Answer the Call!: Libraries, Teens, and Diversity

This past July, I received a mysterious phone call from a number I did not recognize. As a skeptical member of the 21st century, my initial instinct was to just let it ring. But something inside me prompted me to—just this once—answer this call. I’m glad I did, because it was a phone call I was secretly hoping for without getting my hopes up. The call was from the American Library Association (ALA) offices to let me know I was awarded a Spectrum Scholarship. I screamed internally (and then externally, successfully scaring my dog).

I had worked in the Arlington Heights Memorial Library’s teen department for two years and just finished my first year pursuing my MLIS at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The combination of these two experiences had fully solidified my passion for librarianship. I wanted to be a participant and contributor to this community of educators, learners, and advocates for change. The Spectrum Scholarship offered me the priceless opportunity to work towards this dream, and amazingly, without tuition looming over me like a dark, despairing cloud of debt! But I didn’t truly realize the breadth of opportunities Spectrum would present me outside of monetary awards until I started interacting with my fellow scholars.

Quickly, emails from our cohort of scholars made their way into my inbox. As we made our virtual introductions, I realized that I would get to meet each of these talented, passionate, and diverse people at the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando as part of our scholarship award. I was lucky enough to meet some of these scholars at the Illinois Library Association (ILA) Conference last month where we were awarded the Sylvia Murphy Williams Award in conjunction with our scholarships. After the initial awkward observation of niceties (that everyone must suffer through, I know), there was an instant kinship between us. As library school students from diverse backgrounds, we immediately had common experiences and points of view to fuel our conversations, both serious and guffaw-worthy. Naturally, the topic of diversity came up a lot in our talks—an area for discussion that we as a profession need to talk more about, even if it does not come about naturally!

The Spectrum Scholarship was created to encourage diversity and it benefits our field immensely. As library users become more and more diverse, they should be able to connect with the people who are working behind the reference desk. And I’m not talking about just racial or ethnic diversity, people from all walks of life and experiences should take on that marvelous role of librarian! After all, librarians wield a great power in the world, which is the trust of their users. To nurture and engage this trust, we should show users that no matter who they are, they matter to the library. And shouldn’t they see themselves in their librarians?

I can see this theory in effect in my own life. As someone who loves to work with teens, I’ve been able to observe this species of human up close. Teens have their own unique library needs, but my personal research has shown that above all else is the need for empathy. As someone who was once a teenager, I can empathize with their victories and struggles at least on a theoretical level. But I’ve noticed that when I interact with teens of diverse backgrounds, they view me differently. After the awkward observation of niceties, there’s a kinship there…and a trust. I thrive in that trust.

I’m excited to see what the future holds for me and for libraries. I may be a student now, but I know that my learning does not end upon graduation. There are many more experiences to be had, lessons to be learned, and changes to be seen.

But right now the phone is ringing. Diversity is calling. Are you going to answer?

Every year, YALSA sponsors an ALA Spectrum Scholar. Learn how you can support YALSA’s next Spectrum Scholar for #GivingTuesday on Dec. 1, 2015!

Alice Son is a Teen Advisor at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, an MLIS student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Gryffindor. You can tweet her @alicehson.

 

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