Jennifer Velasquez: San Antonio librarian for teens is a "cool" Mover and Shaker
Jennifer Velasquez has a revolutionary concept about the role of public libraries.
“A library isn’t a 'shhh' place,” said Velasquez, the Teen Services Coordinator at the San Antonio Public Library.
Velasquez’ pioneering ideas won her the 2011 Movers & Shakers award of the Library Journal for being an innovator and a "Teen Transformer."
The Library Journal cited her for taking “service to the next level by thinking transliteracy, solving spatial disconnects, giving teens power, and connecting students to e-content - not to mention just being cool.”
Velasquez, 45, joined San Antonio's public library in 1995, when the new six-story "Red Enchilada" Central Library opened in downtown at 600 Soledad Street. (She also is a member of the NOWCastSA board of directors.)
Then, working as a librarian in the fiction section, she realized there was no place or budget dedicated just to teens. A year later, the library applied for a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant to bring computers to the library.
They got it. In 1997, the library obtained eight computers for teens, officially launching the library's Teen Services.
“It was just amazing. It was the first place that had public access to computers,” said Velasquez. “It was as if somebody flipped a switch. We never had a need to advertise.”
She has been the teen services coordinator since 2000, collaborating with the 26 branches of the San Antonio Public Library and increasing the circulation of teen material by 250 percent from 2003 to 2009. And the teens? They keep flocking. Attendance has risen by more than 150 percent from 2005 to 2009.
On the first floor of the Central Library, where Velasquez' Teen Services is located, you can find teens on computers, taking computer classes, immersed in books, listening to music, participating in book clubs, doing homework, taking cooking classes, and sometimes, just plain lounging - even napping.
"The teens had a better idea than I did of what was needed. It sort of shaped the role of a teen librarian. I just facilitated what they want," she said.
And what do teens want?
“They want a place that welcomes them, they want a role in decision-making, a place that responds to their needs, where they can congregate, socialize, and have a relationship with adults that care about them, who are not their teachers or parents," said Velasquez.
Velasquez is keenly aware of public libraries' ability to help narrow the so-called "digital divide" or gap between people with limited or no access to digital information technology and people who have effective access to the skills and technology.
As she sees it, the library "is a free university" that empowers students with research and evaluating skills "they can apply to anything, to any assignment or in their lives."
Teens also are using technology in different ways, presenting a challenge to libraries across the U.S. which must step up to the plate and keep up, she said.
"Teens have expectations of technology and they have a particular way of using technology," she said. For example, she said 60 percent of teens use smart phones "to search for news - that's information-seeking behavior!"
Velasquez' current goal is to have third floor of the Central Library dedicated to teens by 2013 - a fitting date, she said, because 13 is the first "teen" year.
Teen focus groups told her what they want the new place to be: A "state-of-the-art" 21st century space where they can do homework, with a kitchen so they can learn to cook nutritious meals and with technology that lets them learn to be "content creators and contributors."
"San Antonio’s teens deserve the best – and we hope to garner community support to provide teens with access to vibrant resources ... to foster academic success where ‘outside-of-the classroom learning' blossoms," she said.
For more on the library's teen services, read their teen blog, follow them on Twitter @210teenlibrary, and check out a recent article by The Associated Press that appeared in the Washington Post and other publications.
Disclosure: Jennifer Velasquez is a member of the NOWCastSA board of directors.