October 22, 2016 by Sharee Cordes

Library as Place of Refuge – the not so obvious role of libraries in serving children and teenagers.

Where do you go if your life is in turmoil, and you need somewhere to hang out that feels safe and has things to do that take your mind off your troubles?  For many children the answer is the library.

Libraries play a not so obvious role in the lives of many children and teens – that of refuge.  Agosto, Paone and Ipock identified the physical space provided by the library as one of three major roles the library plays for teenagers.  Some of the teenagers surveyed for their research stated that they used the library as a safe refuge from a dangerous home or neighbourhood environment, although they do not indicate the frequency of this response.  Martin Gray conducted a survey of school librarians and found that libraries were commonly used as safe spaces for students with 84% of respondents saying that their school recommended spending break times in the library to some of their students.  He also found that many students who found the school playground situation difficult would choose to spend their breaks in the library.

Examples of libraries as refuges for young people are numerous and varied.

In Japan, the Kamakura Public Library reacted to high teenage suicide rates by appealing to troubled teens with the following messages – “The second semester is about to start. For you kids who’re dreading it so much you could just die, take the day off from school and visit the library” and “To those of you who are carrying painful emotions, we would like the library to be a place where you feel like you belong … You just might find a book that comforts your exhausted heart.”  Comments responding to this article also confirm the role of the library as a refuge for young people –

“Really good initiative from this library. I had a library refuge in my teenage years. It was important to me, and helped me through a difficult time, and books have continued to be refuges and mentors throughout my life.”

“I was a library kid for one year during my teens, when my domestic situation was in upheaval and I didn’t feel able to talk to my friends about it. The school library was a haven for me.”

In times of disaster and civil unrest, libraries are often the places that offer refuge to children and families.  Princeton Library was able to offer wi-fi, electricity, non-stop family movies and, of course,  books after Hurricane Sandy and Ferguson Municipal Library was able to provide activities for children when schools were closed due to riots following a police shooting in that town.  The list is long.  A number of libraries have also offered support to refugees around the World.

The John Hopkin’s Children Centre library identifies its role as providing refuge for parents and families from the medical environment of the hospital.    Kevin Smith writes about the UCLA providing a refuge for students during a shooting incident at this American University.

This is obviously a vital role that libraries can play in our communities, but how can we ensure that we are up to the task?

Buron et al. offer the following suggestions based on their experience of creating a safe haven for the community at the Queens Public Library in South Hollis (USA)…

  • Physical Solutions – think about the layout of the library and consider rearranging shelving and furniture to ensure safe spaces for different users.
  • Programming and customer interactions – a personal greeting at the door creates a sense of connection, and strong programming for the younger years creates an early positive experience which continues as the child grows.
  • Staff Training – staff training and support helps staff to deal with the demands of social situations while also taking care of their own needs. Library policies and guidelines can also act to support staff.

This is a very brief outline – I think this would be a great area for future research.  Do you have any ideas you could share in a comment below?  Perhaps you have seen something in a library you have visited that you think helps to make it a safe refuge for young people?

Let me conclude with a quote from a sign posted outside the Ferguson Public Library during the riots in that city…

During difficult times, the library is a quiet oasis where we can catch our breath, learn, and think about what to do next.


(feature image is a public domain image CC0 sourced from



  1. Karen Eyre
    October 22, 2016 - 10:33 pm

    I love this post, Sharee, and couldn’t agree more. I was someone who sought refuge in the both in the school and public library, especially as a teen. At school, sometimes it was to get away from school-yard nonsense, sometimes it was just because the idle chit-chat bored me. Likewise, long holiday days when I was an “acceptable” age to be unattended, the library was a place for me to occupy myself amongst the books, music, magazines and computers – otherwise I would have been roaming the streets.

    A place to get a drink of water, relax somewhere comfy and have a read – especially in the air con in summer or warm in the winter can make a large difference in someone’s day.

