Outreach in a Time of Uprising

My first job out of college was working as a preschool teaching assistant in a state funded preschool program. Children in this program were “at-risk”, meaning they were growing up in poverty, or with only one parent, or with parents who didn’t speak English. An essential part of our work were home visits, where my lead teacher and I visited every student’s home in order to get to know our students better.

During these visits we asked caregivers two pages worth of questions, including questions about discipline methods, family background, a typical day in the life of the family. We learned the names of beloved grandparents. We sometimes ate the same food that the child every day (who was I to turn down a homemade tamale?). We observed how many books were in the home. We made connections, and developed relationships. If parents had had bad experiences with education in their past, this work was a little more difficult. We’d need to gently untangle years of bad experiences and demonstrate to wary parents that we could be trusted. (And for many families, we were also working through years and years of historical trauma, although we didn’t know that’s what it was at that time.) Just as we soothed the feelings of a distraught child in the classroom, we extended this same care and concern to the child’s family. 

If we determined the family needed, we’d refer them to social workers on staff who would work to make sure utility bills got paid, ensure the family had enough food, or help caregivers finish their own education. By knowing and seeing the whole child–and the whole family, and school, and community–we could tailor their classroom experience to help them succeed socially, emotionally, and academically.

The six years I spent working in the field of early childhood education had a profound impact on my professional values. It was there I developed my passion for helping people, and learned that listening to people’s stories is the first and most powerful step in helping them change their lives. I’ve taken those lessons forward with me into my work in libraries. Those home visits taught me patience, understanding, and compassion, and those qualities have made me a better reference librarian and improved my ability at readers advisory. By having a deeper understanding of the needs and wants of the community I serve, every program, collection, or service I propose or implement will be stronger, better, and more useful. 

I’ve learned how to create safe environments for sharing and learning by being open, vulnerable, and nonjudgmental. While booktalking to middle school students I’ll share personal stories, inspiring the students to share their own.  By being easily recognizable and approachable in my community, I’ve become the face of the library to many people, and this has allowed me to have fruitful conversations with library users in grocery stores and in the clearance section at Target as well as at the reference desk. These interactions inform every aspect of my library work, and contribute to my vision for truly responsive and integrated library spaces, services, and programs.

I’ve always believed that this type of community engagement is crucial to library services, but I believe that now it’s more important than ever. When the humanity of people in our communities is called into question, one of the strongest responses we can make is by helping elevate and amplify their voices and their stories. This is why, even if your community is entirely white (which it’s probably not), books with children of color on the covers, and books written by authors of color, are still crucial to have in your collection, and need to be included in book talks, on book lists, and included during your readers’ advisory sessions.

But to go even further, there are stories in your own community that deserve to be told and voices that need to be listened to. Marginalized voices deserve a seat on your library board. They deserve a voice at the table when you’re planning programs, remodeling your spaces, and creating your collections. And you’re not going to hear these voices sitting behind a desk or holed up in your office, or even on the floor of your library, or commenting on your facebook page. You’re going to hear these voices out in your community, at the park or at church socials or at a school information night. You will have to do the work of being present, being engaged, being available. You’ll need to start by being vulnerable yourself, by admitting you don’t have all the answers and you don’t do everything right, but you’re there to listen, and to support.

Here’s the thing: it’s going to take months, if not years, for you to become trusted. It will take hours of being available in spaces, making sometimes awkward approaches, trying to prove your value. And you do. You need to prove your value, and be authentic. You can’t just throw up a sign or have one “multicultural” event and call it a day. That’s not how it works.

And this isn’t news. From Managing Library Outreach Programs: a how-to-do-it Manual for Librarians*, by Marcia Trotta, published 1993:

The first step toward success is the most important: commitment to the goal of making library services available to all. We need to face reality and realize that not everyone is comfortable within our traditional library boundaries. The buildings are imposing, the amounts of information are overwhelming, unfamiliar cultural manifestations are threatening. In many instances, people don’t know that the library has something for them. Outreach services, also known as ‘the off-site approach’, offer librarians the opportunity to open up communication about the library and its services on the user’s own turf. It gives librarians the chance to observe and listen to the population intended to be served, so that the barriers can be overcome. Bringing the library outside its walls requires a change of perception about the library and its roles, both on the part of the librarians and of the users (Trotta, 4; bold emphasis added).

