Making Web Space for Young Adults: Issues and Process a Case Study of the Internet Public Library Teen Division

Samantha Bailey and Sara Ryan
Internet Public Library Teen Division, USA

1. Introduction

This paper will discuss the issues associated with the creation of useful, appropriate, and entertaining Web space for teenagers, in the context of the formation of the Internet Public Library (IPL) Teen Division during the fall and winter of 1995.

The Internet Public Library Project (, which began in January 1995, is an attempt to explore the roles of libraries and librarians in a networked environment through the creation of a public library for, on, and of the Internet. When the Internet Public Library opened in March 1995, it had an impressive Youth Division in addition to other services that were designed for adults. Although the Youth Division was innovative and creative, its offerings were clearly geared toward young children, leaving teenagers underrepresented in the IPL. In the fall and winter of 1995, the Teen Division was formed with the goal of addressing the needs of teens using the Internet.

2. Teens in libraries and on the Internet

A 1987 survey of public library services and resources for young adults found that one out of every four public library patrons in 1986-87 was a young adult (age 13 to 19).[1] And although 84 percent of libraries surveyed had some kind of separate collection for young adults, only 11 percent of these libraries employed young adult librarians, opting instead to have generalists provide young adult services in addition to their other responsibilities.[2] These statistics confirm what many have realized anecdotally, that teenagers make heavy use of the public library but are a significantly underserved population.

We can only extrapolate in attempts to determine how these findings relate to a public library in cyberspace, such as the Internet Public Library. There is a dearth of research and data to answer the question, "Are teens using the Internet?" and the related question, "If teens are using the Internet, are they being served?" Anecdotal information is far more readily available. A perusal of the Internet, especially of the World Wide Web and Internet Relay Chat and other chat rooms, indicates that teens are indeed online. For example, a Lycos search on the words "teen," "teens," teenager," and "teenagers," produces 12,902 hits, including such sites as: "The Teenagers Circle: Making the Internet a better place for kids and teenagers," "Siskiyou County K-12 Resource Page/For Teens" and "Teenville Teen Links."[3] Perusal of a handful of these sites confirms that they have been constructed by and for teens, and in many instances teens have begun to develop extensive resources relating to the topics that concern and interest them. Commercial services like America Online and Compuserve have chat rooms specifically for teens, and teens make heavy use of Internet Relay Chat.

In addition, the popular press is rife with claims of heavy computer use by children and teens. In a story that made the front page, a 1993 New York Times article estimated that children and teens made up "tens or even hundreds of thousands" of the 15 million people then accessing the Internet.[4] A Wall Street Journal article concurred, stating that "for many teens these days ... the preferred method of chatting is by computer."[5]

Although anecdotal evidence exists to show that teens are using the Internet, a 1995 study suggests that "teenagers from the 'Nintendo Generation' are not the technology consumers one might imagine from reading the popular press."[6] (In the context of the survey, the word "consumer" implied not only the ability to purchase technological products but also the ability to use them.) Overall findings in the study suggested that, while teens own and use more technological games and toys than adults, this ownership and use does not translate automatically into heavy use of or comfort with personal computers. This survey of teenage use of consumer, business, and entertainment technology found that "those teenagers who used computerized technology could be discriminated from those who did not primarily by family income level, followed by ethnic background and, in some cases, level of technophobia."[7] As might be expected, higher computer use corresponded with higher family income. Furthermore, "Asian and white teenagers were twice as likely as black teenagers and nearly three times more likely than Hispanic teenagers to have used a personal computer."[8] Although these findings do not dispute the fact that many teens are surfing the Net, they serve to caution information providers against the assumption that all teens are comfortable with emerging technologies. It is tempting to assume that every child who is a whiz with Nintendo will catch on to the intricacies of the Internet like an old hand, but to give into this temptation would be a mistake.

3. Thinking about a Teen Division: Issues

During the process of the formation of the Teen Division, we took this information into account, studied traditional library services for teens, and explored the presence that teens were making for themselves on the Web, as well as the sites designed for teens by adults. The conceptual framework for the Teen Division itself emerged as we combined the gathered information with our thoughts on how traditional services could be translated for the Web.

Two issues emerged almost immediately: access and the potentially controversial nature of the Internet. We determined that, while teens have a wide variety of interests, sophistication levels, and needs, teens can be divided into two groups where the Internet is concerned: those who have access and those who do not. We discussed the audience for the Division and the problem that teens without access to the Internet (or teens who had access but were technophobic) would be excluded. We were discouraged by the inherently limiting nature of the medium, but ultimately decided that the first phase of the Teen Division would have to be the implementation of a structure with content that would be useful to teens in general, even if initially only a limited number of teens would be able to access that content.

