At This Library, Youth Involvement Gets Real

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When did Carmen Martinez, director of the Oakland Public Library, become an ardent advocate for fully infusing youth in libraries?

Was it the positive media coverage of a rally by nearly 50 teens protesting proposed budget cuts that helped save seven branches from closing? Was it at the State Legislative Day in Sacramento, when Oakland’s three teen representatives stood out because none of the other 400 California library delegations included a single young patron? Was it watching one of the library’s paid high school mentors help a younger Hmong student with a school assignment? Or does her commitment date to a prior post in Los Angeles, where young adults contributed imaginative ideas to the design of the library’s popular “TeenS’cape” space?

Martinez’s zeal can be traced to these and other “ah ha” moments when she witnessed the tangible benefits of maximum youth involvement. Speaking to an overflow crowd at the annual Public Library Association conference in February, she summed up the rewards of this philosophy: “The more we increase the active participation and partnership with young people, the better we serve them. … And the more comprehensively we work with them as service partners, the more we increase our public value to the entire community.”

In 1997, the American Library Association’s teen division, known as the Young Adult Library Services Association, adopted a strategic plan to “empower youth to participate in YALSA and in libraries.” Few libraries have embraced youth involvement more than the Oakland system. At most libraries, sedate teen advisory groups remain the dominant model: A committee of students (rarely out-of-school youth) collaborates with the librarian, suggests new acquisitions and publicizes library events for young adults. In contrast, Oakland’s Youth Leadership Council (YLC), with a membership capped at a dozen teenagers, is exposed to the spectrum of institutional issues.

The reasons for the acceptance and staying power of the Oakland YLC are relevant to any youth-serving organization. It meets monthly, usually in Director Martinez’s office – a sign of the importance and respect accorded to the youth. High-level briefings and staff presentations on master facilities plan updates, survey results and the library’s $17 million budget keep the YLC in the loop, enabling the youth to decide what issues to weigh in on. Thirty minutes of every meeting is devoted to an interview with a branch manager, the library commission chairperson, a journalist, a politician or an author.

Ongoing youth leadership trainings cover facilitation skills, public speaking and media advocacy. Youth Council members lead small groups to review and revise plans for teen areas at many of the library system’s 15 branches. They join in the selection of contractors to implement those plans. YLC members make appearances at all of the library’s public functions, meet with bigwigs and testify at City Hall.

Interactions with so many library staff, as well as community leaders, enable the YLC to avoid the rut of meeting paralysis that causes far too many young people to lose interest in some adults’ ideas of youth participation. The YLC is invited to all holiday staff parties, providing time for informal schmoozing, which deepens collegial relationships.

“What is great about appearing at library events is that the audience is very receptive of what I have to say as a young adult serving her community,” says YLC member Rica Azarcon. “And it’s refreshing to have library staff and community members approach me expressing their encouragement, gratitude and support of the work that we do for the library.”

This broader mandate of youth infusion does not happen without a champion like Martinez and talented Teen Services Director Anthony Bernier, a historian who downplays his Ph.D. and can always be spotted wearing his Oakland A’s baseball cap. Sustaining youth participation is relentless and labor-intensive. Bernier remembers all too vividly the 11th-hour snafus when a YLC member forgot his train ticket for a trip to the statehouse.

There is no denying that the hassles – such as scheduling, transportation, snacks, liability insurance, and commitment of resources and funding – are disincentives for expanding youth roles in adult-run organizations. But the benefits of co-piloting with young people go beyond reducing age segregation, increasing diversity and promoting youth development and civic engagement. The Oakland approach demonstrates that opening an array of opportunities for partnership with young people results in greater organizational capacity, credibility and clout.

Contact: Anthony Bernier (510) 238-3850,; Young Adult Library Services Association (800) 545-2433, ext. 4390,

Wendy Schaetzel Lesko is director of the Youth Activism Project.