Dear Teens, It’s Okay to Ask for Things

I’ve noticed a particular phenomenon among teens that I don’t see as much in children or adults. Actually, it’s two things.

1. Often, when I see a teen searching for a book on the shelves, and I approach her and ask if I can help her find what she’s looking for, she says no–even though it’s pretty obvious that she’s having trouble locating the title she wants.

2. When a teen asks if I have a particular book and we don’t own it, I always offer to buy it for him. Many times, he will decline. The same goes for offering to put an item on hold–he will say “no, it’s no big deal, don’t worry about it” very politely, but very definitively.

Why does this happen? And what can we do about it?

I don’t think I’m really qualified to delve too deeply into the teen psyche, although I suspect it has something to do with confidence. That said, might it also have to do with not having much experience with librarians (or other “authority” figures) offering to go the extra mile?

We need to convince teens that not only are they worth it, it’s no big deal for us to buy the book they want. In fact, we like doing it. Maybe one way of making this process a little less painful is by giving teens a way to anonymously request books–either in paper, through a book suggestion box, or virtually, through an easy online form.

As for teens who say they don’t want help, my reaction is to back. off. It’s so easy to scare off teens who just want to be inconspicuous and independent, and the worst thing in the world is to yell across a group of their peers: “do you need any help?” I have definitely made this mistake, and the look of terror/annoyance in their eyes is pretty telling. Instead of interjecting, I suggest making your collection really easy to both search and browse–with friendly signage overkill. I arranged my collection by genre to make browsing easier, but I also have to make sure that someone who is looking for a specific book can find it easily. Otherwise, they walk out the door and I’ve lost my chance to connect with them.

Do you have any ideas on how we can reach out to, and connect with, teens–without being overeager or scary?

About Sarah Ludwig

I am the Academic Technology Coordinator at Hamden Hall Country Day School in Hamden, CT. Prior to that, I was the head of teen, technology, and reference services at the Darien Library in Darien, CT. I started my library career as a school librarian at a small boarding school in Western Massachusetts.
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9 Comments

  1. On our library website is a suggestion box that allows our students to request books for the library. I started this just this year and have received a lot of requests for different books that I never would have thought of or anyone had asked for in person

  2. I think teens just don’t quite understand how it works. When I tell them I’ll buy it and put their names on it, they almost always say no, because they think they are being polite. They don’t realize we do this all the time and would much rather buy a book based on a teen’s suggestion than a book review. Also, especially with holds, I find teens don’t really do it because they have less control over when they can be at the library than adults.

    I don’t get the not asking for help especially for specific items. Usually after a while they’ll give in and ask if I’ve broken the ice.

  3. I think the dynamic may be a bit different in a public library setting from a school library, which is where I am now–but I find that tweaking the language can help a lot. I usually offer a generic “What can I do for you?” at first. I’m also a big fan of just delving right into the conversation, skipping the “can I help you” stage–if I see a kid staring at our fiction section, I often ask what the last book she read was, or if there’s a particular author he’s looking for that he doesn’t see.

    But honestly, it sounds like you and I have sort of opposite problems–I’ve been trying lately to get kids to understand how they can easily search the catalog themselves, rather than always asking me “Do you have a book called _______?” or “Do you have anything by ____?” My teens have no problem approaching me for help, but seem to glaze over if I try to demonstrate how I’m finding the information so that they could try it out the next time.

  4. After noticing the same phenomenon, I’ve adjusted my approach to more of a “drive by” style. There’s always something that needs to be taken out, put away, tidied up, etc. all over the library, so if I see someone who appears to be struggling, I head over to do whatever task will take me past them and offer a “Let me know if I can do anything for you…I’ll just be over here shelving, dusting, emptying the recycling, putting up this sign, watering the plants…” That seems to be enough of an ice-breaker for those who truly need/want help, without being off-putting for those who would rather browse or figure it out on their own.

  5. I often use the “drive-by” approach as well and it does seem to be less intrusive. I recently changed my verbal approach because I have noticed this same phenomenon. Now instead of, “Can I help you?” I try to ask the question, “What book are you looking for?” Even if the teen is just browsing, they can’t blow me off with a simple, “No,” and I can sometimes sneak in a conversation/suggestion/event invite.

  6. Some of them get conditioned that way as well because some library staff look at them as chores any other time they deal with them. I’m a bit more sensitive to this as a YA librarian, but I know a lot of the staff huff to themselves when they see the teens come in in the first place. That’s not going to encourage them to ask when they actually need help.

    I personally like to linger in my teen area during the busy time (of course we can’t have a desk, no, no no *sigh*) usually with my laptop just chilling out at the table. I greet all the teens with a smile and a “sup” and they normally smile back and those who need help will actually approach me and ask me directly. This way they don’t have to leave my section and don’t feel like they’re bothering someone who doesn’t want to help them.

  7. I think changing the language helps a lot, as does familiarity. The teens are used to seeing me around their schools and in the public library (where I work). So when I’m bustling around in the area or manning the ref desk they see a familiar face and aren’t as hesitant about coming up to ask questions. Also, I usually just ask if they’re looking for anything in particular. If they say no, I usually tell them about the last book I liked. Sometimes that opens up a discussion and they eventually get around to the genre/title they really want. Sometimes they really are just browsing but like the fact that they can get recommendations.

    I love the suggestion box on the web site idea! We’re redoing our site soon and may need to add this feature!

  8. Within our opac we have a suggestion for purchase form (http://www.fresnolibrary.org/ask/suggest.html) that gets utilized a lot by patrons, especially by avid manga fans regarding the teen books. On our blog we put it in as well (http://fresnoteenssuggest.blogspot.com/) but since it wasn’t the main website we took small liberties with the way things are phrased.

  9. We have a similar problem at my branch, too, and I think there are a lot of reasons teens don’t want to request titles or have you order them. The two biggest I’ve come across are 1) they are used to instant gratification and 2) If they’re looking for a title it’s often for school, and once they learn they can’t get it they freeze and don’t know what to do.

    I’ve had some luck with explaining that ordering titles is no biggie, but most of the time I think the teens around here just want to get in and out as quickly as possible. Most of them have at least three or four after school activities and they are so busy they don’t know if they’re coming or going half the time. What I usually do is let them know they can request it from home if they change their mind, or, if the library doesn’t have it at all, I order it so we have a copy for the next teen who comes in looking for it.

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