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Volume 15, No. 4 • June 2001
• Cover Story •
Using Rock, Hip-Hop, and Rap to Attract Teens
by Jeff Katz

For me and for countless colleagues in the library world, there is no group we work with that provides as much excitement, satisfaction, and joy as teens. At the same time, though, any of us who work with teens would not hesitate to admit that it can be quite challenging to identify, create, and promote a program that will not only attract teens to the library, but will also transform the image of the library from stodgy to exquisitely cool.

Yet, with the "Shake the Stacks!" All-Ages Music Series, Seattle Public Library has somehow managed to meet this challenge. We started with one experimental venture, and it's turned into a wildly successful, regularly scheduled series that has won the support of parents, caregivers, youth agencies, government officials, teachers, media people, musicians, and, best and most wonderful of all, teens and young adults all across the city.

This is the story of a great program series that features local bands and musical artists with high teen appeal who perform "after hours" in a library auditorium or meeting room, which is turned, magically, into a no-smoking, no-alcohol, but very hip "club."

A Great Program Idea Takes Shape
I joined the Seattle (Washington) Public Library in 1998. At first, I had very big dreams of increasing teen use of the library, of getting teens involved, of enhancing the library's image and "coolness factor," and of responding to the actual desires communicated by young people. In order to accomplish these goals, of course, it was necessary to start with some fact-finding. What kinds of experiences did the existing Young Adult (YA) librarians in the system have to share? What was the current relationship between the library and teens in the city? What was it that all teens had in common, and how could we address that? What was lacking programmatically for teens, not only in the library, but also in the city as a whole? What current systemwide strengths could we build upon and how could we use our existing budget and staff in the most creative and dynamic manner?

A great deal of information, surprising and otherwise, was forthcoming. What was extremely and uniformly clear was the fact that kids everywhere were looking for places to "be together" outside of school—places which were safe and non-threatening, but fun, welcoming, cool, free, and especially, their "own." Correspondingly, it was apparent that, although many libraries enjoyed a substantial teen clientele, most librarians felt that a large majority of teens were not making optimal (or, in many cases, any) use of the library (due primarily to inadequate off-desk time, lack of dedicated YA staffing, and an absence of central coordination). Teens, too, did not generally feel "connected" to the library—most saw it either as a place to get some homework information or a fun book, or as a place that had nothing to offer them at all.

This data told us very bluntly that we needed to work harder to reach out and listen to teens, to respond positively and actively to their needs and requests, to talk more excitedly about what we had to offer, to emphasize those aspects of the library that might be most appealing (and astonishing), and to provide our own staff with more opportunities to reach out and to exercise their own creative impulses and inclinations. But how to begin? What could we do that could have the combined effect of attracting teens, raising the profile of the library throughout the community, raising the profile of Young Adult Services in the library system, and responding to the specific needs of young people, YA librarians, and the city itself?

As it turned out, the answer was really very simple: Use music.

Emily Dagg, one of our star YA librarians, had expressed to me an interest in developing an "all-ages" music show for the library—a show designed especially for teens which would bring together some great local bands and musicians to perform for free in the big auditorium in the downtown Central Library in Seattle. At that time, in late 1998, very few such venues existed in Seattle (due to the city's infamous "Teen Dance Ordinance," which has continued to make it extremely difficult for teens in Seattle to be admitted to music clubs and small auditoriums that serve alcohol). Thus, creating such an event would be serving a dual purpose—promoting the library in a very innovative way to bring in a new segment of the youth population, and also responding to the city's desperate need for after-school and "after-hours" outlets for teens. Moreover, teen ensembles and up-and-coming local bands would have a brand new outlet for performing. (As a musician myself, I struggled for years with unpleasant club owners, limited venues, and scant promotion. So being able to sponsor a venue that would be friendly, welcoming, and thoroughly positive was a prospect that held enormous appeal for me.)

At this point, I approached my supervisors at the Seattle Public Library and "pitched" the idea. To gain their approval, I made several things very clear:

This venture was completely in step with our interests in expanding programming for teens, reaching new segments of the population, and creating even more excitement for the library system as a whole throughout the community.

I emphasized that such teen music programming actually could be viewed as a complement to more "traditional" library performing arts programs. Certainly, classical music concerts for adults, ethnic music performances for family audiences, and sing-alongs for children were quite standard fare for libraries. Why not, therefore, offer live rock 'n' roll or hip-hop or even "death metal" shows especially for teens?

I also made it very clear that good security was an important component of this plan. We understood all too well that safety would be a primary concern of all kids, parents, caregivers, library staff members, city and law enforcement officials, and members of the general public. As a result, we stated that Young Adult Services would be working with the library system's Security Office to make arrangements for security guards to be present at every show (preferably in attire that was as casual as possible, in order to reduce the intimidation quotient that might be raised with a more formal police-type uniform). Additionally, audience members would be permitted only in the area adjacent to the auditorium. The stack and shelving areas, library office areas, and circulation desk areas would be off-limits to the audience.

We would be further promoting ourselves by having library card sign-up areas and by checking out specially selected items from the collection. We'd have a staff member bring library card applications and cards, a truck of books, and paper on which to record transactions that could be processed the next day.

