06/20/2011 02:20 pm ET Updated 5 days ago

Anti-Prom: An Alternative to Proms That Suck

By Christopher Shoemaker, The New York Public Library

Music thumps off the walls and pours out the open doors. Curious visitors climb the Fifth Avenue steps and peer into a throng of teens dancing across the marble floor. For one night, quiet is a rare commodity at the New York Public Library as Anti-Prom takes over the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the Library's landmark building in New York City.

Inspired by a 2004 conversation in which a teen advisory group concluded that "Prom sucks," Anti-Prom has grown from a gathering of 100 teens into a massive event with over 700 teens, a DJ, a fashion show, and gift bags from Barneys and MAC. Teens travel from all five boroughs and beyond to spend the evening celebrating in the library's marble hall. But Anti-Prom is more than a dance party. It's about recognizing the work teens have done in the library during their out-of-school time: participating in teen advisory groups, in teen technology programs, in writing workshops and in poetry performances. It's about providing a safe space for teens to both socialize and celebrate in, to share their work and their experiences at the library.

Anti-Prom, to quote the material, "provides an alternative, safe space for teens who may not feel welcome at official school proms or dances because of their sexual orientation, the way they dress, or any other reason." In other words, for teens who cosplay, those who can't afford the prom accoutrements, or don't feel comfortable bringing a same-sex date, the Anti-Prom is their social event of the season -- their time to party their own way. Teens who listen to K-Pop on their iPod while surfing manga sites in the library mingle with screamo scene fans and share library stories. I remember talking to a teen from the Tompkins Square Library about her experience at Anti-Prom; she considered it "her best time." "It didn't matter who you are where you are from or what you like to do... Anti-Prom is about coming together and learning from one another."

While the goal of providing safe spaces is not unique to NYPL, the scope of the project is. Anti-Prom just might be the largest alternative prom in the nation. It's also received national recognition in the library world: in 2007, the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) gave it an Excellence in Library Service to Young Adults Project award.

When I worked at NYPL's Bronx Library Center, there were goth and emo rock subsets of teenagers. They had embraced the library as a safe space to hang out but never thought that the marble "People's Palace" would be an opening and welcoming environment. As they walked into their first Anti-Prom two years ago, I was amazed to see how quickly they bonded over music and dance moves with teens they would have never encountered outside of the library. Anti-Prom still gives me a chance to see those teens, to hear what they are reading and listening to, and also to find out what projects they are working on in the library's Teen Advisory Group.

When attendees need to move away from the crowded dance floor to take a breath and sip some water, it's time for new friendships to develop and to check in with old friends. Students who met in middle school and became friends over a favorite library book before heading on to different high schools are reunited while waiting for the fashion show to start. Top-rated playlists are shared between friends as a conga line weaves around the venue's impressive candelabras. Stories about Regent and SAT preparation mix with conversations about eagerly anticipated summer books. And occasionally, librarians are able to chime in to provide recommendations for test prep programs happening at the library, books, and information about requesting an obscure album the library happens to have in the collection.

One of the greatest perks of working with teens is seeing how programs such as Anti-Prom change the attendees; it transforms their sense of community, their sense of the library, and their sense of identity. I enjoy seeing the behavioral shift as the space becomes their own, and I am glad to be one of the staff members who makes the library a space that teens feel does belong to them. How many libraries bring 500 teens together and encourage them to do the Cha Cha slide across the library floor?