Lately, there has been a big push to give teens agency, a voice, and opportunities for action through our library services. The theme of last year’s YALSA Symposium was “Empowering Teens,” and YALSA’s Teen Programming Guidelines devote an entire section (number 3.0) to the imperative to “Facilitate teen-led programs.”
The most traditional way to do this is through a Teen Advisory Board. But as a Middle School Services Librarian, I had my doubts about handing any real responsibility over to a bunch of 11-to-14-year-olds. So it was with some trepidation that I took on an advisory board for middle schoolers, which we call Library Squad.
Library Squad has blossomed into a tight-knit community of library-loving middle schoolers whose opinions, ideas, and help form the foundation of all my programming. Library Squad meets on the second Wednesday of every month from 5-6 p.m., but its members are a significant presence in almost all programs.
According to its members, the purpose of Library Squad is to “talk” and “share ideas.” I come to every meeting with a list of things to ask them about. The members answer my questions about what’s going on in the schools and about current trends. They recommend reading program prizes and snacks to offer. They tell me about what they and their peers are reading. They help me vet activities for upcoming programs. When I have a program idea I’m uncertain about, I run it by them. (They’re not afraid to say so when it sounds lame.) They offer their ideas and opinions about what programs the library should offer next.
It’s helpful to have a survey or prompts to guide the idea-sharing. Open-ended questions can get some hilarious results, but they often aren’t very useful. (My question “What snacks should we get?” garnered answers including “kale,” “piña coladas,” and “California.”) As I come up with ideas, I dump them into spreadsheets. When there are a good amount, I print them and ask Squad members to rate how much each interests them. There is also space to suggest their own ideas. When implementing a Squad member’s program idea, I make sure attendees at the program know whose brilliant idea this was.
A word of caution: when asking for opinions, you must be open-minded, flexible, and willing to put at least some of the ideas into action. Otherwise, the members will feel that their voices are meaningless. When members’ ideas are unwise or untenable, you can tweak them into something more feasible. I tell them why certain aspects of their idea won’t work, and suggest or ask the group for similar alternatives. For example, if they wanted to bake cakes, I’d tell them that library rules don’t allow us to use the oven–but what if we did cake decorating instead? Then, members can offer feedback and new ideas based on that. In this way, it becomes a discussion that values all participants’ input, even when I have to say no to something.
The genius of the idea-sharing model is that the Squad is providing a valuable product, but one that library staff can also manage without if necessary. I don’t need to worry whether they will stick to any commitments, do quality work, or finish tasks they’re given. Their input makes our programs a lot better, but the library’s middle school programming doesn’t fall apart if the members become too busy or forget to participate.
The Squad members (and most pre-teen and teens, I think) love to share their opinions. They also like a good-natured argument—so much so that we decided to have a debate program after one particularly contentious Library Squad meeting. Allowing them to express themselves, showing genuine interest in what they have to say, and turning their ideas into action is incredibly empowering for them. We, a community institution, value their input, and they in turn develop a sense of ownership of their Library and their community in general.
As the members’ sense of ownership of the library has increased, they have gained a more serious outlook on their roles. When they attend programs, they want to take leadership positions. They can be trusted to help with things I might not trust to another teen. When a someone at a program seems nervous or lonely, I can ask a Squad member to go talk to them and make them feel welcome. Squad members are proud of the trust and leadership they have earned, and their help makes programs run more smoothly.
Building You Own Middle School Advisory Board
An advisory board can take time to build. At my first meeting, I had two attendees. Now I usually get 7 or 8 at any given meeting. There are 5 or 6 “core members” who can be relied on to attend almost every month, and there are about 10 who pop in and out depending on what else is going on in their lives. An advisory board is based on relationships, so have patience as it grows. Luckily, they can be run successfully with only a few members.
A great way to start is to personally invite any middle-school-age library regulars to join. A few members give a board a lot of momentum. Squad members are visible helpers at programs, and are eager to encourage others to join us.
It is immensely rewarding to watch advisory board members turn their ideas into reality and grow into leaders who take ownership of their library. Our entire middle school services program is stronger thanks to their support. Advisory boards encourage action, confidence, and civic engagement, making their members stronger, too. The library belongs to everyone, and there’s no better way to drive that home for youth than to give them a chance to make a visible difference.