skip to main content
caption: Teen library volunteer Shilten Kenzhegazy holds up the map she made in a King County Library System online workshop hosted by the Federal Way Library Teen Advisory Group in May 2021.
Enlarge Icon
Teen library volunteer Shilten Kenzhegazy holds up the map she made in a King County Library System online workshop hosted by the Federal Way Library Teen Advisory Group in May 2021.
Credit: Courtesy of Shilten Kenzhegazy

Teen volunteers bring the magic of the library online

When you think about libraries, you might picture a maze of bookshelves, tables and chairs. Or maybe even the squeak of an ungreased wheel as a librarian walks by with a book cart. All that went away when the pandemic hit. But teenagers in King County eventually found a new way to hang out at the library. RadioActive Youth Media’s Emily Chua has more.

[RadioActive Youth Media is KUOW's radio journalism and audio storytelling program for young people. This story was entirely youth-produced, from the writing to the audio editing.]


W

hen 10th-grader Shilten Kenzhegazy is looking for something to do, she’ll often turn to the library.

She told me about one of the first programs she attended. It was an online workshop where she created a map of an imaginary fantasy land.

"I actually still have the map I drew," Kenzhegazy said.

About a year into the pandemic shutdown, Kenzhegazy was browsing the King County Library System website. There, she discovered the programs the libraries offer, from gaming sessions to cooking classes. A few programs, including that map-drawing one, caught the artsy teen’s eye.

That’s how she connected with a group of teens that plans these events for the libraries.

"I went to a few of their meetings, and at the end, they give you this survey to fill out," Kenzhegazy said. "And at the very bottom it was like, 'Do you want to participate?' And I’m like, 'YES!'"

Kenzhegazy became a volunteer with the Federal Way Library Teen Advisory Group — one of several teen advisory groups in the King County Library System.

Pre-pandemic, Kenzhegazy said she visited the library a few times a month to find new books. Now, she’s meeting online every week to plan events for other teens.

"Currently we're trying to do this cooking event, and we tried to do this book club. We also had some bullet journaling events," Kenzhegazy said. (Bullet journaling is where you organize your thoughts, goals, and to-do lists in a notebook, but with some extra artwork and design flair.)

caption: In 2021, the King County Library System hosted online cooking events like this cheesecake muffin workshop, presented by teens, for teens. Here, a teen demonstrates first steps over Zoom.
Enlarge Icon
In 2021, the King County Library System hosted online cooking events like this cheesecake muffin workshop, presented by teens, for teens. Here, a teen demonstrates first steps over Zoom.
Credit: Rachel McDonald

All those programs are held online, but that wasn’t always the case.

Rachel McDonald, who oversees teen programming for the King County Library System, said the pandemic shutdown forced them into unfamiliar territory.

"When we first closed our libraries to the public, we thought it would be for two weeks," McDonald said. "We realized that we had to think about how we were going to serve our community differently without our buildings being open, and that was a huge shift for us. We were 100% in-person, and suddenly we found ourselves 100% online."

The King County Library System made that huge shift in just a few weeks. McDonald said it was a little bumpy at first, but they managed to do it.

"And we managed to do it in a better way than we ever thought possible," she said.

Part of their success was because the teen advisory groups were willing to step up and work together to organize cool events.

It was tough for teens to hang out during quarantine — chat messages in virtual classrooms were a sorry substitute for catching up in the hallways. But online library programming turned out to be a great place for teens to vibe with their friends. At the library, teens found a sanctuary in just kicking back and doing stuff they liked.

Kenzhegazy said the library programs were easy and worry-free.

"It's like to lift stuff off your shoulders so you can relax and have fun," she said.

And while some teens craved being social, others found ways to give back.

Linh Tran is a teen who volunteers online with the library system as a reading buddy – someone who helps little kids learn to read. One of her favorite memories is watching this really shy kid grow into a more confident reader.

"I remember the first time, he did not speak at all," Tran said. "The next day, he came back. He started talking more, he started reading, and then eventually it got to the point where he was reading all the time."

Tran says she loves the energy little kids have and appreciates their unique creativity.

Volunteer stories like Kenzhegazy's and Tran's point to teens’ resilience and willingness to adapt during the pandemic. Last year, teens hosted and helped run 130 programs for King County libraries.

Perhaps we can all take a page from their book, and let our human need to connect lead us to new possibilities.

---

This story was created in KUOW's RadioActive Advanced Producer Workshop for high school and college students, with production support from Kyle Norris. Edited by Liz Jones.

Find RadioActive on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, and on the RadioActive podcast.

Support for KUOW's RadioActive comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center and BECU.

If you have any feedback on this story, you can email us at radioactive@kuow.org, or click the teal feedback tab on the edge of this page. Reach out. We're listening.