Presented at the TLA 2010 Annual Conference
During my years as a youth services librarian I noticed that otherwise engaged and welcoming adult services librarians became nervous and sometimes downright rude when they had to interact with children or teens. The shelf arrangement system – both Dewey and LC – stayed the same in the children’s department as it was in other parts of the library; the catalog provided information for juvenile and adult materials alike, but somehow the idea of doing reader’s advisory or answering reference/homework questions – particularly for the younger set – reduced these capable librarians to stone statues with fingers outstretched, pointing the way to the children’s or YA librarian; “You have to go to the children’s department (or YA department). They can help you.”
Working with children and teens requires specific knowledge in the same way that working in local history, law, or even special collections does. Trained youth services librarians have inside information that allows us to successfully negotiate and complete transactions with pre-language and immature individuals – of all ages. We, as youth librarians, need to share that knowledge with others on our staff so that when patrons of any age approach any librarian, or when special events such as summer reading program take over the whole library, everyone from clerks and library assistants to catalogers and adult reference librarians feel comfortable working with patrons of all ages. And in tough economic times, we can often mitigate position and service cuts by the internal work we have done to help staff and administration understand why we do what we do and how it affects everyone in a community.
We can accomplish the twin goals of better service to youth and deeper understanding of the value and impact of youth services by paying attention to internal advocacy, by adapting many of the same tools the profession is discussing in relation to external audiences. This session offers ten tips to get you started thinking internally, about key audiences and appropriate messages, building alliances and allies, and using our assets to the fullest.
The first step to thinking internally is to analyze your various audiences – and there will definitely be more than one, even in a small library. For example, who makes the decisions? Is more than one person involved, depending on whether it is a purchase, a policy, or something else? Do you work with volunteers? They are a different internal audience, as are trustees or boards of directors.
Now think about who has the power – as opposed to the authority – and what kind of power they wield. Is it positional (related to a person’s title or job responsibilities), expert (related to knowledge or expertise), or even influence (personal attributes)? If you don’t have the people who can effect change on your side, then no matter how good or even thorough your planning and intentions are, nothing will happen. If you can sell your plans or ideas to people who have the will and ability to make things happen, then you’re halfway to success!
How do you begin to persuade or influence those who make decisions or have the ability to effect change? One way is to talk to them in language that they understand, framing your communication in ways that resonate with them. Do you have goals for your children’s department? Are they linked to the goals of the larger library? If you do, have you communicated them to your administration? What are the results of convincing your tech services folks to “genre-fy” the collection? Do they ever hear about how they have helped you enhance access?
In a similar vein, many people see the fun that youth services folks have but they may not know that storytime programs build literacy skills, and a battle of the bands program organized by teens helps them make the transition to healthy adulthood by creating successful opportunities to interact with adults, take ownership and be responsible for planning. The fact that our colleagues don’t see the theory behind the arts and crafts sessions, or how children playing with puppets are actually engaged in a form of active learning, means that we need to communicate those foundations and fundamentals so that those around us not only understand our deeper purpose, but they can even further it if they choose.
When youth services departments do an annual report – and everyone should do an annual report – talk about your achievements in terms of library goals and learning goals; when you introduce the summer reading program, talk about why it is important to have conversations about the books rather than simply check a box indicating the number of books read. If we are more transparent about the impact of our work, we gain allies when it comes time to consider cutbacks and eliminations. We do this every day when we try to attract external collaborators; we talk about what’s in it for them. We need to do the same thing internally, too.
It is also important to realize that whether we do it actively or passively, every day we communicate something. The point is to be aware of what is being communicated and take control of the message, targeting that message to get maximum impact from it. Do you volunteer to help with others’ projects? Do you moan about how overworked you are? Are you a positive, realistic voice when it comes to your organization’s future? Do you contribute during meetings or simply wait for them to be over? Are you open to change? Do you look for opportunities to include others on projects and at times when you are being rewarded or recognized for something? Do you share praise genuinely and often?
We talked briefly already about how important ongoing information exchange is to our work, and the same thing is true for youth services folks as well. We need to be fed as much as we need to feed others. One way to do this is to invest in and participate in training. When we train our staff, we (re)affirm their importance. After all, you don’t invest in something that you feel has little value, or that you are planning to toss away. By urging youth services staff to continue to learn and grow, we are investing in the future of the individual as well as the organization, and being short-staffed for a half-day or even a couple of days is well worth the personal enrichment and renewal that comes from getting away from the everyday and focusing on personal learning.
By the same token, it is also important to feed ourselves. Attend workshops, join an online discussion, read blogs and respond, join a national or local organization and GO to something. You gain focus as well as renewed perspective and energy when you add to what you know.
