No, Shush! Librarians Widen Youth Work Role

Tim Burke
November 1, 1996

It was one of the summer's hottest days—a Saturday. Surely, weren't most sensible citizens cooling off by the lake? Perhaps. But not 115 of the city's teenagers.

They were gathered at Brown County Library here for a conference to meet authors, study Hmong culture or learn about the inter-connectedness of all living things.

This kind of event may not be entirely typical — Brown County was America's 1994 "Library of the Year" — but it is one example of how some libraries around the nation are recognizing that despite limited staff and resources they can and should play a role in the lives of young adults that goes beyond buying in a few Sweet Valley High novels.

The Talk it Up! teen conference involved cooperation with youth workers from Green Bay Boys and Girls Club and local schools and community groups. Chaired by a 7th grader, the event also featured a young comedian, presentations from teens on how to get active in your community and eleven workshop sessions presented jointly by youth and adult facilitators.

"Each year the children's department comes up with a grant application idea, but we realized we'd not really done things for this age group — we felt we should make more of a connection," said youth program coordinator Pete Angilello. The two key elements towards success that Angilello and colleague Sue Wegge identify are outreach to the community and the participation of young people.

"Making links is a slow process," adds Angilello. "You can't expect to do it if you don't put the work in on outreach. This library does a lot, sits on lot of committees, coalitions and such. A lot of connections are made that way and meant we could get a lot of kids involved in the planning process. It certainly helped us work out what would fly."

Books are Not Enough

For those people trying to expand the role of the young adult librarian money is tight, staffing even tighter— and training hard to come by. They often must also deal with lingering attitudes that youth are a problem to the conscientious librarian rather than key clientele.

Nonetheless an increasingly vociferous lobby within the library community is making the case that libraries can benefit from opening themselves to young people and youth workers, and that indeed many of them would benefit from acquiring and applying youth work skills. One of the motors pushing these developments is demographic change.

Most large libraries are sited in city centers, from where the middle classes and
their college-bound offspring have long since fled. Many of those who remain have no tradition of library use, or even of valuing reading. They are ethnically, culturally and economically diverse and facing intense social pressures. Placing books on shelves and opening the doors is not enough, as others, too, have recognized.

The Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development's 1992 report, A Matter of Time, exhorted librarians to reach out to these young people. "If libraries are to serve youth better, they must develop thoughtful and responsive policies and programs to address the unmet needs of adolescents," stated the report. "Programs could include library-based clubs, self-care and self-reliance courses, drop-in activities, paid employment and volunteer opportunities such as working with younger children."

Cheerleader-in-Chief for the youth work approach is Mary K. Chelton, currently at the School of Library and Information Management in Emporia, Kan., and with a lifetime record of youth advocacy within the library community.

50 Model Programs

"I have always considered serving young people as youth work in libraries," Chelton told YOUTH TODAY.” That makes me an oddball to those who think of themselves as information retrieval specialists and those who see keeping order as their most important task."

Chelton's diagnosis confirms that too many libraries are not geared towards young adults and that broad interpersonal skills are undervalued in librarians. "Libraries are not social spaces but adolescents are the most intense social learners," she continued. "Libraries are so often set up as if everyone is a solitary deaf mute aged 60. When you have people whose job is to enforce rules what do you expect to happen — why don't you offer something different?

"I think a lot has to do with recruitment if institutional culture is to be changed. People may have functionally defined jobs — such as reference — and unfortunately unless there is youth in the title they don't look for youth work skills or personality.

"As long as we keep building monuments, the priorities will be order and management. There is this elitist attitude that if you build it they will come."

The upside to all of this is that things are changing. Chelton herself recently completed a study for the American Library' Association (ALA) entitled Excellence in Library Services to Young Adults, a shop-window of best practices in the field that highlighted 50 top programs, including Brown County.

Database research threw up 225 nominations, mainly projects that even the experts were not aware of. Resources are so scarce that no one has had time to write about their work, Chelton says, hence many projects may not be evaluated as rigorously as they should.

Literacy drives were featured in many programs as might be expected. But there also was some interest in addressing social problems and at-risk groups.

Getting the Message

"It very often depended on the passions of the people who run them, but also where the money comes from," said Chelton. "After the L.A. riots the public library managed a very successful after-school program, but when California ran out of money it fell apart.

"It's frustrating but the work is often marginal. When times are flush things happen. When they're not we go back to just opening doors and circulating books."

Chelton talks enthusiastically of the homework centers in San Diego and the drop-in math tutoring in Monroe County, Ind. What pleases her most is that these projects showed that the participation message is getting through. People understand that involving young people not only makes a better service but is good experiential learning itself.

"In Minneapolis, there are youth boards, for every branch. In Rhode Island, young people were involved in drawing up the recommended reading list and you had non-readers reading 20 books a month simply because someone cared enough to ask their opinion. It got them a load of media coverage, too," she said.