We concluded that teens who were already online would benefit from the services the IPL had to offer, especially in light of the fact that WWW sites specifically for teens are still relatively rare. For those teens who were just beginning to use the Internet, the IPL Teen Division could offer a "safe haven" or "jumping off point" that they could rely on to navigate potentially confusing new territory. Teens with more Internet experience could also benefit from the Division, but might be particularly suited to participation in an interactive service like a Youth Advisory Board. These teens could contribute both by assisting IPL staff with Division development and by assisting peers who are less technologically proficient.

Eventually, the Division could be of invaluable service to technophobic teens and teens who lack Internet access. Although it would be unrealistic to think that the IPL Teen Division could get teenagers across the country online, it is not unreasonable to imagine the IPL Teen Division working in partnership with schools and social service organizations to provide Internet access and instruction to teenagers. Helping teens to feel comfortable with new technology and to learn the skills needed to navigate the Internet could make significant inroads in the reduction of technophobia.

We thus achieved a clear vision of the community that would provide the initial focus for our efforts to provide useful, entertaining, and appropriate Web space. The next issue that we had to consider in the development of the Teen Division was the much-publicized perception of the Internet as a dangerous place for young people. On one level, concerns have been raised about the potential for stalking, harassment, and abuse, both online and off, that arise when teens begin meeting strangers through bulletin boards, chat rooms, and e-mail lists. On another level, there is concern about teens accessing pornographic materials or otherwise becoming involved in illegal activity through the Internet.

By making space on the Web for teens, we are potentially creating a safe and welcoming oasis in an environment that was not invented with the needs of children and teens in mind. However, by helping teens become more familiar with the Internet, there is always the potential that we are, or could be perceived as, facilitating contact with predators and/or materials that have previously been off limits. Teens have always had some access to pornography, but downloading images anonymously is far easier than, for instance, buying or stealing a magazine.

But, had we seriously believed that creating space on the Web would facilitate a harmful environment for teens, we would not have begun this project. The desire to develop a site for teens was founded in our belief that teens were already surfing an Internet woefully ill equipped to meet their needs. Ultimately we decided that by creating an interesting environment specifically for teens we could draw the interest of teens who were surfing aimlessly and perhaps even give them something to do on the Web besides running InfoSeek searches for obscene words. Furthermore, a site with well-organized, accurate information serves teens in an anonymous capacity that may facilitate access to sensitive topics. And, unlike in the traditional library, Web-based information on health and sexuality can't be stolen or hidden in the stacks.

We began constructing a selection policy that would serve as the backbone of the Teen Division, dedicated to the idea that our space would operate as an oasis. We were significantly influenced in our approach by the following quote by Howard Rheingold, cited by Carolyn Caywood in her article "Raising Net.Citizens":

"Teach your children to be politely but firmly skeptical about anything they see or hear on the Net. Teach them to have no fear of rejecting images or communications that repel or frighten them. Teach them to have a strong sense of their own personal boundaries, of their right to defend those boundaries physically and socially. Teach them that people aren't always who they present themselves to be in e-mail and that predators exist. Teach them to keep personal information private. Teach them to trust you enough to confide in you if something doesn't seem right."[9]

Caywood argues further that the Internet "offers an egalitarian community where anyone can talk to everyone," and encourages adults to promote use of the Internet as "a civics laboratory" for teenagers.[10] This way of looking at the issue is in keeping with librarians' traditional stance in favor of open access to information for children and young adults, mediated by the guidance of responsible adults.

The Teen Division's Selection Policy (see Appendix) was guided by these principles, the IPL's existing policy on requests to reconsider resources, the Youth Division's Selection Policy, and the experience of Teen Division staff members.

4. The real world: Talking to teenagers

The next step in the development of the Division was to meet with teenagers to get a sense for the kind of content they'd like to see in a Web site for teens. We met with the Ann Arbor District Library's Youth Advisory Board. Half of the teens on the Board had previous experience with the Internet and half did not. Although the teens with computer experience were initially more excited about the project, ultimately all the Board members contributed to our understanding of the kinds of topics we would need to address to best serve teen users. With the caveat that we were not going to be able to address every issue immediately, but that we would be expanding the Division after we gained some feedback about our initial offerings, we asked teens to brainstorm all the topics they'd like a Web site to address. Suggested topics included pen pals, interracial dating, driver education, gangs, sexuality, politics and voting, and vegetarianism. Ultimately we decided to create a balance of sections with sites containing information about serious issues and sections with sites treating more entertaining topics. Our four initial sections were Entertainment, Colleges/Universities, Social Services, and Sports.

