This post was based on my presentation at the ALA Annual Convention, What I Stopped Doing: Improving Services to Teens by Giving Things Up. Slides for the presentation can be found on Slideshare or HaikuDeck.

In order to do improve library service to teens, we have to work differently — and in order to do that, we have to stop doing some of what we’re currently doing.

From discussion at Annual and among colleagues in my personal network, this is a topic that resonated with large numbers of staff — not just the necessity of giving things up, but the importance of continuing to talk loudly and proudly about the things we stopped doing. In youth services this is especially important — often we are solo practitioners who were hired to work with a broad range of ages — 0-18 in some cases.

Discontinuing or re-assigning tasks and services is challenging, but it’s critical to improving library services to teens — and it’s an important leadership quality. While there is no one formula that will work for every library or community, when we’re ready to think about what we can stop doing, reflect again on YALSA’s Future of Library Services for and with Teens report – it sets a frame for the work that’s most important to consider discontinuing or doing differently.

While within the report there are five areas for change, my presentation focused on two areas of the report—creating a whole library/whole school approach to serving teens and building partnerships outside the library walls.

As library staff who work with teens, we are often hired to manage and deliver services to an age group that very few other staff members want to manage. This reality puts us at risk for feeling like we have to do it all — that the entire future of teens in our library rests on our shoulders. And sometimes that can be an empowering feeling — while there is a lot of we can’t control, it can be nice to be totally in charge of something. But this is not realistic or sustainable — and doesn’t improve our library’s service to teens in the long term. We are generally able to act as a facilitator — instead of an expert — in working with teens in program settings — but what we acted more like that with our colleagues and supported them in building relationships with teens, managing teen behavior and delivering services to teens? This will be slow work; we won’t necessarily see immediate change.

In order to strengthen our services to teens, we also have to get out of our library and build partnerships with other youth-serving organizations in the community. While library staff serving teens are not always in control of their time, there are some things we can consider stopping in order to find more time for partnership building:

* Lots of school visits. What would happen if we didn’t do them for a year? Would our participation or attendance decrease? What if we re-directed this energy into specific groups, schools or organizations we aren’t seeing but want to? We’ll never know what actions are effective and what actions we just assume are effective because we’ve always done them until we stop doing some of them and see what happens.

* Teen programs where nobody comes or attendance is inconsistent. Without a more solid sense of community needs, partners to help co-create and promote and young people in leadership roles, our programs can be hit or miss. What if we took a break from programs and spent time strengthening an important partnership?

* Stop working the desk. If we’re in a supervisor or manager role, think about taking our most experienced, talented and possibly-getting-bored teen librarians and stop wasting their time with auto repair questions — set them loose in the community. Other library staff will definitely complain about this — but fairness doesn’t mean treating everyone exactly the same, it means giving each individual what they personally need to be successful.

* Stop putting together displays or booklists and delegate these to other staff members, volunteers or young people in our libraries.

* Stop running book clubs in our libraries. Look instead in our communities for partners who say, “my kids hate reading” and wow them when we bring books their young people will enjoy.

Some things session participants mentioned they changed or were considering changing:
* Discontinued STEM programs because attendance was poor
* Reduced the number of storytimes offered
* Stopped preschool storytimes because 3-4 years olds were in preschool.
* Quit supervising all the teen employees herself and divided their supervision among colleagues.
* Stopped doing regular media classes in the school library.

Since each library’s situation and community are different, not all of these examples will work for everyone and some will seem almost impossible. Before putting them all aside, we should take some time to reflect on our personal feelings about the examples above — and about other things we’ve been thinking about discontinuing. What’s standing in our way of thinking differently? Are there really factors beyond our control – or is it ourselves getting in our way? We can’t give up everything we love doing, but often there are tasks we know we SHOULD stop doing, but don’t. Be kind to ourselves; take small steps, but keep going and give our change a chance.

If we decide to meet with our Teen Advisory group every month instead of every week, think about the impact on teen patrons — they will likely need a transition period. What other kinds of support will they need from us for this change?

We’ll continue to need support for our work and may need support in prioritizing differently. Our colleagues or supervisor may be able to help, or we may need to find resources on our own. Some past Level Up Your Leadership Skills blogs that are especially relevant to this topic are:

Ways to Prioritize Your Work
Build Your Network

Stopping current work is challenging in libraries, but it’s not an option, it’s a necessity. As communities and patrons change around us, we have to be able to let our old role go in order to embrace what’s next. What are you going to stop doing?

About Maureen Hartman

I am the Division Manager for Strategic Services at the Hennepin County Library in Minnesota and a former Board member for YALSA.

One Thought on “Level Up Your Leadership Skills: Stop Doing Things

  1. Great post; great session. We need lots more support and networking on this issue in youth services. The hamster wheel of DO.ALL.THE.THINGS. doesn’t serve the community, the staff or the library.

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