Is the Customer Always Right?

In my first few weeks as a full-time high school librarian, I was very conscious of the atmosphere I created (or encouraged) in the library. I was convinced that the success of my program–a brand new program in a school used to a very different library ideal–depended in no small part on whether or not my students felt comfortable with me, both as a person and as a teacher.

How do I make my library a welcoming environment? How do I gain students’ trust? What do students and teachers want from their library? These were the questions that I asked myself over and over again.

But now, at the start of the second semester, all I want is a custom t-shirt that reads “I AM NOT A DOORMAT.”

For public libraries, the tension between providing teens with what they want and what they need may not be so pronounced. You may not have the money to install a a full arcade in your teen room, sure, but you can probably provide programs and other resources for your gamers.

In a school library, on the other hand, much of our programming and collection development is tied to curriculum. When what students want is too far removed from what classroom teachers and administrators want (or require), we’re often put in the uncomfortable position of playing bad cop.

The new semester can be a great time to turn over a new leaf in your library. When new classes started this week, I decided to be more firm with my study hall policies: no pass, no library. The herds of wandering students originally sent to the cafeteria can no longer saunter into the library midway through the period and hop onto computers.

It’s a clear example of the disconnect between my expectations and what the students want. I want students to actually use the time productively, or at least not distract their classmates from doing so; many of the students, on the other hand, want a social space or to avoid classrooms they don’t like.

How do you balance teens’ needs and wants in your libraries with those of the adults in their lives (and yours)? Do you rule with an iron fist, or are you a well-loved doormat?

About mk Eagle

I'm the librarian at Holliston High School, a bit west of Boston. In my spare time I advise my school's yearbook and Gay Straight Alliance, write about food, and root for the Red Sox.
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14 Comments

  1. I love this post. I just made a decision to take Halo 3 out of the teen room and I was having the EXACT SAME internal dialogue with myself. I have always been a “give the teens what they want” kinda librarian, and I still am, but the same group of boys comes in every day after school, turns up the volume super loud, screams and swears at each other, and makes everyone else very uncomfortable. So, we’re taking it away as something they can play whenever they want, and we’ll use it for special gaming events only. I know it’s not the same situation as the one you’re in, but I do think that the more I work in a public library, the more I start to understand that there should be SOME limits. It’s not Lord of the Flies, for god’s sake.

    And when I was a school librarian, I went through the same thing. It’s OK to require certain standards of behavior, to have (and set) expectations, and to put your foot down! Some teens really WANT boundaries, and we can’t sacrifice the comfort of others for the pleasure of a few.

  2. Your situation definitely has similarities to mine, though it sounds like yours was a bit more extreme–many of the students who come here for study hall play the same computer game, and until recently they completely dominated the library. On multiple occasions I had to get kids to stop yelling across the library to each other (this while playing a game with a built-in chat function!), stop swearing at each other, and stop flinging homophobia and rape jokes.

    Good luck with your new Halo-free zone!

  3. Boundaries, as something needed by teens, are a category of our friends from the Search Institute, the Developmental Assets: http://www.search-institute.org/content/40-developmental-assets-adolescents-ages-12-18

    And it looks like their website got a bit of a makeover.

  4. I so appreciate this post. I gave a school-wide survey to students last year. One of the top three suggestions was keeping the noise down after school. I was afraid of turning off students by limiting their loud talking, but now I realize I need to advocate for the others trying to concentrate. I reference the survey when asking kids to be quieter and it seems to be working.

  5. This may seem like an odd connection, but I promise it makes sense. Earlier today I was talking with students in a YA Lit class about Ellen Hopkins’ book Tricks. One of the students mentioned how at the end of the book there were teens who obviously really wanted to have support from their families/adults in the community and it wasn’t until the teens went through terrible experiences that that support came through and the teens grabbed it with pretty much open arms.

    I mentioned to students in the class that this was a clear sign of teen’s desire and need for boundaries and expectations – as Erin mentions above. As librarians, we don’t want to be so rule-bound that teens can’t do anything besides sit quietly and read. But, as Sarah said, it’s not Lord of the Flies. We have to find that balance of what gives teens the chance to be who they need to be while at the same time providing the structure and boundaries that they require and actually crave.

