Teen Services Competencies for Library Staff: Making Space for Competencies

by Katie Baxter, Director, Kodiak Public Library, Alaska
The Kodiak Public Library, funded by the City of Kodiak, and, under the governance of the City Manager, serves the entire remote island of Kodiak, Alaska in the Gulf of Alaska located 350 miles south of Anchorage. City population is approximately 6,300; island population is approximately 14, 373.

cover of YALSA's Competencies for Library StaffAs a Library Director who is committed to providing staff with leadership development tools and on-the-job experiences, I am excited by the ways YALSA’s newly released Teen Services Competencies for Library Staff takes us beyond the boundaries of a Teen Room. I shared the competencies document with full-time and part-time employees a few weeks ago without fanfare or discussion. I anticipated that some staff would find the competencies framework formal, academic, and, not necessarily intended as a tool for their individual use. I wanted staff to come to the document on their own terms and in connection to the work we have been doing over the past four years to settle into our new building of 16,000 square feet which includes the “first-ever” Teen Room in the city’s public library.

When getting to know a new building, it’s easy to get caught up, or, closed in, by the realities of settling into rooms with labels and specific purposes. YALSA’s Competencies provides a context for establishing a library’s teen-service style in a teen-focused manner. My gut was telling me that the nature of the physical space was creating assumptions in the minds of staff and patrons that our teen patrons have what they need from the library. However, that space does not have a dedicated service desk, or a dedicated staff presence. I wanted to create a purpose-based reason for each member of the staff to be aware of how he or she works with and in support of teens. The Competencies provides me with a comprehensive springboard for that, and I decided to go for it.

I opted to use a soft approach to leadership development with each staff person and asked if I could have five minutes of time to learn from them individually about what it means to have a Teen Room. I took print-outs of Competencies with me and found a comfortable spot to have a chat with individual folks. The question I focused on with each individual: an experienced full-time staff; a new part-time staff; a new student part-time staff member who is a high school senior; and, two young adult patrons is: How do teen-focused services, interactions, learning experiences, responsiveness, collections, and impact flourish if our focus is solely on providing space? In some instances, the question then got re-worked into: Does a library need a Teen Room?

I found that several points were repeated by individuals in the different conversations, and, that the majority of staff and patrons that I talked with approached the topic of Teen Space and, in turn library services, from the perspective of the competency category Interactions with Teens. When I noticed that pattern, I asked each of the staff, “is there anything you notice about how you interact with teens?” Below is a summary of key points and quotes that bubbled up in the different conversations with both library staff and teen patrons:

  • Everyone was intrigued and curious that a competencies document focused on teen services actually exists; the teens liked that the document demonstrates that library staff need to take teens so seriously;
  • Staff liked the idea that there is a whole network of people who think about library work and who want to help other staff;
  • Library staff who only stay “glued” to the Main Desk, feel disconnected to the teens; teens feel disconnected to library staff since most staff are always at the Main Desk;
  • The cozy Teen Room has an entrance way that makes staff feel that they are not to go in there; there aren’t really any barriers around the rest of the library, so the entrance to the Teen Room feels different;
  • Connecting with teens can be hard because they travel in groups;
  • Our community’s remote, island geography generates a “huddle-up,” shy mentality in some youth;
  • Sometimes it’s hard to identify who is a teen based solely on appearance;
  • Overall library atmosphere is key in a small community;
  • Teens want to know some details such as hobbies, interests, and “faves” of staff so that they have go-to people to talk with and learn more about opportunities;
  • Teens want the library to focus on atmosphere more and less on clubs; clubs create exclusion; clubs often set unrealistic goals and expect people to do more than they can;
  • Teens like seeing the interactions between the adult library staff, the student assistants, and the student volunteers;
  • It makes sense that teens who like reading, listening to music, watching films and growing their minds need a space to do their thing in the same way teens need a sports field or a stage for those particular things;
  • A dedicated teen space, even if it’s not a room, is necessary, because:
    • Comfortable, safe space is important. Both adults and teens noted that youth are bothered by the violence, bullying and abuse of youth that is reported in the news; the Teen Room is a space where community knows someone is paying attention ;
    • Creating a communal craft space for all ages brings together adults with subject expertise to share with interested teens in an impromptu way to connect youth and adults;
    • Teens like vibrant, positive space that isn’t overwhelmed by too many book shelves and “old stuff.”

Now, that initial conversations have happened, the staff, with whom I originally spoke, are following up with conversations about the Competencies with co-workers. They have buy-in necessary to take ownership for the guidelines set out in the document, and, know that it’s okay for them as a team to use a tool from a professional association to grow on the job.

I prepared the team for deeper assessment and analysis of ways to use the Competencies in our library as a benchmark for teen services. The staff of this vibrant, remote, island-based community is eager to tap into the additional resources and webinars YALSA is providing on the Competencies because all staff now sees that as library employees they each have a reason grounded in a competency content-area to serve the teen population.

I used soft leadership skills to demystify a formal, professional document so that my whole team could embrace it as a tool we will unpack together and apply to our library community with the help of our patrons and peers in order to best use our resources and serve our teens. Over the course of this year our statistics and asset-based impact narratives will be more meaningful, because we will be relating what we do to the content areas of the competencies.

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