While as institutions libraries can sometimes seem unfriendly, Chelton feels community youth workers should be more aggressive in approaching them to plan joint activities.

"It's hard, and I wouldn't want you to write a puff piece, but libraries are different and each time there is a personnel change it's a window of opportunity. I'd encourage youth workers to try because there are benefits both ways. For a start youth workers could introduce their library to YOUTH TODAY!

Making Kids Welcome

Also in the running to open libraries to more possibilities for youth is the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), a division of ALA. Last year, YALSA published a handbook of practical ideas for involving young adults in conceptualizing and delivering their services. The book's premise is that youth participation not just an assurance of a more responsive service but "a direct, meaningful experience of empowerment, a life-affirming and powerful lesson."

Deborah Taylor is YALSA's vice president and is praised by Chelton for the job she is now doing in Baltimore to develop outreach and homework support programs.

"We'd found that many young people were coming into public libraries because school libraries were not much use -- most are not that well-stocked and are not open for long after school," explained Taylor. "It can be quite easy to drop in to the central library on the way home. They can be rambunctious when they come out, but to be that way is developmentally appropriate that's why we have Student Express."

With its neon sign and separate mezzanine-level location, Student Express is an attempt to tell young people they have their space — important to those who are increasingly made to assume they are not welcome in public places. It is a dedicated study center for
them, comfortable and attractive, with extensive technology including access to the world-wide web and Internet, their own reference section and photocopier.

In her YALSA capacity, Taylor has been involved in two national training courses to try and cascade improvements in services to young adults. "We realize you are not going to be able to hire as many specialist workers as in the 1960s and 70s so we've focused on training for generalists to get them to understand the developmental needs of young people," she explained. Currently the Chicago-based YALSA is run by Linda Wattle.

Look It Up Yourself!

"We want people to go back to their libraries and train their colleagues in some of the issues. So even if they are not youth workers per se, they are still better librarians when young people come to the desk."

On the other side of the nation, a remarkably similar situation exists at Berkeley Public Library. A public high school is one block away from the central library which becomes a de facto annex. Young adults have been involved in a number of ways including as trainers on a staff training day.

Berkeley was fortunate in getting five young adult librarians appointed back in 1989 — one for each branch. "Unfortunately, it did mean that too many staff passed off young adult clients with a you'll have to go and talk to her,'" said Francesca Goldsmith, young adult librarian at the central branch. “Teenagers were saying to us 'I really like coming to the library when you're there but at other times..” Young people were paid $25 for their contribution. We felt very strongly they were giving us professional advice."

The training day also saw a nurse brought in to discuss adolescent development, with librarians to explain some of the reasons why young people often act the way do and hopefully elicit from them more sympathetic treatment.

"The young persons' panel was unanimous that what they hated most was the 'have you looked it up’ response when taking an inquiry to a librarian," said Goldsmith. "If nothing else, several colleagues have said they will never use that phrase again."

Berkeley's commitment to serving young adults is also shown in other programs such as its young employee plan, apprenticing students to young adult librarians to do some basic work but also to help design and run activities to bring more people — ranging from job fairs, to leaflet translation and acted-out murder mysteries. An aggressive information collection policy on hot-button issues is complemented by information sessions on rights, responsibilities and the law with police and social workers, immigration rights, and an AIDS awareness session with a nurse who gives condom use demonstrations. "They may get that at school," said Goldsmith, "but I think it can be more effective here because people come because they want to."

And not forgetting good old-fashioned reading, young adults have designed, written and produced their own publication that reviews books. "Its an excellent tool," said Goldsmith, "because it's peer advice — their opinion carries far more weight than mine."


Excellence in Library Services to Young Adults, ALA, 50 East Huron St., Chicago, IL
60611. To order call 1-800-545-2433, press 7.

It Works; youth participation in school and public libraries, same details as above.

Output measures and more: planning and evaluating public library services for
young adults, same details as above.

Journal of Youth Services in Libraries, same details as above.

Voice of Youth Advocates, $38.50, Scarecrow Press, 4720A Boston Way, Lanham,
MD 20706, Tel: 800-462-6420.

Services and resources for children and young adults in public libraries, National
Center for Education Statistics, August 1995 (available through U.S. Government
Printing Office, ISBN 0-16-048261-5).

Mary K. Chelton, School of Library and Information Management, Emporia State
University, Emporia, KS 66801. Tel: 316-342-9277. Fax: 316-342-6391.

Sue Wegge, Young Adult Librarian, Brown County Library, 515 Pine St., Green Bay,
Wl 54301, Tel: 414-448-4370.

Francesca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, 2090 Kittredge St., Berkeley, CA.
Tel: 5l0-649-3926.


(No, Shush!) Librarians Widen Youth Work Role: Libraries and Young Adults

Burke, Tim. "(No, Shush!) Librarians Widen Youth Work Role."Youth Today, November/December 1996, p. 28.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.