Also from this book: Chicago Public Library added a social worker to its staff in 1969. I don’t think they employ one any longer, but they’re currently working to integrate library branches with affordable housing options. And while they lost their social worker, other public libraries have added this position in recent years, which is a step in the right direction. How much more embedded can you be, then to have your library where people live?

But even if you can’t integrate your library spaces in your community to such a degree, you can get out in your community. Go to events, be recognizable and available (which can be scary for some, so do what feels comfortable for you), and above all–listen. Listen without judgment, assumptions, or an agenda. Listen, and observe, and be present. This is the only way to learn about your community, and in turn, help them achieve what they want to achieve.

And above all, remember what Mr Vonnegut said: bekind

 

*If you have never read this book, please do. It has been updated, but I appreciated reading the older edition as well, to see how perceptions and approaches have changed, or in some instances, stayed the same. 

 

Where Do The Teens Go?

Where do the teens go? (saxophone solo) Where do the teens go?

I’ve long had a belief that service and programs in the public library, especially Youth Services (if you define Youth Services as 0-18), is a conveyor belt of sorts. We start with children in lapsit storytime, and our ultimate goal should be to create life-long library users who stay with us well into young adulthood.

I think that most public libraries do a pretty good job of getting kids from storytime to elementary programming, but start to lose those same kids during middle school. In my experience, middle school is rarely anyone’s favorite group or specialty. They’re hard to work with. They’re like toddlers, but bigger, and with more hormones. They’re trying on different personalities from day to day, and again, like toddlers, like to say no and push boundaries.

But you don’t have to (just) take my word for it!

The emergence of the middle school movement in the 1960s represented a milestone in the history of Human Development Discourse. This movement recognized that young adolescents are not simply older elementary school students nor younger high school students, but that there are dramatic changes that occur during this time of life requiring a radically different and unique approach to education. Middle school educators understood that the biological event of puberty fundamentally disrupts the relatively smooth development of the elementary school years and has a profound impact upon the cognitive, social, and emotional lives of young teens. In line with this important insight, they saw the need for the provision of special instructional, curricular, and administrative changes in the way that education takes place for kids in early adolescence. Among those changes were the establishment of a mentor relationship between teacher and student, the creation of small communities of learners, and the implementation of a flexible interdisciplinary curriculum that encourages active and personalized learning. (emphasis added)

I argue that middle school students require a unique approach to library programs, spaces, and services. Librarians for the middle school set can, and do, apply these same principles–a mentor relationship, small communities of learners, programming to appeal to interdisciplinary interests and encourage personalized learning.

Yet many libraries consider “Teen Services” 6th-12th grade, which is (in my opinion) a ridiculous age spread. A sixth grader has as much in common with a 12th grader as a baby does with a 5th grader. But so many libraries wonder why they are grappling with the question, “Where are the teens?” Can you imagine anyone being happy with your programs if you had lapsit lego time, or booktalked board books to a fourth grader? No! Then why do we do this disservice to our varied teen audiences?

But this approach doesn’t work for older teens who are in high school, which is where the 6th-12th “teen” melting pot really becomes sticky. 9th-12th graders are more firmly aware of who they are and what they want, and they have an increasing amount of autonomy.

By high school, youth are largely independent, making their own decisions about how to spend their time and exercising their increasing freedom. They are starting to think about what will come next for them postgraduation, and many have developed interests that they can pursue in youth programs. As a result, high school programs’ efforts to retain youth are different from those of middle school programs, as a provider acknowledged:

‘I think the high school programs are easy to run. I think a lot of times you have kids in a middle school program who may not want to be there, but it’s used as a form of afterschool day care by the parents who are working. I think once you get to the high school level, most of the participants really are motivated to be there, and they’re doing it because they want to—not because they have to.’ (emphasis added)

While librarian positions for early childhood have become more targeted–many libraries have a staff person in charge of early literacy programming, which is sometimes held by someone with a master’s in early childhood rather than an MLIS–and programs and materials for the elementary set have never been lacking, the expectation that one (or no!) teen librarian or a youth librarian who is interested in teens can adequately serve the entire population of sixth to twelfth graders in any one community is a bar set impossibly high.

