Transforming Teen Services: The Empathetic Librarian

While libraries have long participated in the struggle for social justice and equality, it hasn’t been until recent months that our efforts have reached the attention of the public. We’ve pushed diversity and inclusiveness to the forefront with movements like Libraries 4 Black Lives and Libraries Are For Everyone. Libraries and librarians have also begun to incorporate social services alongside more traditional library services. We’re connecting patrons with mental health agencies, public health workers, and housing assistance. Libraries including San Francisco Public Library and Denver Public Library are offering themselves up as safe havens for the homeless; places where these patrons can find support and compassion.

Although the majority of these programs are directed towards adults, many libraries are reaching out to teens. School librarians are collecting materials specifically for LGBTQ youth while public librarians are providing outreach to homeless teens. The YALSA Futures Report explicit calls out for libraries to serve underserved youth including those incarcerated, homeless, or otherwise in crisis. At the root of these services is empathy. By empathy, we mean the “ability to understand and share the feelings of another” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2017). It requires that librarians look beyond collection development, teen programming, and readers’ advisory as tasks to carry out. Instead, we need to carefully assess how we explicitly (but sometimes not) provide help and support to teens through this work. Empathy is inherently a part of the work we do every day. Libraries serve as community hubs and safe spaces, stepping beyond the traditional perception of libraries as warehouses for books. As community anchors, libraries advocate for teens through political engagement and outreach. Advocacy itself is an empathetic activity, nurtured by understanding and compassion. By promoting services and advocating for underserved youth, we demonstrate our commitment to and empathy for teen patrons along with promoting the well-being of our community as a whole.

However, our empathetic work with youth is often overlooked or ignored. In the research and professional literature, empathy in libraries is frequently referred to as customer service. Yet this work is much more than that providing a teen patron with a library service. Being empathetic requires us to be active and engaged listeners who have a mindset of helping. This is already a core component of librarianship. Librarians impact the lives of youth by offering the library as a welcoming space for teen emotional, social, and psychological development. By being empathetic, we reach out to youth who may not have anyone else or feel misunderstood by peers, parents, or teachers. Through our engagement with teens, we display compassion and understanding that improves that quality of all library services.

Libraries serve as a critical “third place” for youth, particularly underserved youth. Separate from home and school, libraries act as a judgement free space where teens can express themselves, hang out, and find support. Whether through teen mentorship, interest-driven education, or teen library space design, librarians place great value on teens and serving teens. A transformation of teen services and the ways in which a library can support teens is in progress. By incorporating empathy into library work with teens, librarians illustrate the continued importance of libraries in communities.

You can find great resources about serving diverse and underserved teens at this YALSA wiki.

Abigail Phillips, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences at Utah State University. You can find her on Twitter (@abigailleigh) and by e-mail (abigail.phillips@usu.edu).

YALSA’s Spring Professional Learning is Here

Spring is just about here and YALSA is ready to support your professional learning needs with our spring Snack Breaks, webinars, and e-courses. Here’s what’s we’ve got for you:

Snack Breaks

Every month YALSA posts a new Snack Break, a short video about a topic of current interest to library staff working with teens. The March installment, produced by Megan Christine-Carlin Burton (from the Kitsap Regional Library) features teens describing what STEM means to them and how the activities they take part of in and through the library supports their teen learning.

You can check out our past Snack Breaks and find the new productions posted each month in the YALSA Snack Break playlist.
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Breaking the Silence about Teen Dating Violence @ Your Library

On Monday, February 13, 2017, teens are invited to join a national conversation about teen dating violence. According to a 2016 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “[a]mong high school students who dated, 21% of females and 10% of males experienced physical and/ or sexual dating violence.” The same study also concluded that “[a]mong adult victims of rape, physical violence, and/ or stalking by an intimate partner, 22% of women and 15% of men first experienced some form of partner violence between 11 and 17 years of age.” As teen library staff, have an opportunity to raise awareness about teen dating violence by helping teens advocate for their loved ones, friends, and themselves.

Given the amazing selection of books and resources that have been published for teens about dating violence (DV), we can bring awareness in many different ways. One method is to create a display that is going to invoke a powerful statement that needs to be said. For the month of February, my library posted this in our outside display case:

With these displays, we cab develop programming that can initiate a dialogue with teens about DV. If we have yet to connect with community groups and resources that can help us deliver our services, Teen DV month is a great place to start.