    • Sharee Cordes
      October 23, 2016 - 1:05 am

      Thanks Karen,
      I used to love to hang out in the library when I was at school too – especially in about year 6 when I wasn’t quite sure where I fit in the social scene of the schoolyard. I also found it a great refuge when I lived in Mt Gambier and had young children – the winters are looooonnnng and cold and wet down there and to be able to escape the house and find somewhere warm with interesting things to keep the kids occupied and nice coffee for me (they have a cafe in the library) was such a relief! I would often set myself up in the cafe with coffee and a pile of magazines while the kids (old enough to be able to be unsupervised), would play games or hang out with friends in the library – providing valuable respite for all of us. Glad you enjoyed the post. – Sharee

  2. Anitra
    October 22, 2016 - 11:26 pm

    Hi Sharee, what an inspiring post . I have found it fascinating the world of libraries as places of equity & social justice & the US literature is especially strong about this. do you think it is as strong in Australia ? Anitra

    • Sharee Cordes
      October 23, 2016 - 12:58 am

      Hi Anitra,
      This was something that struck me when I was studying museum studies – all the literature about how museums could be places of equity and social justice was great and great things are happening in the USA but I think Australian Museums are so far behind in this area. Libraries however, I think are much better at this in Australia – I think we are doing some really great things in libraries here, especially if you look further afield outside of Brisbane. I found this paper from ALIA about libraries responding to the 2011 floods – I wasn’t in Brisbane then, but it is amazing to see how libraries were able to provide such crucial support at that time.
      Thanks for your comment.

  3. Bec
    October 23, 2016 - 1:05 am

    I’m glad that you wrote this Sharee. I agree 100% that libraries are in a unique position to give more than just a reading experience to the community. I’m curious though, you spoke of a range of examples that catered to not just children and teens in crisis but adults too. Do you think that maybe more libraries should take on a dedicated set of rights for teens, like how Ontario has done? ( Or is that too much?

    • Sharee Cordes
      October 23, 2016 - 2:04 am

      Hi Bec,
      I think the Ontario rights of teens document is great and something that all libraries should consider – perhaps this bill of rights needs another clause added to support the right of teens to seek refuge in the library in times of need!

  4. Karina Rivett
    October 23, 2016 - 8:41 am

    Whilst I can definitely see the value of making sure libraries are accessible to teens and kids, I have a problem with parents dumping their children at libraries to be looked after by the librarians. I feel the main difference here comes down to the age of the child, and how long they’re left alone. It is definitely important though to ensure that libraries are a safe space for young people.

    • Sharee Cordes
      October 24, 2016 - 7:39 am

      In a perfect world no parents would ‘dump’ their children in the library, but it is not a perfect world and many parents are struggling – people struggle everyday with issues that we can not possibly know about – unemployment, homelessness, drug abuse, grief, domestic violence, disability and mental health issues. Perhaps instead of judging parents for ‘dumping’ their children in the library we should be asking, how can we help these families to be stronger and to cope with trauma they are experiencing? – What is the user need?

  5. Ashlee Brown
    October 23, 2016 - 10:44 am

    Hi Sharee,

    Thanks for an inspiring post, it was a big eye opener to the vital services the library can offer to its community. As a child the library was unfortunately something I did not take refuge in when I was feeling down or out of place, and I wish my school did promote the library more in this way as these examples you provided have, and less about a place you went to get your yearly textbooks and school ID. Now however, I do see the library as a place I go when I need to clear my head.
    A lot of this weeks discussions were about the issues leaving your children unsupervised in the library. Your post has made me realise that for those who think children should be supervised, some children and teens may not have the supervision required (if they have a bad home life) and may be restricted to use the library as a refuge

  6. Michelle Dare
    October 24, 2016 - 9:40 am

    I love this so much Sharee, so important in the U.S. where there is such a risk of gun violence. It is supposed to take a village to raise a child, so if libraries are to stay relevant, shouldn’t they be part of that village? Especially when there are children/teens at risk.

  7. Helen Treherne
    October 29, 2016 - 2:56 am

    Hi Sharee
    I really enjoyed your post and agree that libraries are a refuge for teens. Working at both primary and secondary school libraries I know that many children find refuge in the library. One particular student had behavioural issues, and was continually on détention. He was drawn to the library as a non-confrontational environment where he could explore and learn about the things that interested him. His main issue was his impatience to join the family earthmoving business where he could opérate machinery and see the différence he could make. He was 13. He was not permitted to leave school. We began with retrieving resources of interest to him, and sharing the access and retrieval process through the library catalogue. He was intrigued by this and downloaded a ‘free trial’ version for 100 items, and catalogued his music collection on his home computer.
    This, to me, was a gréât achievement for a child whose main interest was machinery. I think that the opportunity to connect and engage through resources is always available to librarians.

    • Sharee Cordes
      October 29, 2016 - 1:49 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experience Helen – what a fabulous story and what a great place the library turned out to be for that child. It makes me feel uplifted to think that as librarians we can make a difference in the lives of kids who are struggling – what a great thing to be able to do!

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