Jennifer & Linda Talk About Risk

This is a collaborative blog post written by a protege and mentor in YALSA’s mentoring program. Jennifer is the protege and Linda is the mentor. We’ve been working together over the past several months talking about how to effectively gain support for teen services and how to work with administration to let them know all about the great activities and work being done by teen librarians. This is our second post and the topic is risk in teen services.

Linda Provides a Risky Overview

Why is risk important in teen services?
Think about all of the ways that teens are served in a library. Collections. Programs. Space. Outreach. And so on. Are any of them without some level of risk? For example, can you have a collection that you are 100% certain will not include an item that is going to be of concern to at least one member of the community? Are you certain that every program you develop is going to be of interest to teens in the community? Do you know for sure that the booktalks you do in a local school are going to be successful? It’s very likely that the answer to each of those questions is “no.”

If you accept the fact that teen services is inherently risky, the next thing to think about is why it’s important to take risks that even go beyond those inherent in teen services in order to support teens effectively. Ask yourself if you are too comfortable in the traditional risk-taking, as described in the examples above, and if perhaps that comfort is keeping you from taking new risks that would expand and extend the services you provide to teens. Making positive and strong connections with teens requires trying out new ideas, analyzing how well they worked (or didn’t work) and revising and re-working in order to make them better and make them less risky. If you continue with accepted and traditional risk-taking perhaps your services would be static and then you wouldn’t be serving teens as you should.

If you didn’t take new and ongoing risks for teens you would have much fewer opportunities to advocate for them in the community. For example, if you only selected titles that you knew were 100% “safe” with adults in the community how would you inform adults, colleagues, administrators, etc. about the importance of having possibly controversial materials in order to support teen developmental needs? Or, if you didn’t go out into the community to serve teens outside of the library, how would people in the community get to know you and learn about the great things the library does for young adults?

How to Prepare for Risk-Taking
Risk is an integral part of teen services, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not scary to take risks, or that all risks are worth taking. How do you help guarantee that the risks you take aren’t so risky?

  • Talk about teen services as much as possible. When out in the community talk about why you do what you do with and for teens. When at library staff meetings talk about why you do what you do with and for teens. The more you explain what teen services are about, and why teens need what you provide, even when something might be risky or controversial, the more able you will be to take risks and not have people get freaked out or upset by those risks.
  • Don’t hide what you are doing even if you are doing something that’s not so risky. It sometimes feels safer in risky endeavors to go ahead and take the risk but not really tell anyone about it. For example, put that book on the shelf that parents might have trouble with but never let anyone know it’s there. Just hope that teens find it. When librarians take that approach it’s not as safe as it seems. Hiding what you are doing might give you the chance to take the risk but it also makes it look like you have something to hide. Instead, inform people about what you are doing, adding to the collection, etc. and why you are doing what you are doing. Explain it within the context of supporting successful growth and development of teens.
  • Assess the risk readiness of your library and plan and select risks based on your organization’s readiness. Think about what risks have been taken in the past and why they were or were not successful. Consider other risky endeavors going on within the library currently and how the risk you are thinking about taking will work with those others.
  • Decide if the risk is worth taking by looking carefully at:
    • The goals of the particular risk.
    • Who will benefit from the risk?
    • Who will lose out if you don’t take the risk?
    • What barriers are there in taking the risk?
    • How will the barriers be diminished when taking the risk?
    • The support needed for the specific risk-taking.
    • How to get support from colleagues and community members in the risk-taking.
    • How to get teens involved in the endeavor in order to help make sure the risk is one that will support their needs and interests.
  • Look at the risk-taking endeavor as a pilot project that will provide you and the library with information needed in order to even more successfully implement the initiative next time. If you want to start a new technology-based program, but aren’t sure how teens or colleagues will react, start small, get feedback to find out what works and doesn’t work, and then expand based on what you learn. It’s a lot less risky when you know in advance that making change to the project is a given from the start.

Risks are sometimes scary because they mean that there is a chance that something won’t go as desired. But, if you prepare for the risk, it’s more likely that failure will be limited and that what doesn’t work can be changed so that it does work more successfully next time around.

Jennifer Highlights a Way to Be Risky

How working with the community and volunteers can bring success to risk-taking
I love having volunteers help with me with programming–it gets them involved with the library, gets them through the library doors on a regular basis, and helps me to connect with these important library customers. Even better, utilizing volunteers can really help with taking risks in teen services.

One of the biggest hurdles I face (and I suspect many of you do as well) is working with a limited amount of staff time to plan and implement teen services. It’s difficult to take risks when you have the time to plan, perhaps, one teen program per quarter. It’s tempting to stick with what you know works, because who wants to invest their work and time into a program that may or may not be successful? Fortunately, I have found that volunteers can go a long way toward making these risks easier to take.

For starters, just having volunteers committed to being involved helps me sell the services to manager. At my small branch we cannot afford to have more than one or two staff members off the desk to run a program. It’s just not possible for us. I know if I bring her an idea that involves lots of supervision and help, she will be weary about saying “yes” when it might mean that the rest of the library will be understaffed. But if I already have a group of committed, experienced volunteers ready to assist me, she will be much more likely to seriously consider implementing a risky service. Knowing that the service won’t deplete her sparse staff puts her more at ease with risk-taking.

Having committed volunteers demonstrates that members of the community value the service, so much so that they are willing to donate their own time to making sure it happens. Having a core group of the community invested in the service makes taking a risk a lot less scarier, and a lot easier to sell to weary managers or administration.

Another great thing about volunteers? They can double as a street marketing team. If I communicate to them that this is a new service we’re trying and that I’d very much appreciate them spreading the word to their neighbors, friends, twitter feeds, etc., it can make a big difference in attendance. They are the ones that live and/or work in the community, so chances are that they know how to get buzz started. This tactic can be a great supplement to traditional marketing techniques and gets the neighborhood interested in what the library has to offer.

What About You?
We hope you’re able to use some of these ideas to try risk-taking in young adult services at your own library. Do you have any success stories about risk taking? Please share them in the comments below.

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