Crawford Barniskis, S. (2012). Graffiti, poetry, dance: How public library art programs affect teens. The Journal for Research on Libraries and Young Adults, 2.


This article examines the impact art programming for teenagers in public libraries has on teenage civic engagement. Fourteen teens in six weekly library arts programs participated in the study. The researcher surveyed and interviewed the youth about art, libraries, civic engagement, and the ways in which these three concepts intersect. Through the arts programs, the teens met with local poets, created graffiti art, and received modern dance demonstrations from people close to their age. The teens were also research partners in the study. The study found that the library-based art programming created a positive sense of community, creativity, and empathy for participating teens.

Key Findings:

The study developed a theoretical model of the connection between art programs and teens. With the public library serving as a central hub, the study found that through art (as experienced through graffiti, poetry, and dance programs), teens can: 1) create a supportive community; 2) connect and be more open and participatory; 3) engage more civically; and 4) become more involved in their communities in general. Overall, participants believed that these programs can positively affect young people’s development of empathy, a sense of belonging, social networks and connections, creativity, a sense of being listened to and valued, and other cognitive and emotional skills and capacities. Teens, who often felt ignored or unwelcome in their communities, valued the teen-centric context of the art programs. These changes, while necessary to civic engagement and action, are not actual civic engagement behaviors. Based on these findings, the researcher makes recommendations for research on and implementation of art programming in public libraries for teens.

Significance of the Findings:

Teens often feel disconnected or controlled by social pressures and institutions, which can negatively impact their level of civic engagement. This study shows that art programming for teens at libraries can help them feel more connected to their communities and each other, as well as establishing the library as a safe and neutral space. Indeed, the public library was central to engagement. The success of this programming can contribute to the development of similar programs in other locations.


Fourteen teens ages 12-18 participated in the study. The researcher used multiple methods, including surveys, interviews, and focus groups to gather data. She also conducted a literature review to ground the study in terms of civic engagement, participatory democracy, and youth development. Participants completed an exploratory survey before the art programs began and a second survey after the programs ended. Survey questions included demographic data as well as participant assessments of their social, civic, and consumer activities. Teens in the focus group (10 participants total) each attended five of the six programs. Programs included a discussion/demonstration by graffiti artists, digital photographers, a modern dance company, poetry reading, manga drawing technique class, and an artist trading card demonstration. The researchers later interviewed four of the teens individually who had attended at least two of the six art programs and had attended similar programs in the past. The researcher, and selected teen participants who she trained as assistant coders, coded the focus group and interview data using a grounded theory approach.

Limitations of the Research:

The sample size of the study is extremely small, making it difficult to generalize the findings. The participants were allowed to help in the research and analysis of findings, potentially introducing bias into the data analysis. Participants were personally familiar with the researcher, and this may have influenced their responses to survey questions. It is unclear whether the research process of this study or the actual art programs caused the apparent shifts in civic engagement.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Can art programming in public libraries help children or adults become more civically engaged in their communities? What sort of civic engagement is created because of art programming at libraries? How can art programming be better tailored to the specific needs of teens?