amazing library site for teens: My Own Cafe

I may have simply missed the train on this one, but maybe you did too. Alternative Teen Services posted about it in December, VOYA had an article about it but I only recently learned about My Own Cafe.

What it is? My Own Cafe is a MySpace type website hosted and moderated by the Southeastern Massachusetts Library System, and holy smokes it is amazing. It is a great example of libraries providing an online community for its young patrons, and doing so without being librarianish. At the same time, it manages to be a great spot for kids to learn about healthy ways to be online. Here’s a page titled safety tips.

People don’t visit My Own Cafe for the safety tips though, they visit it for the message boards about sports, music, movies, politics and more, lists of communty events, and MP3s from local bands. I’m sure the librarians hope they visit for the homework help and links into library resources. You’ll see below that their My Own Cafe login automatically logs them in to the library system’s databases. Nice. I think My Own Cafe is the best library site for teens around. It is a great example of libraries translating something that they do well in their physical branches to their online branches: community.

I got in touch with two SEMLS employees, Kathy Lussier, Assistant Administrator for Technology and Vickie Beene-Beavers Assistant Administrator for Youth Services [thanks Beth], to ask them some questions about the site. Emphasis in their answers is from me

Who are you, what do you do and what role did you play in the creation of MOC?

We wrote the LSTA grant that provided the initial seed money for the project, worked with the initial advisory group of teens and librarians and the web developers during the site’s development, and are now providing the funding for the continued maintenance of the site. We also provide the training to librarians to administer the site.

The SEMLS is a state-funded, multi-type library system providing services to libraries in Southeastern Massachusetts. We provide delivery in this part of the state, provide access to online databases, offer continuing education programs, administer ILL and regional reference assistance, among many other things.

Do you know how many MOC accounts have been created? How many posts to the message boards?

We now have 189 users under the age of 20 who have registered for accounts. However, we’re in the midst of an iPod giveaway, so I’m hoping to see that number increase by the end of August. We have had 5,971 posts to the boards since October 7, 2005, which is when we first launched the site in pilot mode.

MOC takes the idea of a YA section of a library website – something that many libraries haven’t even attempted yet – to a whole new level. It is fantastic that teens can have an online identity there. Was that an idea you had early on?

I think our idea early on was that most library web sites are fairly static and unlikely to attract the interest of most teens. We knew from the beginning that to engage teens, we would need a site where the content changed daily and the would incorporate some kind of interaction. We know that teens are primarily using the Internet to interact, and we didn’t think the site would be successful without some component that would support interaction. In our initial brainstorming session with the advisory group, we talked about the possibility of using private IM, private e-mail, blogs, and chat. We ultimately decided to go with the messageboards.

How many librarians have a presence on MOC? How much work is it for them? Do you have any teens working on the site?

We have trained staff from 52 libraries on how to customize My Own Cafe for their own libraries. Most are from public libraries, but we have also trained staff from a handful of high school libraries as well. We have approximately 75 staff members from these libraries who have administrative capabilities on the site. It’s hard to see this from the Guest account, but when a teen from a “real” library logs into My Own Cafe, their library’s name shows up underneath the logo in place of where you see “Southeastern Massachusetts Library System.” Everything on the My Community page is specific to that particular library. It shows the library’s contact information, highlights the events going on in that particular community, and will eventually feature job postings from that town. The teens may also have additional databases available to them in the info center if their library has their own subscriptions.

We designed the site with the intention that it would work for a library even if they could not devote much time to maintaining it. Some libraries haven’t done much to customize the site since their initial training, but at the least they have been able to customize the site enough so that it is a viable portal for the teens in their communities. These libraries are not as likely to have high participation from their teens, but some do find the site and become active participants. Other libraries spend more time recruiting teens and training them how to update the site. We’ve found that libraries with active YA librarians and programs are more likely to be the ones to spend more time on the site, but they are really incorporating it into their existing YA activities rather than adding it on.

We are currently organizing meetings with the site’s library administrators to see how we can get them more actively involved in helping out with some of the monitoring of the site.

We do have various administrative levels set up for the teens so that they can help administrate the site, and several libraries have chosen to work with their teens on keeping the content on the site fresh. The various jobs available to teens are moderating a messageboard (by far the most popular choice), adding events for the library, reviewing music from local bands to decide whether it should be posted to the site, and creating polls for the site. All of the boards are monitored by teens, although we try to check in everyone once in a while to see how things are going.

As if having kids hang out at the digital branch of the library isn’t enough, the site is also set up to connect them with library materials, and it does this without being (lame and) pushy. Once logged in, they can seamlessly connect to library databases. Do you know if they’re doing this?

Of course, you know this whole website was an elaborate way to get teens to use these resources. We don’t make it easy for patrons to use our databases, and we really tried our best to improve this situation in My Own Cafe. Ideally, we would love to use federated search so that we can Google-ize our online databases, but we don’t have the funds for federated search right now, and I’m not sure there is a product out there yet that really makes database searching as easy as Google.

In the interim, we have designed the site so that teens enter their library card once when they create their accounts. As long as they are logged in, they do not need to enter their barcode again. We provide a search box that automatically brings them to an InfoTrac Powersearch search. They also get one-click access to all of our other databases (although we never actually use the word database on the site). We have also recently given libraries the ability to add their own individual subscriptions to the site so that teens do not need to go to four different places to use a library’s resources. When writing the grant, we had looked at brarydog from Charlotte & Mecklenburg County and followed their example in making database access a little easier.

