If you've visited the library recently, you're probably aware that many stereotypes about libraries are a thing of the past: libraries aren't silent, musty buildings full of grimy old books and librarians don't lurk around every corner ready to kick you out if you talk above a whisper. And this is especially true if you've recently visited a teen space or YOUmedia at CPL, where you'll find intense Mario Kart competitions, art supplies, 3D printers and recording equipment and staff who are excited to recommend the newest books.
But have the stereotypes ever been true? Maybe when your parents were kids? Or, if not then, definitely when your grandparents were kids, right? Well, history proves that our grandparents had just as much fun at the library as we do.
The Beginning of Young Moderns
The first teen space at Chicago Public Library was created in 1941 at the former Hild Regional Library in Lincoln Square. The Young Moderns alcove started as a shelf wedged between the adult fiction and biography sections, with a goal to break down the barrier of transitioning from the children to adult sections of the library.
In the Young Moderns alcove, the books were carefully curated, with materials moved from both the adult and children's sections (since teen books weren't a thing yet!). Librarians made a special effort to make sure that the titles had broad appeal to teen readers and were not required reading at school. Within a year, the collection grew to 1,800 books. Just like today, the librarians recognized that teens needed a space just for them, where they could access popular materials and interest-driven services, without interference from parents, teachers or little siblings.
And the librarians recognized the need to keep up with evolving trends. They regularly removed books that weren't circulating and they changed displays frequently to keep the space fresh and exciting. Around the end of World War II, the alcove transformed into an entire room and by the end of the 1940s, Young Moderns rooms opened at several other locations, including Austin, Toman and the former Lake View branch.
The Need for Teen Spaces
Much like YOUmedia today, Young Moderns spaces didn't just contain books. They were also a place for teens to hang out, do homework and participate in programs, with the goal of making teens feel that the space was truly theirs. Librarians allowed teens to plan and present programs, which included screenings of films like Casablanca, presentations of original one-act plays and at least once, a teen named Ferd Fender showed off his personal taxidermy collection.
But the most popular program was a bi-weekly discussion group that would probably rival any social media comment section. Topics included, "What should be done with defeated Germany?", "Good grades or popularity: which is more important?" and "Are teenagers too young to drive?" Twenty to forty teens regularly attended each discussion, and participants spent hours preparing for each one. The debates often lasted long after library closing time, with the party moving to nearby restaurants and ice cream parlors.
We live in a wildly different Chicago than the Young Moderns lived in. But the librarians who created Young Moderns had a remarkably similar goal to the ones who created YOUmedia decades later: to provide a space where teens could find exciting books, pursue their interests, learn something new and more than anything, feel free to be themselves.