During Teen Dating Violence Awareness month, the teens at my library will discuss Jennifer Shaw Wolf’s Breaking Beautiful and a representative from Peace Over Violence will be there to answer any questions about teen DV. What I want to stress about these kinds of programs as that we need to declare that whatever happens at this event stays at this event. Victims of abuse need to know that the Library is a safe place so, by creating a circle of trust, we are actually stating we are here to help them. By opening up this conversation with our communities, it is incredibly helpful to invite an expert to answer the questions we don’t know or are qualified to answer.

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YALS Winter 2017: What Cultural Competence Means for Librarians

Patricia Overall describes cultural competence as: “a highly developed ability to understand and respect cultural differences and to address issues of disparity among diverse populations competently.” Elsa Ouvard-Prettol, in her current YALS article What Cultural Competence Means for Librarians: How to Cultivate This Important Skills to Positively Impact Our Patrons, notes that the only way anyone can relate to others, is by “being able to confront and accept one’s cultural background.” This is extremely true and a very important part about working in a diverse library.

According to ALA Diversity Count vs. U.S. Census, library staff do not “reflect the ethnic diversity of the American population.” This is somewhat upsetting as the library serves a wide-range of people in the community. Changes will need to made at the top, even starting with a more diverse population of LIS students, which will lead to libraries having  more diverse staff. As of now, Ouvard-Prettol notes that recruiting diverse LIS students has had challenges, and studies are being made as to why this is a current issue. I think that one way staff could work towards recruiting prospective students is by looking into their teen community and offering a career program, or volunteer program. We currently have various teen volunteers in my branch, who started volunteering because they are interested in librarianship. We also have a librarian who started as a teen volunteer and worked his way up to an adult librarian position.

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YALSA Winter CE Not to Be Missed

There’s lots of opportunities this winter to take advantage of YALSA CE that focuses on making sure teens in your community have access to materials and services that meet their specific needs. Here’s what’s on our lineup:

Let’s Keep it Real: Library Staff Helping Teens Examine Issues of Race, Social Justice, and Equity
January 26, 2017, 2PM Eastern
Library staff play an important role in helping teens to gain skills, comfort, and confidence in making decisions and having discussions related to social justice, equity, and race. In this webinar you’ll have the chance to learn about how to help teens recognize their abilities in this area. Library Journal Mover and Shaker Amita Lomial will facilitate the webinar. Check out a portion of Amita’s 2015 webinar for YALSA on libraries and cultural competence.

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30 Days of Social Justice: Wrapping Up and Taking Action

The 30 Days of Working for and with Teens for Social Justice campaign is wrapping up, but that doesn’t mean your actions have to end. As I mentioned on December 1st, Opportunities for White People in the Fight for Racial Justice suggests great ways to get involved in the cause and help spread awareness. Actions range from asking for little effort (but causing a big impact), to major changes we can help implement through our libraries.

If you haven’t tried anything yet, check out the site and do something quick, like:
follow writers and activists of color on social media
teach teens about racism, violence, privilege, and more
diversify your reading list

If you’re attending Midwinter, make room in your schedule for Racial Justice at Your Library hosted by Libraries4BlackLives.

Be sure to check the Hub to make sure you didn’t miss any posts in this collaboration!

30 Days of Social Justice: Why the #OwnVoices Movement Is Crucial for Young Readers

What is the #OwnVoices movement?

Alaina: The #OwnVoices movement originated as a hashtag, started by Corinne Duyvis. Duyvis is an own voices author of OTHERBOUND and THE EDGE OF GONE. Duyvis started the hashtag with children’s literature in mind, but the hashtag has expanded by its users to include all literature or publishing. The hashtag #OwnVoices is meant to showcase works that are created by authors/illustrators who share the identity of their characters, such as a book with a d/Deaf protagonist written by a d/Deaf author.

Why is the movement so important?

Alaina: Whenever we talk about diversity in publishing and literature, there are some critical things to consider. Are we discussing diverse characters, or diverse authors, or diverse gatekeepers and industry professionals? Are we concerned with diversity in that stories are being published with inclusive casts, or are we also talking about the lack of diversity in whose work gets published, and who is sitting at the table making decisions about what to publish? The reason that #OwnVoices creators are so important is because, as marginalized people, we’re the best authority on telling our own stories. It’s great that more people are talking about how to write authentic, sensitive stories outside their experience, and getting sensitivity readers involved, but it’s also important that marginalized people are able to tell their own stories. And that’s what #OwnVoices does—it allows us to be a voice in our own storytelling, when stories about marginalized communities have historically been told by privileged people.

