In the novel The Most Dangerouse Place on Earth one of the female characters’ thinks to herself, “As if middle school were a safe haven…when in fact it was the most dangerous place on Earth.” Of course that sounds like teenage hyperbole, however I would say that if you think about it it’s more reality for many teens than one might want to admit. While teenage lives may have some of the outlines of a nightmare, there are many assets for library staff and community members to leverage in order to support the successful growth and development of all teens.
When I think of the assets that library staff can promote for and with teens I often think of the Santa Ana (CA) Public Library. I was fortunate to visit the main library a couple of years ago, after getting to know the teen librarian, Cheryl Eberly. The library building itself is nothing to “write home about.” The building is a 1960 structure that has quite a bit of wear and tear. However, when I was inside the building I didn’t really notice that. Why? Because from the time I walked in to the time I left (about two hours later) it was clear that this is a community library in which staff members (teens and adults) are embedded in the Santa Ana community and that the work that happens inside, and outside of the building, is completely centered on community needs.
Take for example the conversation we had with one of the older teens who was helping to edit a video for the library. He and I had a conversation about documentary filmmaking, which he is interested in. He talked about his experiences with the library and I learned that when he first started visiting the library he’d been homeless, but through the programs and services available to teens he was able to move forward in his life and was looking forward to studying film in college. Wherever we went in the library we heard similar powerful stories.
Because of the way in which Santa Ana Public Library employees embraced and served their community, many staff members are from the local community. Several current staff were library users who decided to become librarians. They saw the powerful ways the library served the community and wanted to be a part of that. Librarianship was a pathway to community service for these staff.
Cheryl hires teens to work in the library office. They work on staffing schedules, program planning, editing videos, and much more. Cheryl makes sure that the teens have the skills and assets to be able to do this work. Of course this didn’t happen overnight. There’s a lot of relationship building that has to take place first. Skills are built with teens through a variety of library activities and opportunities. Including the Library’s Circle of Mentoring project which was the recipient of a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award.
The library, through Cheryl, and the rest of the Santa Ana Public Library staff is a place that harnesses the inherent assets teens bring to the community and the assets that libraries bring to the community, builds relationships around these, and as a result makes a huge difference in teen lives.
At the end of The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, the same protagonist has just completed high school and the author writes, “…she knew there was only this, and whatever moment would come after, only… going on and trying, like everyone, to live in this beautiful world.” Library staff like those in Santa Ana have the mandate to support teens through their nightmares/deficits to seeing the beauty/assets around them and at the same time ensure that youth in the community have the skills needed to lead successful lives.
Learn more about Cheryl’s work in this interview previously published on the YALSAblog.