Research on Competency Content Area 5: Youth Engagement and Leadership

Authored by the YALSA Research Committee

Throughout the current term, the YALSA Research Committee will be looking at Teen Services Competencies for Library Staff through the lens of research.  Through our posts, we will attempt to provide a brief snapshot of how scholarship currently addresses some of the issues put forth through the standards.

I heard a teacher recount a story the other day on National Public Radio. He was trying a new way to inspire his high school students on a very old and seemingly abstract physics concept. His new teaching method was introducing a physics concept utilizing an innovative and tactical approach. He reported that he couldn’t keep up with the students. The student’s gathered in groups, they collaborated all on their own, the teacher reported that the students reached farther and faster than his old lectures and it finally hit him…get out of their way & watch them soar! Engaging our young adult patrons and watching them soar is what librarians need to discover and share. 

Demonstrating to young adults how leadership can be accomplished in the public library sphere is not like school for they are not our “students” and not like home because they are not our “children”. Library staff are here to serve their population…as YALSA members and library staff, we need to find a way to successfully serve youth.  YALSA has worked very hard to create documents and share that information with their members.  Engaging young adults, and providing leadership should be the goal of every library worker’s effort when planning young adult programs, outreach and services and this is one of the goals of YALSA’s New Teen Services Competencies for library Staff. Our topic for this month’s competency #5 Youth Engagement and Leadership, which is defined as: Responds to all teens’ interests and needs, and acts in partnership with teens to create and implement teen activities and to foster teen leadership.

We searched for relevant, current (last 5 years) research articles in the LIS field utilizing these keywords: Youth, Engagement, Library, Leadership. Although we were unable to locate peer-reviewed research by these limiters, we were able to find narratives, which might indicate just how lacking the research is in our field in regards to young adults, or maybe there was just too many limiters, although the committee was able to locate relevant research in other fields such as education and psychology.

Sandra Hughes-Hassell and Julie Stivers (2014) reported on the extent to which youth services staff prioritize the need for cultural knowledge and awareness in developing effective programs and services for today’s youth. They found 6 key themes of Cultural Competency and LIS Practitioner Literature and 6 key themes to Cultural Competence and Education.  One of the culturally relevant pedagogies included “An authentic belief that students from culturally diverse backgrounds are capable learners and can become intellectual leaders and engagement of students and teachers in a collective struggle against the status quo.”

We focused on three relevant and recent articles that discussed the importance of both components leadership and engagement programs for young adults in public libraries. One main theme we discovered throughout these articles we wish to highlight is that the writers all say in one way or another and is supported by Hughes-Hassell and Stivers in addition to YALSA’s most recent Snack Break: Youth Engagement & Leadership findings #1 and #2 is to “make sure the teens take the reins, librarians need to get out of their way.

“Social Justice in the Library” discusses that young people have historically been at the forefront of social justice movements and yet they are full aware of their lack of power and agency in institutions that affect them most (schools, shopping malls, libraries). Colvin writes “Adult leaders are a key component in making social justice programs effective, because it requires that the adult leaders create a true partnership with youths”. Colvin quotes “Partnering with adults gives teens a chance to develop skills such as strategic thinking, leadership, planning and communication (Larson and Angus, 2011; Larson, Walker, and Pearce, 2005). At the end of Colvin’s article she emphasizes, “Once you get started, make sure that the teens take the reins. They should direct the projects, even if they’re different from the interests of adults”.

The second article we found consisting of both engagement and leadership building skills for young adults is from Deborah Taylor “The Pratt Library Partnership…”. The Baltimore Speaks Out! (BSO) is a 12-week afterschool program that “Teaches young people video production, critical thinking, public speaking, teambuilding, and leadership skills and they receive service learning hours too”. The Pratt staff use the BSO program as a carrot to get teens in the library where they also learn to use the library’s research resources.

Finally, Zettervall piloted and evaluated an existing network of volunteer tutors in the school to promote the local public library. Her article outlines current best practices for using volunteers for library outreach. Although many articles describe excellent programs and services for young adults to volunteer in public libraries, Zettervall is the only one we found who uses volunteers to conduct successful outreach at the public school in a peer-to-peer environment. Not only are the students taught to engage with their peers in their public school what the public library has to offer but they are also leading the way for other students to continue the program.

With the recent school shooting in Florida young adults are those ones leading a movement by speaking out about gun violence in our country that adults alone could not do. They are demonstrating leadership, coordination, collaboration, activism and public speaking…all within a few days of heartbreak and trauma. The young adults have scheduled a national walk out from school. Where is the support from library organizations and library staff? The engagement and leadership opportunities are in our lap, it is crucial at this time for all library staff and especially young adult services staff and the members of YALSA to support our youth!  To get you started, check out YALSA’s Youth Activism through Community Engagement wiki page.

Hughes-Hassell, S., & Stivers, J. (2015). “Examining Youth Services Librarians’ Perceptions of Cultural Knowledge as an Integral Part of Their Professional Practice.” School Libraries Worldwide, 21(1), 121-136.

Colvin, S. “Social justice in the Library.” Voice of Youth Advocates, June 2017, p. 46-47. Information Science and Library Issues Collection, Accessed 9 Jan. 2018.

Taylor, D. “The Pratt Library Partnership with Wide Angle Youth Media: Helping Teens Find Their Voices.” Voice of Youth Advocates, Aug. 2013, p. 32-33. Information Science and Library Issues Collection, Accessed 21 Feb. 2018.

Zettervall, S. “Public Library Outreach to High Schools: Best Practices for Volunteer-Driven and Minimally Staffed Services.” Voice of Youth Advocates, Apr. 2014, p. 32-36. Information Science and Library Issues Collection Accessed 9 Jan. 2018

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