Teen volunteers bring the magic of the online library

When you think of bookcases, you can imagine the maze of bookshelves, tables, and chairs. Or maybe even the squeak of an ungreased wheel as a librarian drives by with a book cart. All of that disappeared when the pandemic hit. But King County teens have finally found a new way to hang out at the library. Emily Chua of RadioActive Youth Media 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.]

O

hen sophomore Shilten Kenzhegazy is looking for 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 where she created a map of an imaginary fantasy land.

“Actually, I still have the map I drew,” Kenzhegazy said.

About a year after the pandemic halted, Kenzhegazy was browsing the King County Library System website. She discovers the programs offered by the libraries, from game sessions to cooking classes. A few programs, including the card-drawing one, caught the artistic teenager’s attention.

That’s how she came in contact with a group of teenagers who plan these events for libraries.

“I went to a couple of their meetings, and at the end of it they give you this survey to fill out,” Kenzhegazy said. “And at the very bottom it was like, ‘Do you want to participate?’ And I’m like, ‘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 visited the library several times a month to find new books. Now she meets online weekly to plan events for other teens.

“Right now we’re trying to do this cooking event, and we’ve been trying to do this book club. We’ve also had bullet journaling events,” Kenzhegazy said. (Bullet journaling is where you organize your thoughts, goals, and to-do lists in a notebook, but with additional illustrations and design touches.)

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All of these programs take place online, but this has not always been the case.

Rachel McDonald oversees the King County Library System’s teen programs. She said the pandemic shutdown has forced them into uncharted territory.

“When we first closed our libraries to the public, we thought it would be for two weeks,” McDonald said. “We realized we needed to think about how we were going to serve our community differently without our buildings being open, and that was a huge shift for us. We were 100% in-person, and suddenly we 100% found online.”

The King County Library System made this huge change in just a few weeks. McDonald’s said it was a little bumpy at first, but they managed to pull it off.

“And we managed to do it in a better way than we ever thought possible,” she said.

Part of their success is because teen advisory groups were willing to step in and work together to put on cool events.

It was hard for teens to hang out during quarantine — chat messages in virtual classrooms were a poor substitute for catching up in the hallways. But the online library lineup has proven to be a great place for teens to vibe with their friends. At the library, the teens found sanctuary by relaxing and doing things they loved.

Kenzhegazy said the library programs are simple and hassle-free.

“It’s like taking things off your shoulders so you can relax and have fun,” she said.

And while some teens craved to be social, others found ways to give back.

Linh Tran is a teenager who volunteers online with the library system as a reading buddy – someone who helps small children learn to read. One of her favorite memories is watching this very shy child become a more confident reader.

“The first time he didn’t speak at all,” Tran said. “The next day he came back. He started talking more, he started reading, and then eventually it got to the point where he was reading all the time.”

Tran says she loves the energy of small children and appreciates their unique creativity.

Volunteer stories like those of Kenzhegazy and Tran underscore teens’ resilience and willingness to adapt during the pandemic. Last year, teens hosted and helped run 130 programs for King County Libraries.

Maybe we can all take a page from their book and let our human need to connect lead us to new possibilities.

This story was created in KUOW Radioactive Advanced production workshop for high school and college students, with production support from Kyle Norris. Edited by Liz Jones.

To find Radioactive on Facebook, TwitterTikTok and Instagram, and on the Radioactive podcast.

Support for KUOWs Radioactive comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center and BECU.

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