Across the country, libraries are closed to the public to limit the spread of Covid-19. Unable to open their doors to their communities, youth services librarians have taken their programs online. Some have reimagined tried and true programs, while others have tapped into rising trends, setting up community spaces in unexpected places. PW has compiled five innovative approaches to teen programming, including fresh takes on trivia, gaming, scavenger hunts, and social media challenges.

Virtual Teen Trivia Nights

Wright Memorial Library in Oakwood, Ohio successfully hosted a virtual trivia night, a program that was originally being planned as a late March program. “Ohio was already on stay at home orders at that time,” said teen services librarian Diane Bengson, but she continued to hold Google Hangout meetings with the teen advisory board (TAB), who helped finish planning the event and decided to host the program online. The virtual trivia night took place on April 21 from 5:30–7:00. Bengson said that TAB chose a Tuesday evening as “the school gives [students] a day off on Wednesdays to catch up with their virtually assigned schoolwork.”

According to Bengson, “This was the first time I’ve tried anything like this. It was appealing because TAB was enthusiastic about it; they liked the idea of doing something fun online with their friends. Those who participated all agreed that they’d love to do it again.”

Her biggest obstacle, Bengson said, was figuring out the technology, but coworkers helped her run beta tests. In the future, however, she plans to use a paid Zoom account, so the library won’t be limited by the 40-minute sessions available with a free account.

Bengson used Zoom and Keynote to display the trivia questions. “I chose Zoom because [the teens] wanted to play in teams and Zoom offers the option to break into timed private rooms so team members could chat with each other.” Bengson would display the question and read it aloud, then send teams to the breakout rooms for 30 seconds. Team leaders would give the answers, alternating who answered first between the two teams. With 10 participants, Bengson feels the program was a success, noting that “while those aren’t huge numbers, they are very good numbers during this unusual time.” She reported that the library’s last event planned by TAB had 23 attendees, which is “on the large side” for her library.

Bengson has also been hosting weekly Teen Writing Club meetings using Google Hangout, with three to six participants each time. “One of the participants used to live here [in Ohio], but is now living in Texas, and is so happy to be able to join us! There are some unexpected silver linings during this time.”

At Eagle Valley Library District in Eagle, Colo., teen services specialist Savannah Shifrin transformed a regular in-person program to an online platform. Shifrin put the questions together on Google slides, with questions directly followed by answers. She then used the “share screen” option via Zoom to show the questions to participating teens. The participants sent answers via “chat,” making it easy to see who answered fastest and to award bonus points. Shifrin also utilized the private chat feature in Zoom for teams to chat before responding to the question. Category topics included “Name That Musical,” “Name That Phobia,” and “Weird Fruit Facts.” An e-gift card was sent to the winner.

While it wasn’t unexpected, Shifrin said it was more difficult to schedule programs for teens virtually than it is when the library is open because the library usually holds teen programs in the evening, but the library currently has limited hours, which means programming is limited to the hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. “The earlier time did not work for a lot of my students. It seems like every teacher and every school has slightly different times when they are doing “live” classes or office hours, so that has been difficult to navigate, especially in my newly changed daily schedule,” Shifrin said. She also struggles to promote programs, as, historically, teens seem not to check the library’s website or social media about upcoming events, opting instead to ask Shifrin when visiting the library.

Despite the difficulties in reaching the intended audience, Shifrin said the program felt like a success. “The teens who participated were so excited to see each other, and it was energizing for me to be able to see their faces!” Normally, a program’s success is measured by attendance, but now, Shifrin said, “The disappointment the teens expressed when the program ended indicated success. I told them they should just call each other after our program was over so they could continue hanging out virtually, and they did!”

Creating a Virtual Community Space

Kalamazoo Public Library in Kalamazoo, Mich., is hosting a weekly program they’ve dubbed Animal Crossing with KPL Staff, in the hope that, for an hour each week, “patrons can not only escape from the worries of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also “talk” to library staff or make some new friends. “Anyone who plays Animal Crossing: New Horizon knows that exploring news islands, seeing what others have built, and collecting new items is, in itself the best prize!,” said Kevin King, head of community engagement.