In terms of the total cost, it would have been quite difficult to have found a less-expensive program. Our plan was to "keep it totally free" and volunteer-oriented. Yes, we'd need money to pay for the refreshments. And, yes, we would need to tap into the department's printing budget for fliers and posters, while staff members (including security officers) on hand would be paid regular hourly wages. However, according to our proposal, all bands and performers would be donating their time, performing free of charge in the spirit of supporting youth. Initially, too, we intended to make use of the Central Library's generally reliable (although slightly aging and somewhat limited) sound system and equipment. In other words, if we deducted the cost of printing and staff hours (which were pretty much a "given" for any program), you could see that the program was almost completely free. Spending under $100 for a table full of snacks and soft drinks for a program that would last for a little over 3 hours and that had the potential to bring over a hundred people into the library seemed in many ways like a veritable steal.

Luckily, we had a brand new and "revitalized" administration in place that was wholeheartedly interested in the "renaissance" of Young Adult Services at Seattle Public Library. At that same time, they were busy with preparations for a citywide bond issue that would result in the generation of enough funds to rebuild and renovate the entire library system. So the timing of our proposal could not have been more perfect. Happily, mangement gave us the green light, and "Shake the Stacks!" was born.

Preparing for Our First Show
Emily and I dove into the preparations for our maiden show. Of course, setting a date and a starting time were the first orders of business. Quickly, the near-end-of-the-school-year date of Friday, May 14, 1999 was settled upon and the Central Library's Lee Auditorium was reserved. However, choosing the start time was slightly more complex.

We definitely wanted to include as many performers as we could and we did not want the show to end very late, but we also did not want to open the doors "too early." By talking to a variety of teen music fans, we realized that, on a Friday night, most kids were more inclined to gravitate toward events that began a little later in the evening. A show that was scheduled to kick off at 6:00 p.m. or even 7:00 p.m. on a Friday night was just not considered "cool" by many teens. We were worried, though, that 8:00 p.m. or later might be a time that would either discourage parents from granting permission or would prevent us from giving all bands and performers adequate time to play, since we planned to close the curtains at about 11:00 p.m. Thus, we opted for a 7:30 p.m. start, with the doors opening at about 7:15 p.m. to allow time for "settling in" and early dispensing of library cards and information.

The next step was the all-important one of securing bands and performers. This task was certainly a bit daunting at first. Fortunately, though, it was possible to draw upon Emily Dagg's connections in the Seattle music scene and upon recommendations from some local teens. We were hoping for a mix of teen bands and "big name" performers who had some sway in the youth community (to both bring in an audience and to help inspire some media coverage). Thus, Emily set to work immediately on making contact with two semi-icons in the Seattle music community who were interested in connecting to youth: Chris Ballew, former lead singer and guitarist with the defunct (though recently revived) Presidents of the United States, and Ean Hernandez, former lead singer and guitarist with the legendary Seattle combo Sicko.

Securing Chris and Ean, we knew, would certainly generate a "vibe" in the press and also guarantee a fairly substantial audience. Yet, we also understood that this audience would almost definitely be a mixed one in terms of age, with a larger portion tipping the scales in the direction of "post-teens" because of the history that each performer carried with him. It was critical, therefore, to balance the lineup with two groups that were clearly part of the city's teen music scene, and preferably had teen players. So we got a local teen group called Creedo's Hat that boasted Emily's cousin on bass guitar. And, for the fourth and final slot, we made contact with a local group, the Grand Simple, that had been recommended to us at a youth fair by some enthusiastic teens.

We spoke with people from all four acts and explained carefully the nature and purpose of the event and what each performer or group was being asked to do: Perform for free for no more than 30 minutes in the downtown library's Lee Auditorium on a Friday night. And, to our amazement and delight, all four of our targeted groups vigorously agreed to lend their support to the event! (However they did express a fair amount of genuine initial surprise about the fact that this was actually being done by a library!)

Next, we had to get the word out. We sent out a memo that provided all of the details of the program to the Security Office, to the Facilities and Fleet (maintenance) Department, and to the director of the Central Library. This memo included information about desired room setup, security needs, requested parking spaces for performers in the small library lot, and expectations relating to attendance, ending time, and cleanup.

Then we needed publicity and promotional material. After contacting the library's Public Information Office and providing its director with a full description of the show, I made a trip to the library's print shop, had a lengthy discussion about style and content and deadlines, and placed a hefty order for fliers and posters. We agreed that the promo material should contain a vibrant image. We also realized that some catchy name for the show was desirable, but that we would be content for the moment to identify it simply as a "Big Spring Bash: All-Ages Music Extravaganza at the Seattle Public Library."

Both Emily and I also felt it was critical to reinforce the job being done by our Public Information Office by making direct contact ourselves with youth-oriented media sources, youth agencies, and youth-supported local businesses. As a result, Young Adult Services drew up a press release and sent it to as many popular local newspapers and radio stations as we could locate. We not only sent out fliers and posters to all branches of the library and all middle and high schools in the city, but we also recruited a few teen (and non-teen) "liaisons" to assist us with placing this promo material in music clubs, record stores, community centers, youth centers, cafes, and the like. It was important, after all, to present this program as a "legitimate" show, not simply as a "library event for teens." (The image of a "library event" may have discouraged many teens from attending, especially those less familiar with library.) We were pretty confident that kids would have fun and would want to come back again once they experienced the event, but the hard part was to actually get them to show up and enter the library in the first place!

Without a doubt, we were ready to roll. But what about the show itself? Would it really rock?

[Editor's Note: Tune in next issue to see how the first show went, and to find out about the future of this Seattle music series.]

Jeff Katz is young adult services coordinator at the Seattle Public Library in Washington. Previously, he worked in the YA departments at New York and Queens Borough public libraries. He has an M.L.S. from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. His e-mail address is

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