Librarians Are Youth Workers; Get to Know One

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They fight for teens’ rights. They create havens for marginalized youth. They help youths learn to express themselves through writing.

That might sound like a lot of youth workers you know, including yourself. But I’m describing an often overlooked youth worker: the librarian.

I don’t just mean the nice lady who guides a kid to the biography shelves so he can do a book report.

As a former young adult librarian and a member of the Young Adult Library Services Association, I can tell you why you should team up with your local librarians.

They’re the ones who make sure that in your library, a space is reserved for teenagers to devour graphic novels, play Wii and use free computers. Teen librarians teach job and college search skills; offer homework help; run after-school programs; and provide reading, writing and advisory groups.

They’re also youth advocates. They work with teen advisory groups to select what’s on library shelves and websites, and to plan programs as varied as crafts, “Twilight” movie parties and career workshops.

What’s more, teen librarians seek relationships with local youth agencies for referrals and support. In some city libraries, they consult with social workers on staff.

Among the American Library Association’s (ALA) three youth divisions – the American Association of School Librarians, the Association for Library Service to Children and the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) – the last is the fastest-growing, with almost 5,400 members.

At the ALA’s annual conference in Chicago last summer, I learned about more efforts that librarians make to help youth in ways that intersect with youth work:

• Teen writing: Librarian Elise Cole described Oakville (Ontario) Public Library’s teen writing contest, Write2Xpress, created in 2003 by a teen advisory group. Each year, a new, evocative photograph on the library’s website inspires local residents ages 12 to 19 to write short stories or graphic novels. At the awards night, a well-known author speaks, and winning writers get gift cards to the local mall. (See www.opl.on.ca/programs/write2xpress.)

• Youth involvement: Librarians take teens to ALA conferences to testify about books nominated for YALSA’s prestigious Best Books for Young Adults list, chosen each January by a committee of librarians who value teen input. In Chicago, 70 teens from four states advocated their favorite titles. (Find the 2010 list at http://www.ala.org/yalsa/booklists/bbya.)

• Free speech: Librarians from West Bend Community Library in Wisconsin shared their experience of “Intellectual Freedom on the Front Lines.” Last year, two complaints from residents about their library’s website link to a list of books for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens morphed into a demand to relocate all books for teens containing sexual content. When the library’s board of directors voted to retain the books, city officials would not allow the four trustees who were up for re-election to run. Library staffers were harassed in public. Four men filed a civil suit, still pending, seeking $30,000 each for emotional distress suffered from the library’s display of Baby Be-Bop, a teen novel about a gay young man.

Young adult librarian Kristin Pekoll, who posted the controversial link, suggested pre-empting such complaints with parent workshops about library use and connecting with teenagers. (The ALA records about 500 book challenges each year; only an estimated 25 percent of banning attempts are reported. See http://www.ala.org/bbooks.)

More insight into librarians’ work with teens is in Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) magazine, where I served as editor-in-chief for 11 years (www.voya.com). The regularly covered topics include:

• Teen spaces: Designed with teens’ input, teen spaces at public libraries in such places as Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Hays, Kan., are full of computers, other media formats, comfortable seating and varied activities.

• Teen empowerment: In New Jersey, Ocean County Library gathered teen representatives from its branches as well as from all county middle and high schools to meet with librarians, educators and community leaders for an “Empowering Teens as Community Partners” summit. Libraries in several states host film festivals where teen filmmakers literally run the show.

These are just a few of the reasons you should get to know that public librarian who welcomes teenagers. He can quickly put his hands on the latest information about any issue affecting youth. She makes books, media and activities appealing to even the most resistant teens. He visits schools and detention centers, and can arrange to work with your youth program.

Join forces with your teen librarian to advocate local support for youth. You’ll wonder how you managed without her.

Cathi Dunn MacRae, Youth Today’s book reviewer, spent 20 years as a young adult librarian and ran teen advisory groups in four public libraries. A YALSA member, she is the former editor-in-chief of Voice of Youth Advocates and specializes in teen writing and reading.