Teenager Nikki Ortiz was waiting for her ride home after finishing up some homework at the Galloway Township Branch of the Atlantic County Library System one recent Friday afternoon.

While she waited, she leafed through a magazine and scanned the latest library newsletter.

"I remember coming to story time at the library when I was younger, but it looks like there's more to do now," the 13-year-old Smithville resident said.

Like many of her peers, Nikki is discovering a niche at the library.

The Atlantic County Library System has worked hard to provide a variety of key services that meet the unique needs of teens, said Bev Bird, community relations manager.

Teens are encouraged to hang out and bring their laptops or mobile gaming devices, and generally just be comfortable in the surroundings. Throughout the library system's 10 branches, there has been a new focus on events and activities to encourage more use among teens.

For instance, the Teen Scene - the name of the new teen programming at the Galloway Branch - recently updated and added new programs.

"There is a large population of teens in the township and we're trying to reach out and bring more of them into our events," said Youth Services Librarian Becky Leopold, who coordinates library programs for different age groups.

According to a website maintained by the Young Adult Library Services Association, libraries have been shown to improve teen learning and literacy, provide teens with a sense of community and prepare teens to be productive citizens.

And public libraries offer important educational resources, with nearly 80 percent of public libraries offering online homework resources. Also, nearly 90 percent of all public libraries offer access to online databases, with content in virtually every school subject including history, literature and science, research shows.

Leopold said the branch does two new programs every month designed specifically for middle school and high school aged residents of the area. There is a teen group that meets once a month, and anyone can be a part of it, she said.

"Right now we have a group of about 20 who meet on a regular basis and help come up with ideas of things to do," said Leopold, 28, who has been at the branch library for about two years.

Many in the group also get involved by volunteering at the library. Leopold said it's not unusual to find a few teens in the library on any given day or evening during the week helping out. They may help by tidying up books and materials in the kids section, or assisting with kids programming or craft projects, she said.

The fourth Wednesday of each month is devoted to Teen Scene, when they can gather and play computers games or do projects, she said. The group recently decided it wanted to become more active and keep things fresh with new programs.

"We talk about what would be interesting and try to come up with ideas that are fun and different. We also try to bring in STEM-related activities, because there is a huge interest in science and math programs," Leopold said.

There's always a good turnout for any type of college prep or testing programs, she said.

On the lighter side, one of the new events will take place on Jan. 15, and calls for teens to put together gingerbread houses, which should be really fun, she said.

Because a few teens who regularly attend library programs have said they are sensitive to gluten products, there will be gluten-free gingerbread houses to make, in addition to traditional graham cracker-based houses.

"It's our first time trying this, so we'll see how it goes, but we're hoping to get the word out and have a good time," said Leopold, who added that participation in all the events is free and open to any teen.

Other events planned include Origami Night on Jan. 28, Hearts and Cupcakes on Feb. 12, Game Night on Feb. 26, and a Teen Tech Week Craft on March 12.

To sign up for any of these and other Teen Scene programs, or to get involved in the teen group, contact the Galloway Branch at 609-652-2352, or see atlanticlibrary.org and access the branch e-newsletter.

Contact Lucia C. Drake:

609-272-7295