When Kam Greer’s friends told her where they were heading after school one day last spring, she thought they were kidding.

The library? she asked, looking at them skeptically. But the 15-year-old went along, following her peers to the basement of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central branch.

There, behind a heavy, otherwise-nondescript door, she entered an unexpected world of books, sure, but also shelves upon shelves of manga, and lucite cases full of Marvel and DC comics; tables covered in puzzles and games; a 75-inch flat-screen TV on which to view anime and compete in Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4 and Xbox One games; paper-covered tables and markers for doodling. There was a maker space with a 3-D printer and a sewing machine, and everywhere she looked, cozy chairs in hues of bright red and orange. There are vending machines—typically a library no-no—and free personal pronoun stickers, as well as a self-care station including hygiene products and condoms.

This is not your grandma’s library. In fact, it’s only open to teens ages 12 to 18.

“It’s honestly just a safe place for teens to go, where you feel like you can be yourself and you can do whatever you need to do to be yourself,” says Greer. “And there are so many adults there who can help you, and everyone’s so nice and welcoming.” She now visits about three times a week.

Officially called Field Teen Center—named for local philanthropists Joseph and Marie Field—the 4,000-square-foot center opened its doors in April. Now on a typical weekday, about 30 teens are hanging out at any given time, to bond with staff and partake in events, such as a Yule Jawn holiday party and compete, as part of Harry Potter-style “houses” or teams, for the chance to win prizes like pizza parties.

There are Anime Mondays and Video Game Tuesdays and Board Game Thursdays. There is a free SAT-prep course on weekends. As part of a partnership with Philly Slam League, there is poetry team practice twice a month, as well as art contests and jewelry-making, “Adulting 101” and cooking.

In large part, the inviting atmosphere stems from the staff, led by Teen Center head librarian Kris Langlais. Her guiding philosophy shapes what happens there: “I don’t know who first said this, but when I think about the role of a teen librarian, I always come back to it: Be the person that you needed when you were a teen.”

At a time when we live in an increasingly digital world, Langlais, a Philly native who grew up in Oxford Circle and regularly visited the Northeast Regional Library with her parents and sister, has made in-person togetherness—a real sense of community—appealing to teens.

“The Field Teen Center is a place where you can come together, be who you are, act your age and just kick back and do what you need to,” says Greer.

“We’re providing a space for all teens, including teens in the margins who don’t necessarily feel like they have a place otherwise,” she says. “Teens come here for hours a day, every day, and they see our really diverse staff, and they feel welcome. And that’s our number-one goal, the whole reason for being here.”

Langlais has been with the library system for nearly seven years, and was part of the years-long planning process involving architects, teens and fellow librarians, that led to the Center’s creation—part of the library’s $35.8 million renovation.

While casting for her fellow staffers, she looked for one thing above all else: people who care deeply about teens and remember what it’s like to be one.

That rigorous screening process led to a crew that has become confidantes for many of the Field Teen Center’s regulars. “We know all these teens,” Langlais says. “When they’re having a bad day, we recognize it. We offer to listen if they want to talk, or offer to take a quick walk around the building.”

All staff have undergone training in youth mental-health First Aid, but they are not therapists. Instead, they’re able to refer teens to community resources for help. They’re also mandated reporters, required by law to report any suspected abuse or neglect.

They are passionate about dreaming up programming, and just as eager to let the teens lead that planning process. All activities, from karaoke to slime-making, are free, funded through the library budget and with the support of grants and donations.

Langlais dreams of a time when every library branch in Philly will have a budget to offer the kind of robust opportunities she can at Field Teen Center. She cites Chicago’s library system’s teen programming, with its offerings at 19 satellite branches, as a model to which ours should aspire. Funding could make that possible.

“Teens just need an outlet,” says Langlais, noting that The Attic Youth Center is also doing a phenomenal job locally of offering a place primarily for LGBTQ teens. “Our main focus is to create a safe space where teens will enjoy going—to say you can do all the things that you like to do, we’ll facilitate that.”

The center opened as part of the library’s renovation last spring that moved more than 800,000 books and opened more gathering spaces for different communities to the main branch.

In addition to Field Teen Center, there’s The Robert and Eileen Kennedy Heim Center for Cultural and Civic Engagement, and the Business Resource and Innovation Center. It’s part of the library’s aim to achieve many different kinds of literacy through its 21st Century Libraries initiative, which has also turned a handful of neighborhood branches into community hubs, addressing the specific needs of their communities.

“It’s positive vibes all around,” says Greer. “It’s like a warm, fuzzy hug.”

It also speaks to the changing world of libraries here and across the country, at a time when access to books—digital, audio and otherwise—is not necessarily the main need people have of their local branches.

Already, Philly librarians are resources for people who are experiencing homelessness; some have had to be trained in how to administer Narcan, in case of an opioid overdose inside or just outside their branches. Our library system offers musical instrument loans, cooking classes and prison and re-entry services.

“The Field Teen Center is a place where you can come together, be who you are, act your age and just kick back and do what you need to,” says Greer, the high school sophomore. “It’s positive vibes all around. It’s like a warm, fuzzy hug.”

Read about other cool youth programs in Philly and beyond:  

Header photo courtesy Field Teen Center