But you asked the question about whether they are actually using these resources? Well, we know the info center will not be the thing that brings teens to the web site. We’re relying on the messageboards and music center to be the draw. But our hope is that as they use the site, they start to discover other resources available to them and begin using them because they are easily accessible. I’m looking at our stats, and use of the info center and the find library materials page was fairly low during the early months of the web site. The info center was the fourth most-visited page in April when we were doing a special iPod giveaway. Users could be entered into a drawing for an iPod if they answered 10 questions using resources in the info center. The questions were difficult, but the info center also includes access to MassAnswers – our 24/7 chat reference service – and we were encouraging the teens to use MassAnswers for the stumpers. In May, the info center sunk to the tenth-most visited page, but there were still quite a few more requests than in months previous to April. There hasn’t been much activity on those pages during the summer, which isn’t surprising. We’re planning a similar iPod giveaway in the fall when teens are settling back into school.

During the last iPod giveaway, I noticed a user had posted to the board about an article she had found in eLibrary, one of our online databases. You can read the post here. She was one of the users who participated in the giveaway, and it gave some evidence that the promotion got at least one teen to use a database for personal use.

Kids have a reputation for not behaving themselves online. What has your experience been with MOC? Have there been many posts to delete? I think that online communities can be self-policing, and I’ve seen some examples of this on MOC. One person gets testy, and others say, “Stop it” or simply ignore the comment.

We’ve also grown accustomed to hearing about kids acting inappropriate, i.e. bullying, foul language, so far our experience has been quite the opposite. The incidents of improper behavior on My Own Cafe have been VERY low. With teen moderators monitoring and editing content, we’ve found that our volunteers have been very careful and considerate in allowing other teens to speak freely and to maintain a sense of respectfulness and an atmosphere where teens can feel comfortable expressing their opinion. So yes, self—policing will and has happened on MOC. Via the net, teens are challenged to articulate their opinions and ideas among peers and it is inevitable that teens will interpret a post as a personal attack. It’s no different from adults conversing. But even when posts are heated, this is an opportunity for teens to practice their moderating skills; some are learning to present their arguments with facts, while others are learning to listen to both sides of a debate. Yet even at this date, we haven’t had to delete a post that our moderators thought was malicious.

The fact that MOC allows for teens to have an identy is crucial because of what they want to do online: connect with others. I noticed that the forums and message boards are one of the most popular sections of the site, one teen having just under 500 posts.

Isn’t that the reason that we post messages online? To connect and meet with new people who share our interests. It’s no different from going to a dance, hanging out at the mall or meeting other gamers. It’s pretty cool to see the types of conversations that go on with teens and even cooler to see how intense some of these conversations evolve.

Another reason I really like MOC is because it is teaching kids appropriate online behavior. This is an important part of information literacy, and I see it as more important than them memorizing that the atomic number for titanium is 22.

A recent George Washington University Study sanctioned to evaluate the effectiveness of the Netsmartz Program in Maine indicated that a teen’s internet safety awareness rose dramatically. Whether or not a teen has participated in a formal internet safety program, any teen will tell you that they have been drilled ad nausea by both teachers and parents on what or what not to share online. Hopefully we effectively added to that dialogue by posting our guidelines to continue practice safety and appropriate online behavior in our Newbies section. However we know that it is still an individual decision as to whether or a teen will abide to the guidelines. But most teens will choose to communicate or opt not to participate if they are not comfortable.

However we are finding that our teen moderators are much more stricter than we are when it comes to appropriate behavior–and even grammar for that matter (laugh). If a situation arises where teens do not feel comfortable, we’ve asked that they contact us via email after hours and of course by phone. Without an opportunity for them to make a decision without an adult present, how else will they learn to be safe?

Although I noticed that many people have YouTube videos embedded, I don’t see many photos on the site. Intentional? This is very different than, say, MySpace where many teens post photos as comments.

As we continue to offer training workshops to our SE members we are encouraging both our school and public librarians to ask teens to use avatars rather than personal photos in their profiles. We’ve had some teens to post photos of themselves (at least we assumed it was them) but it looks like they opted to switch to an avatar instead. But in all honestly, teachers and school media specialists have been discussing safety with teens in classroom settings for a number of semesters and I think teens are finding other ways to express themselves creatively while satisfying the wishes of concerned adults.

If you had unlimited time and funds, what would you do to improve MOC?

What we would really love is to expand our Poetry section to include all things related to art. In this Creativity Center we could house digital artwork and photography, short stories, podcasts, you name it. It is ripe with the possibilities with the proper funding. We just haven’t had the time to seek money outside of our local resources but it is due time. Got any suggestions? 8-)

Many thanks for Kathy and Vickie for this great project, and sharing their thoughts with us.

One thought on “amazing library site for teens: My Own Cafe”

  1. What I love most about the MyOwnCafe website was the attempt to bring together a group of teens on a regional level. I don’t think the web site would be as successful if it was produced for just one library system or branch for that matter. If I was ever in a position to replicate such a project, I would look to the local and regional library system to collaborate (and possibly state-wide!). There is also some excitement, I think, from the teen view of being able to connect with others who might live in the same region, but could actually live far away from one another. It has a pen-pal feel to it.

    I’ve also visited the message boards on there, and found the discussion to be hit or miss in regards to the level of depth. I have been delighted and impressed with many of the book discussions on the message boards and like reading what teens think and feel about the books they’ve read.

    Overall, this is just such an awesome project. Thanks for posting the interview!

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