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Computers, Comic Books Drawing Teenagers to Library

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With game and music CDs, the Internet and magazines like Guitar Player and Mad, L.A.'s downtown library is getting good buzz among youths. Other branches--and cities--follow suit.

October 24, 1999|BOBBY CUZA and ANN L. KIM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Engrossed in a game of Mortal Kombat, 13-year-old Terell Briggs unleashes a flurry of karate chops and flying kicks on his computer screen.

Dominique Manson, 18, thumbs through a copy of Mad magazine. Nearby, Armando Caselin, 17, checks out a Web site for Dragonball, a popular Japanese anime.

A local arcade or a Friday night sleepover? Hardly.

This is the Teen'Scape room at the downtown Los Angeles Public Library, which has launched a concerted effort to remake its image as something more than a hide-out for highbrows.

Devoted exclusively to teenagers--a group that historically stays away from libraries in droves--the classroom-size area on the main branch's second floor is equipped with six online computers and three other monitors for computer games. Shelves are stocked with comic books, magazines about sports and teenage issues like dating, and at least two copies each of every high school student's dream: Cliff's Notes.

And in January, library officials plan a $350,000 expansion that will triple the space and add 14 Internet connections, three glass-enclosed study rooms and a lounge with cushy armchairs. The crowning touch: walls lined with listening stations to sample a collection of 2,000 pop CDs.

Experts say what is happening in Los Angeles represents a movement among libraries in Southern California and nationwide to attract more users between the ages of 12 and 18.

"More and more libraries are rediscovering teens or discovering them for the first time," said Michael Cart, former president of the Young Adult Library Services Assn., a division of the American Library Assn.

"Teenagers are in fact a very separate, very distinct part of our population," he said. "The teenage years are years of intense isolation, and libraries can help them understand that they are not alone."

But there's more than altruism behind the interest in teenagers, Cart and others concede. Among the factors driving the niche-marketing campaigns are:

* The teenage population boom. After a decline in numbers between 1977 and 1992, teenagers are now one of the fastest growing segments of the population. Libraries are starting to compete with Madison Avenue, Internet firms and other commercial ventures for a share of this burgeoning market.

* Better funding. Teenage services were the first to go during the belt-tightening years after Proposition 13. Now that the local economy is flush, libraries are again bulking up their young adult services.

* Technology. Libraries have discovered that their Internet connections are teen magnets.

"When it comes to kids who are not so interested in what traditional libraries have, the computers draw them in," said Teen'Scape librarian Erik Surber, 29. "They branch out from the computers to the other things."

Teen Use of Library Rising

Indeed, teenage use of both computers and books is up, library officials say. Teen'Scape computer use increased 26%, to 21,548 hours, from 1997 to 1998; circulation of adolescent reading materials jumped 36%, to 31,300 titles.

Encouraged by such numbers, librarians are now less interested in shushing than tuning in to teenagers.

In Orange County's Rancho Santa Margarita, for instance, the branch library recently hosted a teenage poetry coffeehouse event, where budding adolescent writers were encouraged to share their work.

Other branch libraries throughout Orange County also are starting to form teen advisory councils to help figure out new ways to draw the younger crowd, said Lynn Eisenhut, children's services manager for the county system.

The city of Seattle, which is building a new main library with a teenage section, has convened a committee of teens who will offer suggestions on the design of the space, said city librarian Deborah Jacobs.

In Los Angeles, teenage feedback has spawned ideas such as the annual Teen Comic Art and Animation Festival, which last year drew more than 10,000 teens to the Central Library in a single day. The library once sponsored a drama production written and performed by teenagers. Next month, it will hold a workshop on "How to Write a Great College Application Essay."

Perhaps the best ongoing example of collaboration, though, is the Teen'Scape room.

The concept came about in the wake of the 1992 riots when librarian Anthony Bernier saw what he called a gaping hole in the library system's teenage services. He and a colleague held a conference for about 50 local teens to come up with ideas, among which was the room's name--meant to convey both a sense of ownership and escape.

The dialogue didn't stop after the room opened in 1994. Librarians left out a notebook for teens to scribble in their suggestions.

"They were very specific about what they wanted: 'Please get Beckett's [trading card price guide] in here . . . please get Guitar Player magazine,' " Bernier said. "Their vocabulary wasn't very sophisticated. But neither was ours."

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