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.