(A lengthy aside, that perhaps deserves its own post: Serving audiences by age groupings is a popular model in libraries, and while it is a fine model, we must never forget that within any age group–from middle schoolers to senior citizens–there is a diverse range of interests and abilities, and when we program and develop collections, we need to hone in even further– twenty-something tech geeks are not interested in the same programs and resources as twenty-something organic backyard farmers. While age groupings can be a starting point, don’t forget to dig deeper.)

This also ties in to the discussion about where the Teen Librarian/staff should exist within the library ecosystem. In my experience, staff for teens are either part of Adult Services or Youth Services. (Although, sadly, sometimes there is no staff at all explicitly devoted to teen services, but just a children’s librarian or adult librarian with an interest in programming and/or literature for teens.) Both placement options have benefits and drawbacks.

I think in terms of collections, having teen books–and in this article, teen books are aimed at 9th grade and older–closer to the adult collection makes more sense. No self-respecting 16 year old wants to have to go into a children’s section for their reading material.

However, when it comes to programming, I believe that teen staff are better served by the programming know-how and collaborative nature of a youth department.

In my ideal and imaginary library, there would be the following full time positions, in terms of teams:

Middle School Team

  • Middle School Librarian (5th or 6th-8th, depending on where local middle schools put 5th grade; partners with Elementary staff for 5th grade)
  • Middle school outreach librarian (5th or 6th-8th grade, partners with Elementary staff for 5th grade)

High School Team

  • High School Librarian (9th-12th, but collaborates with Middle School staff for 7th/8th grades)
  • High School outreach librarian (9th to 12th, but again collaborates with Middle School Staff for 7th/8th grades)

Early Literacy Team

  • Early literacy librarian (0-3rd grade, partners with Elementary staff for 3rd grade, and with High School staff to provide services to teen moms/parents)
  • Early literacy outreach (0-3rd grade,partners with Elementary staff for 3rd grade, and with High School staff to provide services to teen moms/parents)

Elementary Team

  • Elementary librarian (3rd-5th, partners with both Early Literacy librarians for 3rd grade programming, and Elementary outreach librarian for 4th/5th)
  • Elementary outreach librarian (3rd-5th, again partners with both Early Literacy librarians for 3rd grade, and Elementary librarian for 4th/5th)

Further, the Adult Department would have a Young Adult librarian for 12th grade to early post college, and they’d collaborate with the High School Team.

Why does the Early Literacy team go up to third grade? Because early childhood is defined as such; when you are certified to teach Early Childhood, it goes up to 3rd grade/eight years old. Further, 3rd grade is typically a fraught time for emerging readers, and they can often use the support and skills provided by targeted early literacy programming.

I’ve lovingly collected several articles and posts for you about this very subject. Go forth, read, and learn.

3rd grade reading success matters

Grade level reading- 3rd grade

Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters

Early Warning Confirmed 

Middle School Students and Their Developmental Needs

Can’t Stop Talking Social Needs of Students in the Middle

Middle Schools Need to Focus on Caring and Connections

Developmentally Responsive Middle Grades Practices

Characteristics of Middle Grade Students

Developmental Differences Between Middle School and High School Programs – Engaging Older Youth: Program and City-Level Strategies

Are Middle School and High School Students Really That Different? Observations and Advice From MS/HS Teachers

Working with Middle and High School Friends: What Are the Developmental Differences?

Middle Schools: Social, Emotional, and Metacognitive Growth

CONNECT, CREATE, COLLABORATE: TEEN LIBRARIANS UNITE! THROW AWAY YOUR PICTURE BOOKS.

Programming for Preschoolers: Take a Tip from Preschool Centers

photo from Alternative Heat (http://www.flickr.com/photos/alternative_heat/) via http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
photo from Alternative Heat (http://www.flickr.com/photos/alternative_heat/) via http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

When I was still teaching preschool (oh how I love to talk about when I taught preschool) one of the early literacy tactics we employed was to integrate literature and literacy skills into every center. This meant having books with building themes in the block center, books about nature in the science center, having pads of paper to write shopping lists and recipes down in the dramatic play center, etc and so forth.