Offer training to your colleagues and peers. Everyone who has ever worked in a children’s department knows that there is someone in another department who has children, or simply likes children – or their gadgets. Consider offering a “class” on how to read picturebooks with young children. Perhaps there are new parents, aunts, uncles, or grandparents on your staff who would appreciate knowing the tips and techniques. Bring in an expert or national speaker to talk to staff about child or adolescent development. Besides, why not put those fun toys to use with children of all ages? Perhaps a Wii session for your adult reference or cataloging peers? Celebrate your inner geek together, it builds community.
Finally, we can also educate “up” and “over” as well as “down.” By that I mean that we can take every appropriate opportunity to keep our bosses and our peers informed about interests or topics that may be shared or may have relevance for more than youth services. Are there curriculum changes in local schools that will affect how assignments flow during the year? Perhaps a youth organization in your community has received a grant and is looking to partner, but the internal match would be more appropriate to the A-V department than to children’s. Another education opportunity can occur in the context of a report, meeting, or conversation when, rather than simply report how many people attend storytime, you include a bullet point or two about the developmental tasks that were addressed within the sessions. This is information that your boss can then pass up the administrative chain, reinforcing the success and importance of working with youth.
Which leads us to the point about making your boss look good. The idea behind this piece of common sense is that whenever possible, you arm your supervisors with the best information and even ammunition they need to advocate on your behalf. If you are written up in the paper for a teen community project or a civic award for service to the community, be sure your boss sees the article – in which you’ve thanked him/her for the support the administration provided to make this project a success. They collect the successes of their staff and present them to the board or whoever is supervising them, and the good news just continues up to the highest levels – and out to the general public, who vote on bond levies and tax allocations. If you are awarded an honor by a professional association, or finish a new degree, or in some way are singled out for an achievement, sharing this information is more about validating the decision to hire you than bragging on yourself.
Another important aspect of making your boss look good is that you forewarn them when necessary, and provide support when needed – or, better yet, before it is needed. Many administrators are more comfortable upholding intellectual freedom, for example, when the challenged children’s material in question is backed up by good reviews which you’ve collected, or when you can provide talking points about the value of providing unfiltered access to the Internet for teens. Provide information about what national organizations like YALSA and ALSC have to say on issues relevant to your community; cyber-bullying or social networking are just two of the potential topics your boss may have to discuss with the public at a community function. The only way your boss may know about this supporting material is if you feed it to them.
All this communication, up, down, sideways, educates your colleagues, who then understand much more about what you are trying to accomplish. Then, when the summer reading program rolls around, you’ve already done the footwork building the foundational support that let’s people become part of your team. Consider doing training for the circulation and reference clerks or paraprofessionals, who are the first line of service, and who may never have had a chance to see the deeper significance of some of the youth services programs.
Look for allies in non-youth services departments and offices. These people may be the aforementioned parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or caregivers, who are interested in children because they are connected to them in some way. But they may also be the tech services folks who are gamers themselves, who would enjoy helping create a gaming tournament for the teens in your library; or the tech services employee who loves picturebooks, is a born actor, and is willing to provide an occasional storytime presentation or dress in a character costume for a parade. Allies and collaborators can come from unlikely places, and often they are only waiting to be asked. The irony is that although everyone is stressed, people often find renewal by getting out from behind their own desks and using their talents for others – as long as it is voluntary participation.
Another way to look at this is to look for those who have common goals. Does the Web page look drab or outdated? Is everyone waiting for someone else to update the signs in the lobby? If so, consider donating teen volunteers to help the library as a whole. The value for both teens and library staff is inestimable and one of the significant results is that both teen and library worker end up with a new appreciation for the other. Common interests can also include utilizing library space more effectively, keeping the noise down, or even helping patrons use technology more efficiently (HINT: teens can be wonderful instructors!).
Team building never stops, just as education and advocacy never stop. The keys are communication, information flow, and opportunities.
We’ve already discussed the need to invest in training for those who work under you, and for you to educate “up” so that your supervisor and his/her supervisor are equipped to advocate on your behalf. But this is a much larger issue as well. If no new info is coming into your library, how can we expect innovation and resiliency to come out?
Tip 5 is a general encouragement to you to activate your citizenship in the lifelong learners club, and to share your new knowledge with those around you. Perhaps the person reading this is a library worker who loves children but has never had the opportunity to learn about social/emotional/cognitive development. Or, perhaps I have managed to draw in someone who considers this session a general internal advocacy session and is unaware of the significant research done in the last ten years on teen brains. Youth services workers – at every level – need to know what is happening in their field, the major players, the latest theories, and how they relate to what we see in our libraries every day. What are national organizations identifying as trends or concerns, and what tools have they created that might help in my local library? Unless you stay tuned in, you won’t hear the music.
