Early last year, I received an e-mail from our Youth Services Consultant at the South Carolina State Library with information about how YALSA was willing to send their representatives to state library association’s annual conferences to discuss their newly published national report entitled The Future of Library Services for and with Teens: a Call to Action. As Chair of the South Carolina Library Association’s (SCLA) Youth Services Section, the opportunity to connect with YALSA could not have come at a more perfect time. With our annual conference theme focusing on unbound services statewide, it was important to help plan sessions that allowed attendees to think outside the box and assist in re-evaluating services they already provide, while also instilling new ideas within their communities. YALSA’s call to action does just that.
With the neatly bound report in hand, Dr. Sandra Hughes-Hassell from the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reached out on behalf of YALSA to a room of 30+ South Carolina librarians and paraprofessionals. Conversations evolved both during the course of the annual conference and at home within our communities. One such conversation with Cheryl Brown, Past Chair of the SCLA Youth Services Section, spoke of the versatility of this report: “with my involvement in the Collaborative Summer Library Programs’ efforts to bring quality summer programming to teens, I found the session invaluable…We can no longer trust that what we planned for teens five years ago will be what serves teens most effectively today.” Her statement resonates with many teen services-oriented professionals, and holds true for one YALSA forum participant, quoted in the report, who compared this paradigm shift in services to going from “grocery store to kitchen,” where teens move away from being the consumers as we help turn them into the producers.
So the question is: as librarians, how do we do this? With funding and staffing limitations, the dream of such services seems far outside of our reach. Charlotte Johnston, Director of the Harvin Clarendon County Library, understands that this dream is not as unattainable as we may think. She notes that libraries “need to not think so much about the stuff in the space but rather what is happening in the space.” As Johnston sees it, YALSA’s report suggests that in order to accomplish this task, we must provide opportunities that encourage teens to be “minds on” instead of just “hands on.” Libraries should be creating spaces, programs, and services that allow teens to problem solve and create. Instead of focusing on making a perfect program, we should focus on perfecting the art of imperfection. Allow the teens you work with on a daily basis to learn beside you. Don’t know how to knit? Learn with them! Are you afraid of using power tools? Conquer that fear alongside your teens. As librarians, we are often seen as experts; to our teens, however, we need to be seen as humans. Humans make mistakes, and are not always perfect. Vulnerability to our lack of skills and a willingness to attempt a task will give our teens a sense that it is okay to be a risk taker and try new things, especially outside of our comfort zone.
As the Young Adult Librarian of the Berkeley County Library System, it has been my personal philosophy that Young Adult services be much more than the collection or the resources that we provide the teens in our community. Instead, my goal is for us to first think of building a repertoire with our teens and providing encouragement for them to explore. Overseeing Young Adult services on a county-wide level has allowed me to assist our six branches and mobile library in moving towards this goal.
Finding the resources and staff power to help build spaces and programs has taken time, but we are now seeing the fruits of our labor. Currently, our efforts have been focused on one of our most challenging branches. With a history of teens vandalizing, disrespecting, and displaying other unwelcomed behavior, I have worked closely with this branch’s manager to find a means to redirect the teens in a positive way. Redefining the relationship between library staff and local teens as something positive has been our first step. Staff members have worked on learning names and making personal connections with the teens that frequent the library. These relationships have allowed for staff to invite the teens to programs that are now more “minds-on”. Teens are building, coding, and exploring other creative avenues. Space is being modified within the library to help continue these activities outside of normal programs. Our goal is to have a teen area that allows for teens to congregate and explore; we want them to geek out over whatever captures their interest.
All these efforts have made a difference. Local teens are coming in almost daily to just hang out or show off to their friends what they’ve been working on at the time. They are becoming friends with one another, and are starting to take ownership of what is happening within our walls. Others will come to do homework, knowing that even on a busy day, staff will make the effort to help with homework questions. Our attempts are making a difference, and with the help of YALSA’s national report, advocating for resources and funding can be stronger for the rest of our system. Our hope is that our continuing efforts to update teen spaces at each location and changing the way we program will further foster a strong relationship between library and teen.
Berkeley County Library System has learned that no matter what limitations you may face, you can help build library services for and with teens. So now it’s your turn! Here’s your call to action – are you going to take the chance?
BriAnne Baxley is the Young Adult Librarian at the Berkeley County Library System and is the Past Chair of the South Carolina Library Association- Youth Services Section.