Have you ever noticed the number of posts on Twitter, or Facebook, or blogs that pose the question, Do teens….? This could be: Do teens use Twitter, Do teens still use Facebook, Do teens use Tumblr, Do teens read horror, Do teens eat peanut butter? These questions have started to annoy me because while I value connecting to a professional learning network as much as the next library staff member serving teens (I really do), I think that instead of asking everyone in the world about teens generally, we should connect directly with teens in our own communities and ask them how they are spending their time, what technology they use, what they like to read, and so on. Sure, the teen library staff member in the next town over, or across the country, might have some insight on what teens like, dislike, and how they spend their time But, she probably does not know the specifics of your community that can make something the most or least popular thing around for the teens that you work with.
I understand that if we glom all teens into a group that it makes understanding them and providing services easier. And, I also understand that sometimes generalizations work. It’s also true that research that focuses on teens as a group, such as that just published by the Pew Internet & American Life Project on Teens, Social Media and Privacy can be really useful and help to set a foundation for the work done with the age group in libraries. But, what I worry about is that some library staff working with teens use the generalizations and what works in one community as the foundation for what they do for/with teens in their own community without ever talking with teens in their locale directly. And, as a result, miss opportunities for creating services that are personalized and customized and just right for that specific community’s teens.
It’s important to recognize that not all teens are the same. Of course this is a no-brainer statement, but when we ask other library staff “do teens” than in some ways we are saying that there is a sameness. I think the real key is to use generalities as information that is a part of the research library staff do when planning services for and with teens. But, that’s what it is. A research component not the ultimate decision-making component.
Of course, sometimes it can be hard to talk with teens directly and find out what their worlds are like, what their interests are, etc. To get good conversation going relationships have to be forged, trust has to be developed, and time is required. But, it’s worth it, because it gives library staff working with teens primary sources for information. Instead of relying on what others say teens are interested in, do, etc. it’s possible to know first hand what the answers are to the do teens questions.
When talking with teens directly about what they like, don’t like, etc. a key to getting good answers is in asking more than yes/no questions. When asking the “do you…” question there is an assumption inherent in that question. It’s an either/or assumption when the answer isn’t necessarily either/or. For example, at the YALSA Summit that was a part of the association’s National Forum on Teens and Libraries, a group of teen panelists talked about how they use Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and other social sites. Their use was very nuanced (as was the use reported in the aforementioned Pew report) and couldn’t be easily described with a “Yes I use” or “No I don’t use.” To understand the nuances we have to ask questions like, “What do you use for….” Or, “How do you use….” Or, “When do you like to read….” We’ve all heard that yes/no questions aren’t as effective as open-ended questions when trying to gain an understanding of something. This is true with what we need to learn from teens as much as with any other age group and for every topic.
In previous posts I’ve mentioned the importance of learning about teen interests and needs by talking to other than traditional teen library users. If you really want to know what is going on in the lives of teens you need to get out into the community and ask a variety of teens about their lives and interests. The teens you talk with should vary based on the purpose of your asking. If you are developing a program for teens who are avid readers than you want to talk to teens that fit that audience. If you are developing a program for teens that love to hack stuff, then you need to talk with teens that are a part of that group. If you talk with teens who aren’t in the audience for your program or service then talk about why they don’t like reading, or hacking, or whatever. Find out what doesn’t work for them as well as what does work for those who do love/like the thing you are focusing on.
I’d love to start seeing posts on social media that start with, “I asked my teens… and they told me….” These might start a conversation about what is the same and different between teens in different library communities. Maybe another library staff member works with teens and received the exact same types of responses Or, maybe a library staff member asked teens the same question and got very different responses. Talking about similarities and differences between the teens and the responses can go a long way to understanding the needs of the age group developing services that work.
I’d like to respond to the posts that ask if teens do or don’t whatever with something like, “Why don’t you ask them yourself?” I won’t really do that, but maybe if we all start to post what we know about teens from what we have learned from them directly, that will help to turn the tide. Let’s try it and see what happens.