Are you familiar with the centers in a preschool classroom? Many youth departments now have set ups similar to a preschool classroom, including block play, dramatic play and puppet stages. If your youth space is lacking distinct areas for different kinds of play, you might want to consider changing things around to allow for these play spaces. If you’re not familiar with preschool classroom centers and how classrooms are arranged, here are a few links:

NAEYC guide to setting up literacy rich classroom centers
Centers in a preschool classroom
Introduction to Preschool Classroom Centers

Now, if you’re stymied for some “beyond story time” programs for three to five year olds, just take those varied centers and start creating programs based on them.

Here are just a few ideas from some of the “centers” you’d find in a preschool classroom.

Discovery, Sensory, and Science

STE(A)M is a buzzword that can potentially get concerned parents into your programs. In certain communities, you need to promote programs as being enriching and academically rigorous to get buy-in from families.

For any science, cooking or making program, try to have the recipes or steps printed–with accompanying picture instructions–to amp the early literacy.

  • Invest in a sensory table, which you can fill with sand, colored rice, moon sand, cotton balls–the possibilities are endless!
  • Have a mixing & “cooking” program where you make  flubber or playdough.
  • Write or draw in shaving cream
  • Play with a light table
  • Mix up bubble solution and make giant bubbles
  • Do a “sink or float” program

Writing Center

Writing is just as important an early literacy skill as letter recognition, phonemic awareness and print awareness. Fine motor skills and being able to hold a writing utensil correctly is an important skill to have for Kindergarten as well.

  • For any program, have kids write their own names on name tags or on a (large) sign-in sheet
  • Practice writing with different media, including  crayons, markers, paintbrushes, colored pencils; write on chalkboards, white boards, and tablets, too
  • For a more sensory experience,– in rice, shaving cream, or tracing letters on sandpaper

Dramatic Play

Dramatic play is the perfect opportunity for children to try out different characters, work through difficult emotions in a safe space, and “…it remains an integral part of the developmental learning process by allowing children to develop skills in such areas as abstract thinking, literacy, math, and social studies, in a timely, natural manner.” (x)

Further, the ability to retell a story verbally or using props is a CCSS benchmark from Kindergarten up. Helping kids retell stories and get a handle on narrative structure–beginning, middle, end, etc–makes for a perfect preschool program.

  • An easy “unprogram” would be to gather toys, puppets, props and costumes for 5-6 well known fairy tales. Station them in your programming room or even all around your Youth Space. Have staff available to read the stories if kids aren’t familiar, then encourage the kids to use the props to retell the story, even changing it if they like.
  • Another unprogram would be to create a dramatic play center if you don’t have one. Create a house, grocery store, post office, shopping mall, farm, or restaurant, and stock it with books about those places. Have lots of paper and writing tools available to create shopping lists, menus, take orders, or whatever else the kids want to create.

Building/Block Center

Fine and gross motor skills are developed in the block center, depending on whether you use large wooden or cardboard blocks or smaller duplo sets. Seeding this program with related picture books, both fiction and non-fiction (Iggy Peck, Architect, any and all construction books, Lego guides), will give kids ideas without being prescriptive. Include toys and props with your block program, and kids will also engage in dramatic play.

These are just some suggestions, and often play centers and areas will intersect. For example, dramatic play will often happen in the block area, and building will often happen during dramatic play. It’s easy to work math into dramatic play (How many bears are there? How long do you think it would take to climb a beanstalk to the sky?) and work writing in science (write a question you want to answer, or draw something you’re observing). Retelling stories overlaps literacy activities with dramatic play. By using centers as a starting point for programs beyond storytime, it allows you to have one main focus, to which you can add and tweak as suits your mood and your audience.

Also, nothing precludes you from adding elements of different centers into your story time if you want. Instead of a craft at the end of story time, why not give the kids costumes and props and a chance to act out the stories you just shared? Or do a science experiment? The possibilities are endless and there’s no one way to do it.

Make It So

madeit

 

As she so often does,  hit the nail on the head with her post Everything Old is New Again.

I wonder, how many libraries with MAKERSPACES consulted their youth departments before creating this BRAND NEW THING? Because, seriously, been there, done that, have the stained shirt to prove it.