How does the movement relate to other literary movements, such as #WeNeedDiverseBooks?

Alaina: I think a lot of these movements fold together into a central goal—to have more diverse, authentic and intersectional representation across the industry. The different shades of hashtags, such as #OwnVoices and #DisabilityTooWhite (started by Vilissa Thompson), only go to show that there are nuances to the general idea of diversity, whether it’s the idea that disability representation isn’t inclusive of people of color, or the idea that we should prioritize authors writing about their own marginalized experience. These are all unique issues within the larger diversity movement, and I think every time a new hashtag or discussion pops up, it allows us all to dig in deeper and think about the ways we can improve, not just as individuals, but as an industry.

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Promoting Diversity in Homogeneous Communities

Last month at the YALSA Symposium in Pittsburgh, I caught myself in a disturbing thought. The conference featured discussion and idea sharing about all kinds of diversity, especially racial diversity. There was advice about building inclusive collections, providing vital services to underserved populations, and making the library a safe space for people of all races to express themselves and feel valued. On the last day of the Symposium, sitting in one of many sessions that touched on this topic, I thought, “This is so great. I wish I worked in a community where I could do this stuff.”

It didn’t take me long to realize that this thought was very, very wrong.

I work in an upper-middle class, mostly white, mostly Christian suburban community. Being near a large city, we have access to a lot of diversity around us, but our community itself is commonly referred to as a “bubble.”

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Libraries and the FBI Guidelines for Preventing Extremism in Schools

As pointed out in Intellectual Freedom News recently, the FBI has announced plans to refer more suspects showing leanings toward becoming terrorists—particularly juveniles—to interventions by involving community leaders, educators, mental health professionals, religious leaders, parents and peers, depending on the circumstances. In these cases, the FBI will not necessarily cease its criminal investigation and will remain alert to suspects who become dangerous or plan to travel to join extremists overseas. To assist this effort, the FBI has published guidelines for secondary school personnel regarding at-risk behaviors that serve as “drivers of violent extremism,” to facilitate intervention activities that would disengage youth from them.

While this may seem expedient from the FBI’s law enforcement perspective, there is little published evidence that high schools are hotbeds of potential terrorist recruits. For example the September 2015 report lists 54 “American foreign fighter aspirants and recruits” in Appendix II whose ages are listed. Of these 54, 3 are age 15-17 (all are from one Colorado family), and 2 are age 18 (both from Minnesota). Far more are over age 30.

The FBI Guidelines imply that there should be increased surveillance of adolescents deemed “at risk” by a variety of criteria, especially those youth who use social media and the Internet to access information. Given the changing demographics of the high school population, it is incumbent on school media specialists and their public library counterparts to remember that minority teenagers are already oversurveilled online and in person in a variety of contexts. Adding libraries to this list of surveilled institutions runs in direct opposition to the institution’s mission as well as its attractiveness and usefulness to young people.

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30 Days of Social Justice: Students and School Culture

YouthTruth, a national nonprofit, that “harnesses student perceptions to help educators accelerate improvements in their K-12 schools and classrooms,” recently conducted a survey about school culture that answers the question: “How do students feel about the culture of their schools?” YouthTruth surveyed 80,000 students, grades five through 12 from 2013 – 2016; this was an anonymous survey across 24 states in a partnership with public schools. The results of the survey brought four major elements to light, but library staff can also use these results to make their library spaces more culturally positive.

The first alarming  fact is that only one in every three students would say their school is culturally positive. Only 30 percent of high school students believe their school is culturally positive, while 37 percent of middle school students believe this. There are many ways the library can make their spaces  culturally positive, especially if your library is located in a diverse community. Library staff can provide information, displays, book lists, and programs about cultures. Periodically, my branch offers a program to teen and adult customers called Discover Another Culture. For this, a volunteer from a specific country comes in to share about their culture. In November, the library held a program about Japan; library customers not only learned about Japan, but learned how to make origami too. There are a wealth of possibilities the library can utilize to make their spaces culturally positive to help fill in the gap that some schools are lacking.

The second fact found may not be alarming to too many. It states that students know they are less respectful to adults than adults are to them. From my experience, I would agree with this fact. Local high school teacher, Catherine Baker states:

“[Teens] think we are there to work for them, so it’s our job to be respectful and as helpful as we can possibly be to them. It’s our job to get them to pass, not the other way around.”

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