The Problem with Cool

I started out this post by titling it “Libraries are not Cool.” But then, the more I wrote, the more I realized I don’t really agree with that statement. For some people, they really are. And it’s important for librarians to talk up their libraries, find out ways to make them more appealing to all age groups, and allow for the library to approach levels of coolness — by lifting food and cell phone bans, bringing in video games, and talking in normal voices, for a start.

But here’s the thing. When it comes to teens: we should just forget about trying to be cool. I, for example, am not cool. I am in my own head, but I’m not in reality. I watch MTV. I read gossip blogs and listen to top 40 radio and I even pay attention to fashion, though I dress like I don’t. But I am also in my thirties. I dress like I don’t care about fashion. I sometimes accidentally start sentences with “when I was in high school…” or “that band used to be cool when…” And top 40 radio + gossip blogs does not = cool for all people anyway. All teens and all communities are different. Which is why we should forget about trying to be cool. In the words of mothers of teenagers everywhere: libraries, you really should be yourselves, and people will like you.

Teens have a super-high BS meter. They see right through you if you’re faking it. This came up in a comment on my “Speidi” post, in which one wise librarian said that really, we just need to care about things—be passionate about things—no matter what they are. Teens will respond to that. And I agree wholeheartedly. In my experience as a librarian (and dorm parent) at a boarding school, I saw a lot of teachers try hard to be friends with their students. It was tough to watch. Kids do not take kindly to that. I know it sounds cynical, but many teens will just take advantage of adults in those situations. Once you’re “friends” with your students, it’s very difficult to enforce boundaries.

Many responded to mk Eagle’s post about the boundaries issue to say that yes, indeed, teens want them. It’s even mentioned in the 40 Developmental Assets, which as we all know is the teen librarian’s Bible. Kids like to know what the line is so that they can avoid it, bump up against it, or decide to cross it altogether. And if you’re trying to promote yourself as their peer, then how will they feel when you turn around and try to show them the line? Like you are full of baloney.

A few of the girls in my Teen Advisory Board complained to me once about being able to see the Facebook profile of an adult in their lives. She friended them to keep an eye on them, supposedly — so she could see if they posted any photos of themselves drinking or doing anything else against the rules. But in turn, she opened up her own photos to them, and they were uncomfortable with that. They didn’t want to see her friends, her boyfriend, or anything about her personal life. And that is why I have a separate Facebook account that I use for work-related stuff. Yeah, it’s not the best solution, but I’d rather have to manage two accounts (including one that makes me look work-obsessed—and hence not like a real person—since all I do is talk about my library on it) than cross any lines or make anyone feel awkward.

I’m not going to be able to relate to all teens. I am not sporty, I am not edgy or alternative, I am not geeky. But I try to be nice, and I like to read, and I care about teens’ interests. I get excited when they want to talk to me about anything at all, and if they happen to like the TV shows I like, or the bands I listen to, or the authors I love, then all the better. I can’t mold myself—or my program—into a new thing for each new teen. What’s more important is being genuine. It’s more important to be honest about the things we like or don’t like (OK, I have no interest in Manga, but that doesn’t mean I won’t buy it for you) than it is to feign interest in something just for the sake of “connecting” with a kid — a “connection” that will ring false and maybe even freak them out a little.

Really, teen services is so personality-driven, so influenced by the librarians who head those programs, that it’s inevitable a teen library program will miss the mark with some teens. Maybe some kids are going to come into the library and just not be into what we’re doing. Or maybe we’ll get lucky and the teens who love to write will come in on the day our writers’ group meets, or read about it on Facebook. Even better, maybe that kid who can’t find anything he or she likes about the library will talk to me about it and I can respond.

Because we can’t be all things to all people, and if we take the pressue off of of ourselves to be cool, we can refocus on trying to make the library a comfortable, welcoming place for all—not at the expense of any particular group or by feeling like we have to be something we’re not. Not by frightening teens away by being overeager or exhibiting a (perhaps unintentional) desire to be liked. We do it because believe that teens deserve a library where they feel safe, listened to, and respected.

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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12 Comments

  1. Awesome post 🙂 I think you’re right on – teens (and most people in general) respond to people who are genuine… which is cooler than “cool.” It’s also important to be consistent, so that they know what to expect when they come in the door. Offering a sense of stability through those strategies is much more effective than trying to be up on the latest episode of Jersey Shore.

  2. Thanks Erin! And I agree that consistency is what really builds a program.

  3. What you say is so true. Teens in our library respond to having an adult they feel safe around. They can see right through an adult that is “trying to be their friend”. They have too much drama with their friends as it is. Teens need a stable figure to guide them through the day – whether it be with an assignment, being a good listener, or setting parameters for their behavior. I love working with teen!