Some of you might argue that maker spaces are more digital, or involve power tools, or whatever. To which I reply, So certain types of making are better than others? Our flannel stories, origami programs, bookmaking and playdough are inferior to flashier, decidedly more masculine forms of making?

Same old story–when women do it, it is easier, lesser, and undervalued. As soon as a dude says it’s cool to print a robot out of plastic, then it’s something.

Which is not to say I don’t like the Maker/DIY movement. Just that…maybe ask for help from people who’ve built their entire careers around it. They might have something to teach  you. And by might, I mean definitely.

Want to Save Libraries?

I think every library, be it public, school, academic, or special, can learn a lot about survival from the children’s departments of public libraries–because we’re not going anywhere. Even if the rest of the library as we know it collapses and crumbles, children’s librarians will still be around, in some form or another, doing what we do.

Why is this? Why will we survive budget cuts and closures while other libraries and library departments might fail? Simple: we provide unique, superior value and we make sure people know about it. Also, we’re the nicest people in the library world, and that keeps people coming back.

Now, this is not to say that no one else provides value, or gets the word out, or is nice. What I am saying is that the most successful children’s librarians–and, very often, teen librarians–have a certain formula that will consistently provide results. A great children’s department will often have both the highest program numbers as well as the highest circulation numbers, and depending on how the library budgets, that often means they end up getting the most money.

There are four key areas in which children’s librarians excel, and they are:

  1. Outreach
  2. Programming
  3. Service
  4. Collections
I’m going to discuss each of these four areas in turn. Stay tuned for our first topic, outreach.
p.s. I think that insect is actually a beetle.

May the Fourth Be With You: 2013

May 4th is on a Saturday next year and so help me, I’ll be planning and implementing a large scale, fun for the whole family “May the Fourth Be With You” Star Wars nerdamondium party that will be so awesome I may just explode.

Other libraries have done it with much success. You can get free cosplay storm troopers etc from your local branch of the 501st legion which is really the thing that’s going to make the party. The idea is to have a wide range of activities that would appeal to all ages, bringing in families as well as single adults. Additional ideas include:

Do you think you’d have a Star Wars party at your library?

The Whole Library Approach

When I was still a preschool teacher, we talked a lot about the whole child approach, which, essentially, meant you took a whole child into consideration when you are teaching him or her. When we deal with children we teach, we can’t just have Susie the student. We also have Susie the daughter, the artist, the kid who doesn’t get enough to eat at home, whose parents can’t pay the utility bills so she cries before going to sleep because she’s afraid of the dark. We consider her immediate family, the community she’s in, and the experiences and exposures that impact her life and her development. We teach and take interest in the whole child, and take steps to help her thrive.

In so many public libraries, we’re so concerned with our own private domains. Children’s services, Adult Reference, Circulation, Technical Services, Administration– each little island has its own procedures, processes, vision, and expectations. The best libraries do what they can to unify these disparate departments, and have a library wide vision and mission, but so many don’t. So many libraries have departments that are so disparate in their approaches that it’s amazing they manage to (dys)function at all.

I am a children’s librarian as well as a staunch advocate of teens and those with special needs. (If anyone wants give me a job where my title is Toddler Tween Librarian and Purveyor of Programming, I would gladly accept.) I’ll help anyone who is within my reach, even if they’re not asking for something that a children’s librarian would typically help with.  Because that’s just what you should do.

Even though I work at the children’s desk, we get a lot of adult traffic as well. Some of these adults are parents, others are adults who don’t realize they are at the children’s desk, and others who wander over to us because of our proximity to the photocopier. I never turn adults away when they ask me a question. I will find books or resources for them, help them make photocopies, answer questions about computer classes, and walk them to the appropriate collection area if needed, the same as I would do for any child. My title is Children’s Librarian. Anything a librarian can do, I can do. Answering a reference question, regardless of the age of the asker, is something I should be able to do. I might not be as passionate about some of the reader’s advisory questions I get from adults, but I should know enough to do a RA interview, and I should have a working knowledge of major trends in adult literature.

