Teen Politic: The True Politics of Being a Teen Services Librarian in Our Public Libraries
Teens, as a culture, are pretty maligned and misunderstood. They’re loud, they’re lazy, they’re disrespectful, they’re dangerous – pick your stereotype. They like to travel in rabid packs, that’s my favorite. I believe lots of adults sit around and visualize teens as actual packs of wolves in their minds.
Teens get a bad rap. In the media, in community planning, and yes – in our libraries. I am a teen services librarian. I have been for 24 years. And I love public libraries, hands down. But I’m not going to lie, there is a lot of politics in being a teen services librarian in part because we are always fighting against stereotypes and a general dislike of teenagers. Yes, even in our libraries.
A group of teens can come in after school talking, and it feeds into the rabid pack of roving disrespectful teens mythos. They can be standing right next to a group of mothers with loud toddlers who have just run into each other at the same entrance, one is leaving just as the other is walking out and they then proceed to have a loud “oh hey how are you” reunion right there in the doorway. But only one of them will be called out for it, because the actions are only reinforcing one type of stereotype. That’s part of the politics we have to deal with and navigate.
Kids throw themselves on the ground and have tantrums, adults fume and threaten and yell at the circulation desk over ten cent fines, but one rude teenager continues to reinforce the firmly held belief that all teenagers are rude. It’s that one rude teenager that staff will often fume about behind closed doors (and it must be behind closed doors, never in a public space). That’s part of the politics we have to deal with and navigate.
Being a teen services librarian is a constant struggle against harmful stereotypes, the personal prejudices of your coworkers, and a fight to get support and funding when, if we’re being honest, a lot of coworkers want you to fail because they don’t like having teenagers in the library. It breaks my heart, but it’s true. That’s part of the politics we have to deal with and navigate.
When we talk about advocating for teens, what we often mean is that we have to advocate for teens inside the very public institutions which are supposed to serve them. We have to continue to put teen behavior in perspective, to highlight the positive, to cheerlead, to pep talk, and to re-form those damaging stereotypes. That’s part of the politics we have to deal with and navigate.
It often feels like our successes have to be bigger, our numbers have to be higher, and our teens have to be angels in order to justify the existence of teen services. Teens and teen services often seems like it is viewed through some type of skewed lens, in part because I believe that it is. 24 years, 4 library systems and 2 states have taught me that the hurdles are higher, the support is harder to gain and retain, and often our biggest enemies are not politicians or parents, but our very own co-workers.
So, what do we do? As we do in all jobs, we play politics. But what, exactly, does that mean in the library world? We have to be advocates, not just for public libraries, but for teens and teen services within our public libraries. And here are some of my tips for doing that.
1. Keep good facts and figures. At all times.
Be prepared to answer questions at the drop of a hat. I like to do a yearly infographic to help create a visual of what we did the previous year in youth services. Even if no one asks you for this, do it anyway so you have the information and can make it appear when someone questions teen services or when asking for increased funding. I kept separate YA circulation statistics for years in one position even though the library system I worked for didn’t. This information really helped when we got a new library director who was not very teen services oriented and helped me to get the support I needed from a director who was not predisposed to giving that support.
Some of the statistics I recommend are: YA book circulation figures, YA program attendance, YA visits (if you have a way to measure this, we measure teen visits to our Teen MakerSpace), total spent on YA services, money spent on YA services broken down by category, money spent on YA services averaged to a per capita amount (so even if it’s a high total number, saying you spent $1.22 per teen visit helps it seem less daunting), and percentages of overall totals (What percentage of overall circ is YA circulation? What percentage of the overall budget is spent on YA services?).
If you can, find comparable numbers of other departments and other libraries. Numbers in themselves can be easily judged, but comparing them to other departments or libraries can help put them in perspective. Network with other area teen services librarians and share data to help tell your story and put it into perspective.
2. Share success stories
And here I’m not talking about those facts and figures, but the personal stories we all have in our pockets about that one teen who said we made a difference, the one teen who we helped raise, the one parent who came in and told us what a difference the library made in the lives of their teenager. Everyone loves a good success story, and we’re full of them. If you don’t have success stories to share, then you are doing something wrong and should re-evaluate the what, why and how of what you’re doing.