  4. So, so true. It’s so much better to be authentic/real/genuine/however you want to put it than “cool”. Cool is ephemeral, cool is blase, cool doesn’t really *care* about anyone or anything, because cool is too busy scanning the horizon for the next cool thing. I think it’s healthier, more professional, more fulfilling, and more effective to just be our caring, engaged selves with the teens in our lives – to me, that is what a good role model does. I sometimes have to remind students that I am a very friendly person, but I am not their friend. They usually appreciate it. Thanks so much for this post, Sarah!

  5. Great! This is why I’m skeptical about using Facebook to draw in teens at ALL. We want them to “like” us as a library and a librarian, but wouldn’t it be creepy if we hung out in their physical space all the time – Hot Topic, a skate park, whatever? Why should we want to hang out together in their virtual space too? It’s creepy! Let the library have a page, let TAG’s have a page, but let them run it and you stay out of it, at least any more than you have to.

  6. A few years ago I was watching Dick Feagler, a crusty old talk show host here in Cleveland, interview this guy who writes the Cool Cleveland newsletter (who’s readily identifiable around town by his black porkpie hat). Old Feagler says, “what makes someone ‘cool’, anyway? Is it the hat? If *I* got a hat like that, would *I* be cool?”

    For me, that interview helped define a sort of professional dissonance I was feeling acutely — I felt like the Dick Feagler of YA librarianship. The pressure to be edgy and cool was exhausting (as if being a teen librarian wasn’t inherently exhausting enough!) And this was long before Facebook, so I can only imagine how I’d feel now. Probably I’d end up being the first person in the history of American public libraries to get fired for sleeping under their desk.

  7. Megan Frazer Blakemore

    Great post! I think that most teens do not feel cool themselves, so if you are trying to act cool, you’re making your library yet another place where that attitude is valued. By not straining so hard, we allow our patrons to have a place where they can be themselves, too.

  8. Great post. I’ve often thought of it this way… you have to be aware of teens’ interests and needs, but you also have to act your age.

  9. I was at a yardsale over the summer and they were selling a complete Guitar Hero set for $10. I thought “What a deal. If I can get good at guitar hero that will be something to brag to my kids about.” I was starting my position at a high school library and worried about connecting with my students. But I had the exact same thought as you did: Teens have x ray vision when it comes to BS and pandering from adults (though they’re not nearly as good as detecting it from each other). I’d much rather be able to honestly explain why I hate the guitar hero and rock band games than waste my time learning the game so I can pretend to like the same things my students do. Teens will respect you more for standing up for your opinions or even just admitting your ignorance.
    And when teens know you’re being genuine and can at least trust you to be honest, when there IS a connection – an overlap of interests – the connection is so much more meaningful to all involved.

  10. Love this discussion! I do have a response to Jamie’s comment–It worries me to see Facebook described as a virtual space belonging to teens. I have been spending probably about an hour per day (sometimes more) on Facebook since 2004 when I was a sophomore in college (back when teens could not have a facebook account). Thus, by saying that Librarians should avoid Facebook, it feels like my comfort zone has been stripped from me in order for other Librarians to feel comfortable. However, this discussion has also made me realize that I need to re-examine my facebook practices and decide if I want to separate my personal and professional personas. But, wouldn’t that be going against this “be true to yourself” idea? I have some deep internal thinking to do… which I probably share via my facebook status updates…

  11. Yes, it’s true; even if we think we are cool ourselves, it doesn’t mean we’re cool to teens – nor that we need to be. Besides being yourself, I think the most important thing when working with teens (or the public of any age, actually) is to be nonjudgmental. You don’t have to like the same things as the teens you serve, you simply have to respect their tastes and desires and make sure you do your best to meet their needs (within the bounds of your program or job). That said, Amber, I don’t think that having separate personal and professional personas on Facebook is going against being “true to yourself.” In my opinion, there is no question that whether in the real world or the virtual world, we should behave differently as a professional librarian versus a citizen on the street. Maybe this will make me sound old, but I really believe that there are differences in how we conduct ourselves in the workplace, especially in a place as public as a library, and especially when we work closely with teens. There are opinions and beliefs I would never voice at work, but may attend a protest or rally about after work on my own time. We don’t lounge around our workplaces in our pajamas, and sometimes I think that is the equivalent of what people see on Facebook (and this is coming from someone who does not really subscribe to “business dress” codes by FAR, for those who don’t know me).

  12. I agree with your blog however, I believe human beings are fluid individuals. Meaning, we respond and act differently with different people. For example the way I speak with my mother is not the same for my daughter, my friends, my co-workers etc. With this said, I am facebook friends with my teenaged daughters and many teens at my library. I establish boundaries as the relationships develope/grow/changes therefore the relationship always adjusts and changes as it grows. I do agree that the idea of being “cool” is overated – just be yourself. I hope the traditional image of a librarian is slowly fading. No one, specifically teens, once to talk to an unpleasant person.

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