I believe that in a public library, this should be standard. You should be prepared and equipped to serve the public at any and all times, regardless of age, ethnicity, or ability. If someone’s needs absolutely require someone else in another department, please walk the person over, make contact with your colleague, explain the situation, and make sure everything is ready to go before you leave. There’s nothing worse than being passed from person to person and department to department without any continuity or follow through.

Think about it: when you’re on the phone with customer service, don’t you hate having to give the same damn information over and over again, every time you are transferred? If you don’t like it, then don’t do it to your patrons. It’s not necessary, and it’s bad service.

Which brings me to another point: if you don’t like people, don’t work in a public library, period. Become an archivist, a collection development librarian, or, you know, go live in a cave and don’t bother any one anymore. If you like books–great! I like books too. But in the public library, books are just a means to connect with people.

Further, you need to like all people, and have a strong desire to help them. I don’t necessarily like everyone I help, but I enjoy helping them, even when it’s difficult. Sometimes the most ornery patron is the one who needs you the most.

Of course I have my preferences, like anyone does. I love working with children, which is why I specialized in children’s services, but I like helping everyone. I love talking about Doctor Who with the middle schoolers, and singing “I love my white shoes” from Pete the Cat with the special ed class, and helping an elderly patron make copies of photos at the copier. I don’t ignore or short-shrift any patron because I’m not the adult or teen librarian. If they’re in my library, they are my people, and I need to do what I can for them.

Which brings me back to the way we set up our public libraries. Most people don’t care about our stupid little divisions. This is why I love tiny branch libraries, where the reference desk and check out are usually in the same damn place. I helped you find all this stuff, and  now I am going to check it out to you. From beginning to end, I was with you, and we’ve made a connection. There was no reason for me to shuttle you off to another desk or another person to make things happen for you.

I’ve written about these kinds of issues before, but my ire was raised once again after reading Anthony Molaro’s excellent post The Apple Way for Libraries: A Manifesto? (I’d remove the question mark, though; when your points are as good as these, don’t soften or second guess your message):

In the library environment, the departments feud with each other.  This creates a hostile work environment in which collaboration simply cannot thrive.  In all honesty, when was the last time your technical services and your reference staff actually collaborated?  I’m not talking about a joint project, that a leader approved, but an actually collaboration.

Apple also cuts the fat, or drops dead weight.  Apple is known for only having A players.  Sometimes B players were pushed hard to make them A players, but more often than not, they were fired.  In lots of libraries, we have lousy staff.  We know it.  We joke about it.  We even lament it.  But the truth is if you fail in another profession you end up here.  Even worse, good C players end up with promotions and then you have an entire C rated organization.  Any A players there are pushed downward until they only strive for C results.

Yes, perhaps I’m hard on library staff today.  I have worked with some great people.  But even that statement says a lot.  They are great people not great librarians or library staff.  Most of our staff strives for the status quo, or mediocrity. They plan for tomorrow based on what happened yesterday.

So what are we going to do, guys? Are we going to let these problems destroy our libraries? Or are we going to get serious about solving these problems?

#makeitbetter

For most of my adult life, my jobs have called for me to work with children–adorable, slobbery faced babies, chubby cheeked, bow-legged toddlers, and loveable, chattering preschoolers. When these children fuss or act out or throw a tantrum, it’s vexing, but manageable–after all, they’re still small enough for the average adult to pick them up and carry them off, which is a strategy I heartily endorse when your kid is losing it loudly in public.

Yet as well all know, these little kids grow up to be bigger kids, and eventually they end up in that fresh hell of adolescence(1). They are taller, ganglier, smellier, stronger, and just as determined to say “No!” and push boundaries as any two year old. Unlike with a toddler, however, we can’t just pick up a thirteen year old and haul him out the door. We have to talk with him, just as you do a toddler, but at longer length, and with a conversation partner who can respond, question, and prod you with much more than just a screamed “No!”

It’s easy to love babies and toddlers. They’re designed that way–big eyes, easy smiles, chubby limbs. It’s hard to love your average teenager. They slouch, they sneer, they argue–but they’re designed that way. They’re trying on personalities along with their clothes and hairstyles, and they’re trying to find out who they want to be in the world. Once they know who they are, they’ll find out what they want to do, and begin to take a wider interest in the world. Teens are designed to have an intense preoccupation with the self, because they are trying to figure out who that “self” is. And is there a better place to pursue this self-discovery than the library?

