Shortly after an award letter arrived from the Robert Bowne Foundation, three senior staff members of a Manhattan youth agency met to discuss a key component of the grant—the construction of a library at GirlSpace: the East Harlem Center for Girls. According to the proposal, the library’s purpose was "to inspire girls to appreciate and explore the joys of literary expression." Helping each young person to develop her "voice" was a fundamental aspect of the GirlSpace Library Project.
Our ideas for this library were as different as night and day. One vision was library as sanctuary: a peaceful, comfortable haven in which a girl could curl up with a book, browse the stacks, or write in her journal. The divergent view imagined a library without physical boundaries that would insinuate itself into the program’s routines and activities. Books would peer out from every possible space—on the walls, on tables, along ledges—irresistibly compelling girls to pick them up.
The library was to be housed in the central GirlSpace, a soaring loft higher than it was wide. Oversized sofas, throw pillows, carpets, a long mahogany dining table, and softly lit lamps created a homey environment. Girls’ artistic creations, writings, and photographs stamped indelible ownership on the space. On any given day, girls would be scattered across the space; but they gathered mainly in the living room, a cozy conversation pit. This is where we finally agreed to build the library. Its walls would be only five feet tall, to allow for light, ventilation, and aesthetic consonance with the loft-like room. The vision of library as sanctuary prevailed—motivated in part by ideology and in part by practicality, since the library could provide a much-needed room for activities requiring quiet and privacy.
Constructing the library was an inspired community effort. An agency board member who is a professional architect offered his services pro bono. Staff members organized a group of girls to spearhead the library initiative; our architect met with the group several times to capture their vision of an all-girls library. Once the walls and shelves were built, staff and teens primed and painted shelves, while others planned the library’s collection, using a questionnaire distributed to all GirlSpace members and staff while seeking input from a consultant who specialized in teens and literacy. We ordered more than 1,200 books. Members of the GirlSpace internship program learned to order, catalogue, and label books; they also promoted the library with brilliant signs.
This tale of community might have ended here on a high note—but it didn’t. Six months later, we found that the library was barely used. Self-described bookworms perused the shelves, but, by and large, we had unwittingly created an institution that virtually repelled kids.
Staff met to debrief. Possible causes bubbled to the surface. Too many rules! Our obsession with minimizing book theft, prohibiting food, and maintaining quiet had created a pariah library. One staff person observed that she herself behaved differently in the library; she was reluctant to intrude on girls who sat reading. We had sacrificed our living room for a foreboding library.
Something clicked in all of us as we pooled our resources to create a community of readers and writers. We adjusted our vision based on our investment in, and understanding of positive youth development, social group work, literacy, and gender-based programming. We fostered collective action in a setting that valued relationship building and girls’ individual voices. The library provided resources for journeys of discovery that validated and enlightened our own experiences.
As if marking the dawn of a new day, we splashed bright Caribbean colors across the walls. We moved some of the bookshelves from the library into the open space, where they achieved far more visibility. We re-dedicated the library with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at which each GirlSpace member personalized a bookplate and affixed it to her favorite book. We launched (or revived) a host of library-centered activities:
In organic ways, the library’s collection and displays began to reflect GirlSpace’s activities and programs. Girls’ own works began to appear on the shelves. Interns helped younger peers to collect their best written pieces to be bound and displayed. Each activity group—yoga, cooking, hip-hop—showcased their work for a month on the library bulletin board and displayed relevant books and materials. Our grad club—girls who were examining their future educational and career options—organized a college resource section. SAT practice books and college guides grew dog-eared. Tutors and their students began to make routine use of the library. When questions arose about developmental issues—physical changes, relationships, sexuality—girls turned to the library as a resource and a private place for discussion.
Staff also began to use our rich collection to develop ideas for programming. During summer camp, for instance, early adolescent campers took the PBS-guided Harlem Walk to learn about the Harlem Renaissance. Interviewing senior citizens, learning the history of the Apollo Theater and other cultural landmarks, and understanding such issues as gentrification raised girls’ consciousness of, and passion for, the neighborhood and African-American culture.
In retrospect, staff recognized that simply placing beautifully illustrated, developmentally and culturally relevant books close to early adolescents does not guarantee that the books will be read. Much of our final success was due to what we know about youth development, literacy, and gender-based programming.
An all-girls’ library is not just a collection of books and factual resources. It is a dynamic center from which interests and passions spring. Libraries can present tremendous opportunities to build relationships, foster creative self-expression, and instill the simple pleasures of reading. When offered an authentic opportunity to do so, GirlSpace members assumed ownership of their library—an entitlement that would be theirs for life.
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