Building Community Relationships During a Pandemic: PHC’s Teen Reading Lounge

by Sydney Boyd, Humanities in American Life project manager


The core of Pennsylvania Humanities Council’s (PHC) award-winning, nontraditional book club, the Teen Reading Lounge (TRL), has always been relationships—between young adults, librarians, and communities who ask questions, share ideas, and develop together. So when schools and libraries closed earlier this year after the pandemic hit, relationships were still going to be at the heart of whatever way the program adapted.

Facilitated by local libraries, TRL is in 20 sites—rural, urban, and suburban—throughout the state, and it is tailored to specific communities. In a free, recorded webinar presented by American Library Association on December 15, PHC members and library practitioners talked about how they continued engagement with TRL in a virtual space. The webinar was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act economic stabilization plan.

Julia Terry, education program officer at PHC, was one of the panelists and told me that many sites actually expanded to reach new audiences during the pandemic, getting higher attendances and engaging young people who weren’t previously connected with the library at all. Librarians worked quickly to foster those relationships by arranging book packages and at-home kits for those who didn’t have easy access to technology.

“I would just say that, if anything, it’s been a testament to how dedicated and creative our librarians and facilitators are and how deeply thoughtful and concerned they are for the wellbeing of their teens during this pandemic, that they’re just doing everything they can to maintain relationships with them,” Terry said.

In March and April, one of the first conversations that happened among TRL sites was a re-grounding in the human connections the program fosters. As a result, another early tactic was figuring out how to get in touch with young people during a pandemic.

“We started by talking about that the purpose of the program isn’t so much the program, it’s the relationships that these sites have with young people…The reason we are doing this work is because we care about young people and their development,” said Jen Danifo, senior program officer at PHC. “We had sites that actually called these young people…reaching out to parents, saying ‘How are your young people? We’re here for anything, as we try to figure out what programming will look like’ …and that meant a lot to some of the young people in these programs.”

The program puts teens first — they choose what they read, and they lead their own discussion about it. In the last year especially, TRL’s teen-led model has opened a much-needed space for teens to be with one another informally where they can talk about relevant struggles in their lives, Terry explained.

“I know as a parent that all the time my kids spend on Zoom is academic, so there’s no social time in their school day anymore—they’re not having lunch break with their friends or recess or any of that,” Terry said. “Literary selections (in TRL) have been kind of a vehicle for them to check in with themselves, kind of talk about some of the adolescent development stuff and identity, exploration that comes with their age that they’re not really able to now that they’re home with their parents, a way for them to feel civically engaged and politicly engaged, (to feel that) their voices matter with civil unrest happening.”

For both Terry and Danifo, the pivots that TRL has made this year to go virtual have also underlined the importance of a community of practice, particularly in a time of crisis.

“I believe people should get, and need, support to do programming—particularly, when we’re dealing with a pandemic, everybody had to shift—for me, that’s when I get excited, the fact that we’re able to support these librarians,” Danifo said.

“A thread through TRL into everything we do is this idea of community-led programming and really that we’re not about coming in and implementing a plan—that we’re doing it with and not for,” Terry said. “(PHC) already had the value of listening deeply to the needs across the communities and across our state, and that has been really valuable and important during this time when everyone is struggling, but in their own unique struggle. That’s been really key.”

Photos courtesy of Pennsylvania Humanities Council


This post is part of “Humanities in American Life,” an initiative to increase awareness of the importance and use of the humanities in everyday American life.