As important as Division content in those early discussions was the issue of naming the division. We talked to the Youth Advisory Board extensively, and the general consensus was that the perfect name did not exist. Whether we called ourselves the Young Adult Division, the Teen Division, or the Under-twentysomethings Division, not all teens would respond to the name. The teens from the Youth Advisory Board stressed that the content of the Division was ultimately more important than its name, and that if we developed a good site, they would use it even if they did not find the name compelling.

The teens on the Youth Advisory Board recognized themselves as "young adults"; however, they were library users. Because they also recognized themselves as "teens," we decided to call ourselves the Teen Division in the hopes of attracting teens who might not be regular library users and thus would not recognize themselves in the term "young adults."

5. Into the breach: Building the Division

Armed with a Selection Policy and a name, we began the process of gathering content for the Division. In this process we used the example of the IPL Reference Division's Ready Reference Collection. The intent behind the creation of the Ready Reference Collection was to add value to existing sites on the Internet by organizing high-quality sites into subject categories and providing substantive annotations describing the content of each site. The selection guidelines that the Reference Division developed for its collection development included such characteristics as the accuracy and objectivity of the information provided, the frequency of updating of the Web site, and evidence of proofreading both of the text and of the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) coding.

We did not follow these guidelines strictly since, in addition to gathering sites with information useful to teenagers, we were also interested in gathering sites that had been designed by teenagers. This is not to say that a site designed by a teenager would necessarily not conform to the selection guidelines, only to say that we would not rule out including, for instance, a teen's page about baseball simply because she happened to misspell the word "statistics."

The Reference Division also developed an HTML template to ensure consistency of entries across the Ready Reference Collection, and we adapted this template for use in the Teen Division. We kept a similar structure and layout, but omitted or changed aspects of the template that we felt were not intuitive for teens. For example, in the Reference template there is a space in each entry to provide the "Author" of the site. The Teen Division's version of this space is called "Who Did It."

The Teen Division also differed from the Ready Reference model when it came to designing a graphical interface for the front page. Although the IPL is structured so as to be functional for users with low connectivity, the Youth Division set a precedent for use of a color-based graphical interface when the IPL first opened, arguing that colorful graphics were necessary to appeal to their user group. Targeted by advertisers, teenagers are inundated with sophisticated graphics and multimedia, and children of the MTV generation are savvy consumers of popular culture. Subsequently we felt it imperative to design a front page that would be eye-catching and colorful. Following the lead of the Youth Division, we opened with a graphics-based front page. We compromised with the internal pages, using a small colorful graphic at the top of the page and then conforming to the Ready Reference model throughout the rest of the page.

Because we were covering some of the same topics that had also been covered in the Ready Reference Collection (notably Entertainment and Sports), we chose to focus on sites that had either been designed by teenagers or were specifically addressed to them, to avoid duplication across sections. For instance, in the Entertainment section of the Teen Division, there is a subsection devoted to electronic 'zines created by teenagers. The Sports section of the Teen Division contains primarily pages designed by junior high and high school students about specific school teams, while the Sports section of the Ready Reference Collection contains primarily pages with information about professional teams.

It is obvious from the above discussion that we could not have created the Teen Division without drawing on a large number of sources of inspiration, from Rheingold and Caywood's advocacy of informed Internet access for children and teenagers, to our dialogue with the teenagers from the Youth Advisory Board, to the previous IPL experience in the Reference and Youth Divisions. The process of creating the Division was made considerably easier because we could build it into the existing structure of the IPL while maintaining the freedom to modify IPL precedents to better serve our chosen community.

6. Designing Web space for teens: Extrapolating from the Teen Division

Although we do not intend to imply that everyone who is interested in creating Web space for teenagers should go about designing it exactly the same way we did, our process has enabled us to identify steps to facilitate the development process. They are as follows.

Define your community

When you say "teenagers," who are you envisioning serving? Are you serving the entire range of 13- to 19-year-olds or focusing on a specific group--for example, middle schoolers (12 to 14) or high schoolers (14 to 18)? Are they confined to a particular geographic area? A home page for a physical library may target youths within a single community, whereas an organization like the Internet Public Library hopes to operate more globally. Perhaps most importantly, what are the needs of teens in your community? The more you know about your target community, the easier it will be to focus your efforts.