King reported that KPL had “dabbled” in online programming in the past, but because of the library system’s closure due to Covid-19, it was clear “we had to redouble those efforts.” In communicating with staff during the first week of the closure, many mentioned playing the new Animal Crossing game for Nintendo Switch, which led to a conversation about turning the game into a program and a call to staff for willing participants. Eventually, it was determined that posting each island’s Dodo Code 30 minutes before the start of the program was the most straightforward way to invite patrons to visit library islands.

King called the program successful in “two unique ways.” Staff members opening their island to patrons include “librarians, administrators, library aides, and substitutes. It is not often you get such a diverse group of staff, from different departments, assisting with a program.” Second, more than 20 “island hoppers” traveled between four islands, playing games with KPL staff, trading items, and playing magical chairs. One patron even “created his own Kalamazoo Public Library shirt, complete with logo.”

“In regard to measuring a program’s success,” King said, “anything that can elicit so much joy in both staff and patrons during a worldwide crisis is a victory.”

Online Scavenger Hunts

Some libraries have hosted online scavenger hunts designed for teen patrons. In Michigan at the Clarkston Independence District Library, teen librarian Alayna Jones hosted a “Quaranteen” Online Scavenger Hunt for teens in grades six through 12 as a way to stay connected and help them navigate the library’s online resources if they needed them. Jones used Google Forms to create the scavenger hunt, but wasn’t sure if the programs would reach teens: “We use Facebook and Instagram to promote our programs and I know my Teen Lead group has told me that they and their peers don’t use Facebook much anymore. I was afraid the teens wouldn’t see it.” Jones reported that 24 teens participated in the program, which is comparable to her in-person programming during the library’s summer reading program. Originally, Jones planned to award a $20 Amazon e-gift card to one winner, but, given the number of participants, two gift certificates were awarded.

At Florence Lauderdale Public Library in Florence, Ala., young adult librarian Kristen Tippett Briggs created two online scavenger hunts. The first, called simply “Teen Internet Scavenger Hunt,” was created in Google Forms for participants ages 11 to 18 and asked questions about various authors and about the library’s website. Briggs said, “The scavenger hunt also included fun things on the web like taking tours of museums and describing what they saw.” Briggs has since created a scavenger hunt specifically for National Poetry Month. This poetry scavenger hunt challenges teens to find famous poems online, then answer questions about the poem.

Briggs was happy with the response the scavenger hunts have received, saying that the number of participants exceeded her expectations.” While virtual events are uncharted territory for Briggs, she said that “this situation has afforded [the library staff] a great opportunity to explore a new avenue to reach our community, especially our teens.” New to her position and concerned about losing her budding relationship with the community, Briggs was eager to try something new: “People are noticing and realizing that the library isn’t just about being in a physical building. If anything, I feel this crisis has challenged all of us to reach people in a different way and to do what we do best: assisting, helping, and providing a variety of services to our communities any way we can.”

Weekly Teen Social Media Challenges

While closed to the public, Westland Public Library in Westland, Mich., has been hosting weekly social media challenges for teens. The first week, the library hosted a “Teen Pet Parade,” asking teens to share a photo of their pet on Facebook or Instagram and tag @westlandteens. This week, the library is hosting a “Virtual Art Show,” while next week will feature a “Get Active Challenge.” Each week, one winner is selected at random to receive a $25 Amazon e-gift card. Youth and teen librarian Nicole Sype said she hasn’t used social media for programs like this before, but she’s “excited for the opportunity to reach teens where they are.”

One unanticipated obstacle Sype encountered was verifying that photos were submitted by teen and their parents. “Normally this wouldn’t be a concern because we would be interacting with participants in person,” she said, “but we wanted to make sure that prizes were awarded to teens.” During the first challenge, Sype found that there was also a learning curve with Instagram. “I learned that if an Instagram user wasn’t following our account, we wouldn’t receive any notification that they tagged us,” she said. “I now specify that they need to follow us before sharing their photo.”

Before the library shutdown, Sype reported that there were “very few teens” following the library on social media and “almost none interacting” with library posts. Since posting the first challenge, the library has noticed a large increase in account followers, specifically teens, with 12 teens submitting challenge entries, which is “around the number of teens [the library] usually has attend physical programs.” Sype plans to continue to track how many submissions each challenge receives and new account followers to help measure the success and impact of the program, but said, “ultimately, if we’re able to get a few submissions for each challenge, we will consider it a success.”