  6. We recently fine tuned our policies in our teen room so that the library was a welcoming environment for everyone. It has improved behavior not only in the teens, but the children and adults too. Glad to see librarians are finding a balance.

  7. Feeling like a doormat is unpleasant, but strict obedience doesn’t work, in my opinion, I am opposed to ruling with an iron fist. I try to treat people the way I wish to be treated; I strive to appeal to reason, regardless of a person’s age, child, teen, adult, and it works every time. Even when it doesn’t work it works, because reason works in the long run.

    If it appears to fail in the short run, well, that’s all part of my day. I have faith that reason pays off. Honestly, the only time it doesn’t is when I encounter a severely neurotic, maladjusted adult. Otherwise, in my experience, people tend to be reasonable.

  8. I tell my high school students I have two basic rules: no food/drink, use a 6″ voice [one that only someone who is 6″ away can hear]. Of course I do whatever I can to make the environment friendly and welcoming. If I need to talk to a student about behavioral issues, I approach and invite the student to an area away from peers so that the conversation between us is private. It does make a difference!

  9. I work in a middle school. We too have instituted the “No Pass-No Library” rule. Often times if a student really wants to be here and they really have permission, they will go get the pass. If they know that we caught them and they’re just playing around, they won’t come back!

    Another problem that we have is that teachers will send students for “free time” which drive my assistant and me crazy because we try to keep the students off of gaming sites or music videos! But it’s hard for us to fight against what the teachers have told them!

    It’s hard enough being a doormat for the students, but I truly hate being the doormat for teachers! I want to help them and make their job easier, but I don’t think that means that I do their job for them! My shirt needs to read “The Library is NOT a Kinkos!”

  10. Deborah, your point about making conversations private is such a good one, and can be so hard to remember in the “heat of the moment” if something major is going down–but indeed, it makes Such a difference with students.

    And Kathryn, I feel your pain about “free time”–we have a bit more flexibility in the high school as far as individual students coming to the library (except for study hall!) but I do still struggle sometimes with students being sent down (by teachers) for vague reasons. Are they here to get independent reading? Is their classroom short on computers? Who knows!

  11. In response to Sarah’s post:

    My library has had similar problems in the past with video games and at one point we did remove Halo 3 from the list of games for about a month because it caused the most problems. However, we have been working with the teens to let them know what kind of behavior is appropriate in the library. If they constantly yell, cuss, or are disrespectful, then EVERYONE playing that game losing gaming privileges for the day. This has maybe happened three times total (we’ve have had gaming available for almost 2 years). We do have a gaming policy and by signing up to play games the teens are agreeing to follow the rules (which are posted by each tv). There will always be a few teens who continue to break the rules, only because they can so we keep a close eye on everyone but we have had very few problems. I hope this helps!

  12. Oh, how I remember that first semester and trying to figure out how strict (or not) to be with students. The good thing was that, when hired for my current position, I knew that the principal was looking for someone to create a more welcoming environment in the library. So I wasn’t afraid to change things up a bit – but I didn’t realize just how “old school” my predecessor had been! I tend to be a softy (with my own kid as well as students), but mostly I believe in treating kids of any age with respect. I don’t have signs up everywhere saying no this/no that, but I have tried to create strategies to manage the chaos: clusters of computers for classes to work in together, so that we know which students belong to which teachers tags for extra computers so we know which students we need to keep an eye on, orientations for all 7th graders so they know they’re supposed to have a reason to be there. But I also remember several occasions where being “nice” led to kids breaking major rules over and over, and then griping or defying my assistant or me when we really call them on it. And those were the times I also wanted an “I AM NOT A DOORMAT” t-shirt. I also find that my relationship with teachers who frequent the library with their classes impact students tremendously. If I know what they are doing in advance, all the better! It just takes time…

  13. I couldn’t get control of my students last year. There were days when I was hoarse by the time I went home trying to be heard over them. Flicking the lights off didn’t get their attention. Sending notes home to their parents got no response. I was actually relieved when the principal decided she couldn’t afford a librarian this year!

  14. I’m so glad to know I am not alone in this! One of my frustrations is when the teachers send the students without the pass we require, and the students are caught in the middle, having to go back and forth. It is the same teachers every time who don’t give a pass, and it is school policy that all students have a pass, but we still face the problem constantly. I worry that it makes us look like the unwelcoming bad guy to the students.

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