I will start my first column with a statement that may make many readers think I am quite crazy: I LOVE teenagers!
If you laughed, you’re not alone. Teens can be obnoxious, uncooperative, loud, inconsiderate, incomprehensible, and funny-looking in turns. But they can also be polite, helpful, ambitious, thoughtful, eloquent young men and women—often all in the same person as those less desirable qualities. And bless their hearts, they can’t help the confused developmental stage they’re in. Do you remember being fourteen? Would you ever want to live through that again? I sure wouldn’t!
I spend a lot of time thinking about teenagers because I teach in a building full of them; it’s not unusual to have 600 or more of them walk into my high school library on any given day, and we see the whole gamut of their personalities, from delightful to…less delightful. But never mind the personal quirks that show up at that age, teenagers are a fascinating group of people. It is unfortunate that their bad days make them so easy to misunderstand, cast off, or simply ignore; because as cliché as it may sound, teens are the closest we can get to visualizing the future.
Today’s young people are digital natives, born into a world in which technology is not a toy or a novelty, but simply the way things are. This context creates a major shift in how they work, learn, and approach the world. Web 2.0 applications allow digital natives to be producers of information, rather than just consumers; cell-phone cameras allow them to capture their reality, and social networks make it simple to share it; “delete” keys help young people to feel free to make mistakes; inexpensive multimedia-capable electronics shift the concept of literacy away from just written words and toward making meaning from audio-visual products and processes. Not only has this shift happened, but it is still happening and will continue to happen at an ever-increasing rate, as technology changes. This shift is important to us as professionals because, as we know, we have to provide services to patrons “where they are”. And “where they are” is not just different from where they used to be, but it will continue to change for decades.
Enter the teenager. Working with teens is like getting a glimpse of the future; they belong to that mysterious set of young digital natives whose lifelong information-seeking habits we are tasked with shaping—isn’t it amazing to think that we must prepare them to use research tools as adults, when the technology for those tools may not exist yet?!—but they are old enough that many of their habits have firmed enough that we can start to observe them. They may have an income or allowance that allows them to afford personal electronics, so we can see the tools they choose; they have entered a more independent stage in their schooling, so we can see the research and learning practices they decide to use; they are starting to explore their options for adulthood, so we can see their priorities and the needs they must fulfill to reach them.
Teenagers are important to all of us, not just those of us in K-12 education who work with them every day. Today’s teens are yesterday’s public library summer reading participants; you bet the literacy foundation they receive as small children shows up in their high school information literacy skills! And they are tomorrow’s young professionals; the future I see in my eighteen-year-olds will soon be the present for an academic librarian’s eighteen-year-olds. I’d like to issue a challenge to all of my librarian colleagues that, even if everybody doesn’t happen to love teenagers like I do, we should all give careful consideration to what we can learn from them, how it affects our practice in all different types of libraries, and how we can keep up a discourse between us to collaboratively develop the best services we can offer.
Sarah Culp Searles is the school librarian at West High School in Knoxville. firstname.lastname@example.org