The best libraries and best librarians know these things about teens, mostly through observation. Just as it would serve children’s librarians better to take child development courses, it would serve teen librarians better to do the same. (2)  Adolescence is a turbulent, fascinating time in human development, and if you don’t know what it entails and why it happens the way it does, you’re going to be confused, and that confusion will lead to anger, irrational behavior, and bad choices.

Erikson has a concept called “psychosocial moratorium”, which is a concept that adolescents need a time-out from “the sort of excessive responsibilities and obligations that might restrict the young person’s pursuit of self-discovery” (Steinberg p. 458). What does that mean? Teens need time to hang out, without being told what to do, as a developmental NEED. They are not lazy; they are not stupid; they are not purposefully trying to ignore you; when they sit there, with their friends, being obnoxious, they are actually HARD AT WORK, BECOMING PEOPLE.

Steve Teeri (3) understands this, and is doing good work in Detroit supporting teens’ need to discover, push boundaries, and explore. He also makes a good point about remembering your own time as a teenager, and the stupid crap you probably did/said/wore:

Young adults are at a pivotal time in their lives. As they near adulthood, teens try on different personas and identities, in an attempt to figure out just who the heck they are. When I was a teen it was the exact same process. For me it was being preppy with my letter jacket and khakis one day. Doc Mart[e]n steel-toe boots with a black shirt and jeans another. Maybe a Hypercolor color-changing shirt and cut-off pair of jean shorts that we won’t talk about any further. Matched together with this quest for identity, is a rush of hormones and limitless teen energy. It’s enough to make any settled adult run for cover.

He also issues a challenge to those who are not passionate about the work, a gauntlet which I’ve tossed down so many times on this blog that my hand is starting to hurt:

When speaking about our teens, I try never to say “the teens,” it is always “my teens” or “our teens.” I take full responsibility and ownership of their experience and growth as people when in my department. It sounds basic, but I have heard stories about YA staff who do not want to interact with their teens. If that is the case, hit the eject button and get out of YA immediately.

Yet when you consider that Erik Erikson considers young adulthood to last until forty (yes, 4-0, with 13-19 being more precisely “adolescence”), you can scarcely be a librarian period without working with young adults.

Which leads into Justin’s heartfelt plea for more teen librarians. Or librarians for teens. Which, sadly, is not likely to happen any time soon; it takes a rare kind of person to work with teens well, and there just aren’t enough of these people to meet the demand. However, what teen librarians can do is foster environments where all library staff treat teens with the same professionalism and courtesy that is accorded older adults, and the same indulgence and patience that is accorded to children. They can advocate for teen spaces, services, and programs and set an example for their coworkers to follow.

Sometimes this will be a fairly easy task. Susan Kunkle, at the Forest Park Public Library, was able to reclaim a room in her Youth Services Department that was being used by an outside agency and turn into a teen space. She was fortunate to have the  support of her director, board, and staff, and most importantly, the teens.

Sometimes this will be a struggle, if you lack support, or funding, or both. My friend Gordon has limited hours and funds with which to make things happen for the teens he works with, but he does the most and best with what he can. Last year he garnered tremendous online support to win a free visit from author Kimberly Pauley, and I’ve gathered lots of anecdotal evidence from his online professional development that he cares about and understands his teens deeply. So no whining that without flashy gadgets you can never hope to catch and keep the attention of teens; all they really crave is positive interactions with adults (also a developmental need).

So the title of this post. Many of you might be familiar with make it happen, which is an attitude and an edict and a way of approaching your work and your life. I would like to suggest that once you start making things happen, you need to keep it going and look at how you can make things better–which, in my opinion, is what librarianship is all about. Everything you do and collect has the potential to make someone’s life better. By offering a photocopier and assistance in using it, an elderly man will be able to send in the forms needed for his disability card, which will make his life better. By giving a frazzled parent a copy of The Happiest Baby on the Block, you’ll make that parent’s (and that baby’s) life better. By offering free ESL classes and materials, you’ll make a non-native English speaker’s life better. By giving teens the time and space they need to become themselves, you’re making their lives better. By doing these things, you are a better librarian and a better person.