Avoid reinventing the wheel

Before you become heavily involved in the process of designing your site, investigate what is already out there. Perhaps someone else is already doing what you intend to do. By building partnerships and capitalizing on cyberspace's strength in facilitating global connections, we can make a world wide web of services for teens.

Talk to real teenagers

This is really the only way you will get any sense of how close your vision is to something real teenagers will use. If at all possible, involve teens in designing and maintaining the site.

Become informed about both the hype and the real dangers to teens in cyberspace

Read the popular press to get an idea about what a lot of parents and teachers are hearing about the Internet, and get online to see what's really going on. Develop a plan for addressing concerns from your community before they arise, so that you can be proactive rather than reactive.

7. Planning for the future

Any Web resource requires frequent maintenance and updating. But this is particularly true for a resource like the Teen Division, which is designed to serve a community that is notorious both for short attention spans and for higher expectations for information presentation than any previous generation. If we do not keep searching for new sites and talking to real teenagers, we might find that all the teenagers have stopped writing Web pages and are spending all their time developing Java applets, and that the Teen Division is thus hopelessly out of date. This puts strong pressure on the Teen Division staff to keep current and to rely closely on teen guidance and input.

As the IPL itself began as a graduate course project and evolved into a well known and respected site on the Internet, so the Teen Division has gone from a similar beginning to a fully functioning component of the IPL. We began implementing improvements and changes as soon as the Division opened, and we are dedicated to providing a responsive site that makes sense of offering for teens on the Web and suggests new ways for teens to interact with this expanding medium.

The next phase in our development will involve creating a forum for direct teen participation. We are considering the implementation of a teen chat room in the IPL MOO and are discussing how best to operate a Teen Advisory Board in a networked environment.

Ultimately, the options for the course of the IPL Teen Division are as varied as teens themselves. In our attempts to stay responsive and innovative, the IPL Teen Division will undoubtedly undergo multiple incarnations.


Teen Division policy

The collection of the Teen Division of the Internet Public Library is developed for teenagers ages 13 to 19 and their parents, teachers, and anyone else interested in information directed to and about teenagers and young adults. Material used and sites recommended are chosen based on their appropriateness for the subject matter and should be written and maintained by an authoritative source. The information should be current, accurate, and presented in an objective and well-organized manner. While the resources may not necessarily be aimed specifically at teens, their contents should be of interest and useful to these age groups.

Specific to the Social Services Division

The Social Services section covers information about difficult topics with which teens are confronted in today's rapidly changing society. The teen years are a time of tremendous growth and development, and today's teens are exposed to issues and experiences that would challenge even adults with the most developed coping skills. The Internet is potentially one such source of exposure for teens, yet it also has profound potential for information dissemination that teens desperately need.

The Social Services collection of the IPL Teen Division has sought to provide teens with access to basic information about many of the difficult issues they face. In doing so, we recognize that we have provided links to sites that some teens and adults will consider inappropriate. We actively sought sites that were authoritative and we avoided sensationalistic sites that lacked content. At times, however, we made the decision to include sites that had potentially questionable material because the usefulness of other information at the site made that site's benefits outweigh its disadvantages.

The IPL Teen Division strongly encourages teens and parents to participate in open dialogue whenever possible. We recommend that parents explore the Internet and establish appropriate rules for use with their teens. We recommend that teens discuss their experiences on the Internet with a parent or trusted adult, especially when that exploration results in viewing sites that contain information or images they find confusing or disturbing.


  1. National Center for Education Statistics, 1.
  2. Ibid., 1.
  3. Teenagers Circle,; Siskiyou County K-12,; Teenville Teen Links,
  4. Markoff, A1.
  5. McCartney, B1.
  6. Rosen, 82.
  7. Ibid., 76.
  8. Ibid., 81.
  9. Caywood, 44.
  10. Ibid., 44.


Caywood, Carolyn. "Raising net.citizens," School Library Journal, January 1995, 44.

McCartney, Scott. "Society's Subcultures Meet by Modem: For Teens, Chatting on Internet Offers Comfort of Anonymity," Wall Street Journal, 8 December 1994, B1+

Markoff, John. "The Keyboard Becomes a Hangout for a Computer--Savvy Generation," New York Times, 31 August 1993, A1+.

Rosen, Larry D. "Adult and Teenage Use of Consumer, Business, and Entertainment Technology: Potholes on the Information Superhighway?" Journal of Consumer Affairs, Summer 1995, 55-84.

"Services and Resources for Young Adults in Libraries." National Center for Education Statistics: Survey Report. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement (ED 1.125:28), July 1988, 23 pp.