We need to know about national/regional/local trends and what they might mean for us. For example, what are the ways youth interact with technology? Are they different regionally? How do other libraries conduct business, and can we learn anything from examining their practice? What sorts of ethnicity changes are happening in our state, region, or neighborhood, and how will that impact service? Where can we find good Spanish-language materials if we don’t speak Spanish (or any of several other languages that are appearing in Tennessee locales)?
Finally, who are our peers – both inspirational (“I’m going to conduct my toddler program registration like they do”), or aspirational (“I would someday love to add the level of teen programming that they have in place”)? How can knowledge of their way of doing things help us see improvement in our libraries? Take a road trip and you may be amazed at how looking at someone else’s shop refreshing your imagination in connection with your own work.
So you’ve identified allies and built coalitions; you’ve created successful programs and continued integrating learning from the larger library scene into your planning and development, and you’ve even trained your boss to handle media queries on everything from Facebook and MySpace to why it is important to have Harry Potter in the library. Now it is time to say, “thanks.” Again, and again, and again. Success is always the result of efforts of more than one person, and there are as many ways to convey gratitude as there are people unused to receiving it.
One of the simplest yet most creative ways to convey appreciation is to create an oversized card, signed by our young patrons, that is sent along so that the recipient can display it. Or consider a handwritten note, a rare and wonderful thing to receive in these days of quicky electronic communication. Another way to thank someone, particularly a supervisee, is to treat them to a conference, training, personal subscription, or other personal growth opportunity. In tough times, this may be the only professional development opportunity open to that person.
Finally, practice random acts of kindness. Remember birthdays and anniversaries, offer to clean out the refrigerator in the staff room, attend your colleagues’ programs – even when they fall on your only day off. Think about the people you work with and be open to ways you can ease their path. Kindness is an infectious thing; it spreads. And, baked goods seldom go unappreciated.
People are generally drawn to those who think well of them, so by taking the time to show your appreciation, you’re increasing the chances that they will be available to you in the future. Take what you know about that individual and personalize your thanks, whenever possible.
Tip 3 speaks to all the times a lack of knowledge about a particular client group gets in the way of helping that group, or coping with them during trying times – like after school, for example. Do library staffers think about the fact that teens have been cooped up in school all day so that when they get to the library after school, they are decompressing, that their bodies physically need motion and their muscles need use? Do adult services staff realize that some children living in disadvantaged circumstances depend on school breakfast and lunch programs for most of their meals and that they may be cranky during the 3:00-6:00pm hot spot times because they are hungry? How many staff members are aware of developmental issues and phases? Much of the apparently nonsensical behavior of our juvenile clients can be understood using development as a framework. Part of our job is to help others understand our clients’ specific issues and limitations. With understanding comes tolerance (hopefully), and perhaps even some empathy. (DO feed the bears!)
Concerns about noise, rambunctiousness and even sketchy online behaviors represent opportunities to further educate staff and administration about what is actually happening to youth as they grow. For example, research on teen brains indicates that they are experiencing massive brain rewiring on a scale second only to the growth that occurs during the first two years of life. What an opportunity to help them experience a variety of activities, build neural pathways, and generally help insure their future success! But we can’t do it if we don’t know it is happening and aren’t planning for it. It truly does take a village to raise children and even reluctant villagers become at least kinder – if not participatory – once they understand the issues.
There is a thread that runs throughout this presentation: communication. Everything we do comes back to sharing information, focusing our messages, helping others learn by understanding what we already know about our special client group. The most important thing is that we communicate early, and often, and in the language that will be most readily understood.
We already talk in data, the statistics we collect about class visits, children’s circulation (which should be separated out from teen circulation whenever possible!), and program stats. Frame those statistics with stories about the amazing individuals that come to your attention. Share anecdotes that illustrate the impact of storytelling at schools, or how summer reading program helped prepare a child for the first day of school. Help staffers come to know the delights of the young in the same way they think they know the drawbacks to having them in the building.
Post stories in the staff room about adolescent or children’s development, and look for things that will counteract the negativity we usually see in the media about children and teens. Try not to reinforce stereotypes by laughing at off-hand comments or jokes that paint our patrons in the wrong light, and work for gentle interjections that illuminate understanding rather than affirm wrong thinking from those around us.
We have such an opportunity to shape young lives, and if we can build internal support for them among library staff and administration, just think how much richer their world will be. They will feel welcome at the library and will continue to make it their home, rather than falling away after they get their driver’s licenses. It starts with us, and our internal customers – whom we can continue to maneuver around, or whom we can recruit!
We are all experts on our own co-workers. So, what do you do to educate and schmoose your colleagues for the good of your young patrons? How do you facilitate better services for your young clients, working with those who also work with them? Reward yourself with a pat on the back if you already consider your co-workers as internal clients and practice internal advocacy! If not, it is never too late to start. Begin today and see how these strategies can help you sustain and even grow collections, services, and opportunities for youth in your library.