3. Know key facts about adolescent development
When a staff member claims about behavior, help them put it in perspective. The teen brain is literally different then an adult brain, know how and why and be able to talk about it. We can talk about toddlers throwing temper tantrums because they lack freedom and choice over their lives and the communication skills to express themselves fully, and we should be able to do the same for teens. Understanding the why of teen behavior can often help us accept and deal with it.
4. Speaking of perspective, help staff maintain a positive one
If I have 24 teens that come into my Teen Makerspace on a Monday and 1 teen gives staff attitude, I remind them that 23 teens did not. It is human nature to hold on to and emphasize the negative, but we can help remold the way we view our patron experiences, even the teen ones. Be their cheerleader. If you can’t be their cheerleader, you’re in the wrong job.
5. Share what other libraries are doing
Again, this is about perspective. The truth is, people compare libraries and library services in the same way that we talk about Target vs. Wal-Mart or Amazon vs. Barnes and Noble. Help put your teen services in perspective for co-workers and admin by talking about surrounding and comparable libraries, the reactions to those services, and the positive impact on local communities. This is where networking and being up to date is really important. Don’t work in isolation, spend part of your time each week reading about other libraries. It will inspire you, and it will also help you help your admin and co-workers keep what you’re doing in perspective.
6. Be intentional in what you do as a teen services librarian and be able and willing to talk about it in professional terms
Have measurable goals and talk about the impact of your services and programs on teens, on the library, and on the local community. Don’t do a program just to do a program and check it off of your to do list, do a specific program and be able to talk about why you did THAT program. Be able to answer the questions why? how? how much? and what did you accomplish? Talk about impact.
7. Have a strategic plan and a budget
Again, this goes back to intentionality, but having a plan and being able to talk about your plan is vitally important. Be able to talk about what you’ve done, what you are doing, and what you are looking to do in the future. How, what, why, when and how much are great questions to keep in mind and be able to answer. If your admin don’t ask, tell them occasionally any way.
8. Be a team player, but thoughtfully
At the end of the day, we all work for the library and are working towards a lot of the same goals, so being a team player is important. Support your colleagues as you ask them to support you. However, I have been in situations where I kept getting pulled into other departments, in part because the work of teen services isn’t seen as valuable, and it can be hard to know when to draw the line. But sometimes you have to remind admin that if you keep getting pulled into other departments and projects, then knowing is doing the important work of teen services. Finding balance is hard, but stand up for your teens by insisting that they deserve qualified, dedicated services.
9. Don’t donate your time or money
I know this seems weird to say as someone who is saying we must advocate for teens, but donating your own time or money is harmful in the long term. Remember up above where we talked about having good facts and figures? Donating our time or money skews those facts and figures and harms teen services in the long run. Administrators making budgets and determining staffing levels need to know how much teen services actually requires to be successful, so don’t skew those numbers by donating your time or money. If you leave and a new person is hired, you are setting them up for failure because they will be expected to do the same with what you had not realizing that a lot of it came out of your own pocket and on your own time. Just don’t do it, be the opposite of Nike in this one instance.
10. Take pictures
People respond to visual images, so make sure you have images to share. Do an annual report and include positive pictures of teens using the library, attending programs, making art and more. Do a highlights reel, share memos after big programs or dramatic changes, and yes, even take pictures of teens just reading that graphic novel quietly over in the corner. A picture really is worth a 1,000 words. The pictures don’t even have to be public or have names attached to them, sometimes you just need a visual to share with admin or the library board. Be sure to follow whatever your library’s policies are regarding pictures, but take and use them to help tell your story.
In truth, you’re not just doing this for your admin and you’re coworkers, you’re doing it for you. Sometimes the politics of being a teen librarian can be overwhelming and discouraging, so use this information to not just advocate but to motivate. Keep yourself fueled for the fight. You’re doing great, keep going.
What other tips do you have? Please share them with me in the comments. And keep advocating.
Filed under: Things I Never Learned in Library School
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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