Hosted online on our groupthing website and through Facebook, it will engage young people nationally through our existing programmes and through regional Youth Parliaments.

Transforming services
We’ve been working with libraries for 4 years to help them transform their offer to young people.

In 2007/8, through generous funding from MLA, we piloted a regional change programme in the North West of England focusing initially on modelling increased youth involvement and staff training. In the first year they ran modest projects and opened discussion with youth workers. Following the pilot, Heads of Library Services contributed financially to take the programme into a more innovative two year phase. Focusing on 4 themed work packages (creative reading, workforce development, youth involvement and volunteering), with expert training and support, the region’s approach to young people’s involvement has been transformed. Where they ran one small intervention in the pilot, they’re running larger scale, more ambitious projects now. In its third year:
• 1107 young people were directly involved in planning and delivering services
• 4085 took part in positive activities
• 185 creative reading events took place.
• Regional Youth Council, the Young library Leaders, which has been instrumental in creating the Big Secret.

The results have been amazing and the North West is now moving into a mainstreaming phase, with stronger partnerships with youth services and a much broader offer for young people. We are working on similar transformation programmes in different English regions and are seeing some similar results.

Building social capital

The Coalition Government believes in the Big Society Idea – “to create the largest co-operative, where every citizen can be a shareholder, contribute, receive help and rewards” . Central to this is developing social capital, through community decision-making, activism and volunteering.

HeadSpace ( models a new vision of youth-led library provision and builds social capital. It meets the urgent need for free local, safe spaces where young people can take part in positive activities and volunteering, building their skills and confidence.

With 20 HeadSpaces open, and more to follow, the project gives a clear message that young people are welcomed and their participation is valued. Across the network,
• 5500 young people have so far taken part, 40% of whom are at risk of social exclusion.
• More than half had not used libraries before.
• 2000 have taken up leadership and decision-making roles, including designing spaces, recruiting staff, selecting stock, auditing services, planning and running creative events, and influencing policy makers.
• 300 have taken up longer-term volunteering roles, mostly accredited.
• 36 young people have progressed to long-term work placements as a result of their involvement. Half of these have gone on to find employment in libraries and youth services.

Summer Reading Challenge volunteering
As our experience through HeadSpace can attest, quality youth volunteering leads to increased skills, self esteem and community engagement. Building on HeadSpace, we are working in partnership with 20 library authorities across all 9 regions to offer young people aged 16 – 25 a range of volunteering opportunities in libraries to help with the Summer Reading Challenge ( Summer Reading Challenge is an annual programme run by 98% of UK library services where children are ‘challenged’ to read 6 books over the Summer. 750,000 children participated in 2009). 280 young people have applied through vinspired, the national youth volunteering website, in addition to libraries recruiting 200 young people locally.

There has been country-wide interest in this programme. Our vision is to support all library services to offer youth volunteering by 2012 to help more children take part and complete the Summer Reading Challenge, improving children’s reading and capacity building for young people.

A cultural reading offer for young people
Reading based creative positive activities are a potentially unique offer for young people. Through our programmes, we’ve explored this in a variety of ways.

MyVoice – write or wrong? ( was a creative pilot project launched in September 2009 involving 9 young people aged 13-19 selected from 8 areas. It gave them a platform to air their views on the global issues which they feel passionate about; including anorexia, racism, war, violent extremism and gang culture. Each participant received professional support and guidance by librarians and writers to develop their writing talent, whilst also broadening their reading experiences through library visits. MyVoice culminated in each of the young people co-organising an event at their local library for other young people and end of project events at the Free Word Centre and Channel 4 in London. Their work will be disseminated through schools in England later this year.

MyVoice was a partnership project between The Reading Agency and Creativity, Culture and Education, funded by the Department of Local Government and Communities.

Groupthing is our networking website for young people to have creative conversations with other young people about reading, writing and words, publish their own creative work and get advice from creative professionals. It’s used by 1500 young people and we’ve just recruited a national team of youth volunteers to work on it.

In fact, we take young people’s views extremely seriously:

Young People’s survey, May 2010

391 young people surveyed, aged 13 to 19 38% are non library users.

Survey findings

Need a wider range of creative events and activities, stating that there is little going on locally
Young people want more creative activities; with music (89%), games (88%) and reading (74%) rated the top three.
72% said the thing that’s stopping them doing creative events and activities is lack of information

View libraries as a safe and friendly venue for positive activities.
81% of young people chose libraries as the best venue compared with arts centres, youth clubs, schools, community centres and music venues.

They are motivated to make a difference They’d like to get involved to:
– Buy books, magazines, DVDs, games (80%)
– Help change what’s going locally (63%)
– Work with other young people to set up new creative spaces and activities (60%)

Are interested in a creative programme organised and led by and for young people. They’d welcome training.
They would most like opportunities to:
– Meet writers, artists, and musicians (71%)
– Meet people working in the creative industries (57%)

Recognise the skills that creative volunteering would give them.
– 78% recognised that it would help them get more skills.
– 73% said it would they’d make more friends.
– 70% said it would make them more confident.
– 51% said they’ll be able to get a better job

An important survey. The young people are clearly motivated by wanting to make a difference for other young people in their area and build their own skills.

Where next?
“One thing that really builds confidence is the feeling that you are being listened to. More confidence means that we want to do more things, if you don’t feel confident, there’s fear and you won’t feel motivated. I’ve applied to do voluntary work at the library because I’ve found that I like working with younger children and doing youth work” Khalid, 18, Haslingden HeadSpace

When it comes to developing library services for young people, there’s nothing they can’t and shouldn’t influence!

At The Reading Agency, we have a well-developed integrated training and support package for library services wanting to develop their offer for young people. We are currently developing a stronger push on volunteering and creative positive activities, and seeking new funding and partnerships to support this work.

Now is a time of great uncertainty and change, but great optimism too, with young people firmly at the centre…

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