Know a librarian who is making it better? Tell us about it. I could use some good news.

Library Teen Centers, Notes from the Field by Steve Teeri
This is a Call by Justin Hoeneke

1: Ruby Oliver, the main character in E. Lockhart’s funny Ruby Oliver novels, calls adolescence “Mocha Latte”, which sounds so much nicer, doesn’t it?

2: Add Childhood by Laurence Steinberg and Roberta Meyer to your professional development bookshelf immediately. Easy to read, clearly laid out, and concise, it will arm you with information from infancy to adolescent with ease.

3: It’s hard to not type Steve’s name with a million Es, and in all caps.

make it happen: teen space.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I worked at Forest Park Public Library back in 2006/2007, and I must admit that every single time I worked a desk shift, I would stare balefully at the local history room. Not that I dislike local history, mind you, but because I like and care about teenagers more—and I could see, even then, that the teens in Forest Park that were coming to the library deserved a place of their own to hang out and be themselves. I wanted to take over that room that was being used by the historical society and put it to use for the teens. I was continually annoyed that this public library space was only accessible by appointment when we had a sizeable group of teens who would love to be able to sprawl out in a space that they could call their own. Being the rabble-rouser that I am, I would state my opinion on this topic to my manager at every possible opportunity. My manager indulged my rambling, but was wise enough to know that such a project would be incredibly involved and difficult and while I waxed philosophical, she bided her time.
Eventually I left Forest Park for other opportunities, but my strong feelings about those teens and that room persisted. So when, a few months ago, I saw an article about FPPL’s new teen space, I knew I wanted to hear more about, so I interviewed the current manager, Susan Kunkle, via email about the project.)

The Youth Services department in Forest Park serves birth-12th grade, which is an incredibly wide range of ages to serve in a space that is essentially one open floor with little division. This was a bit of a problem, Susan wrote, because “[t]eens like–and need–to work and socialize in groups and there was no carved out place for that. We had this open room, but no areas to just sit and talk without having little kids right there too […]. Our tables really only fit four to five comfortably. We would regularly have eight teens try to cram themselves in a small study room or one day over a spring break there were easily fifteen kids, who had just pulled chairs from everywhere out to the middle of the floor so they could all talk together. We would have to break them up for practicality’s sake because of noise, or to avoid people getting hurt, or because people couldn’t get around them—but they weren’t doing anything wrong. We wanted them to feel like it was okay to hang out. We just needed a better option. I was leading the Teen Advisory Board at the time, and I had really come to know and care about these kids and honestly, they really wanted to be there. We needed to give something back to them and show them that it worked both ways.” (Emphasis added).

After my departure from FPPL, it seems that the idea for having a teen space in the library really started to gain momentum. According to Susan, it was around a three year project, with “[t]he former manager Lindsey Dorfman and our Director Rodger Brayden really set[ting] down the groundwork, collaborating with our board, and feeling out the possibility. Our door counts and circulation were up, we were seeing a lot of growth in our program attendance and there was a lot of discussion in the community about creating more safe spaces and safe activities for teens, so it really felt like the right time.”

Susan, with the support of her director and board, was able to negotiate the Historical Society’s leaving the room so the library could resume its use. With that in place, the exciting process of bids, meetings, planning, and input began. Susan consulted with her teen advisory board regarding how the space would be used and how it would look. From a narrowed down selection of choices, the teens gave their input on fabric, furniture, and materials, and Susan was surprised with what they picked.

“I really liked their choices. So many times I think people are afraid to open themselves up from feedback from kids because they feel their suggestions are all going to be way out there or unreasonable, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in YS it’s that it always pays off to listen to them. Kids are more practical than we give them credit for sometimes and at the end of the day, don’t we want them to be invested in what we do?”

Yes, we do. Great job, Susan!

antici….pation.

Did I ever show these pictures to you, dear readers?

Right before the Ugly Truth came out, we put give-away copies into our locked display case, to taunt entice the children to attend our release party. This was my manager’s idea, actually, and it’s one of my favorite displays my library has done.

How do you use displays to interact with your library patrons?