Vital Ways Libraries Help Teens Become Themselves (beyond books)

Vital Ways Libraries Help Teens Become Themselves (beyond books)

When it comes to ages, there is no group more maligned than teens. After all, they tend to be self-absorbed, emotionally erratic, and they speak a language older folks don’t understand!

Still, I like them.

Teens are in a constant process of self-discovery, they are often keen to try new things, and despite an angsty front, they’re actually softies on the inside. Though I’ve never worked specifically as a teen services librarian, I have had the opportunity to observe the personal growth of many teens as they’ve come through the library. For many of these young people, the library played an important part in their development beyond providing reading material.

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A Space to Exist

The simplest and most complex library offering for teens is space. At it’s most rudimentary, that means comfortable chairs to drape themselves on and tables to do homework. Going a little deeper, libraries also serve as an escape from a difficult home and/or a confusing world; a teen that’s going through trying times is very welcome to find an out-of-the-way part of the library and disappear for a while. Library staff tend not to pry, and have few expectations other than to maintain a standard code of conduct.

At the same time, a library is a place where cohorts form. Most libraries have an after-school crowd of all ages including teens. As a function of proximity, friendships are born and blossom. Because the library is not school, these friendships can transcend the school-friend barrier, especially because, if the teen librarian is good, library teens will be given engaging experiences to share.

To Learn and to Do

Practical science experiments, arts & crafts, and creative games are just a few activities in which teens participate at the library. Since most teens come to the library after a long day at school, library programs tend to be on the lighter side. That doesn’t, however, mean that they are not without educational tie-ins. A common example of that are Teen Advisory Boards or TABs. A TAB is a group of teens that get together at the library and, under the direction of a librarian, act collectively. Typical TABs organize activities for themselves or younger kids, put on fundraisers, advise the librarian on books and material purchases, and provide feedback on how the library can better serve them.

Many TAB members go on to become general library volunteers, which is often their first work experience. By volunteering at the library teens learn how to be punctual, relate to older colleagues, and follow instructions. When I was a teen volunteer, it was also my first time writing a resume and interviewing for a job. More importantly, though, I was given the chance to be of service in a place where others depended on me. This last point was very empowering for my 14-year-old self — it definitely forced me to become more mature.

In Librarians We Trust

Out of all professions, librarians are near the top when it comes to credibility. People trust librarians because they tend not to have ulterior motives for doing their job — this is especially true for teen librarians. It should come as no surprise then, that for many teens, a librarian is the adult they seek out when they have something difficult or important to share, or when they need advice. In those situations, a librarian can provide both a sympathetic ear and high-quality resources — sometimes that’s a phone number, and sometimes it’s a novel that will help a young person put their own situation in context; it might help them understand that they are not alone.

It is difficult to comprehend that to this day there are people out there who protest and vandalize LGBTQ book displays at public libraries. On the other side of that are librarians who know that these displays may be a much-needed sign of hope and acceptance for a young adult making sense of who they are. Those types of displays are just a small way in which libraries have been and will stay a safe space for exploration and discovery, both public and private.

Uncommon Sense

There are many people out there who deride teens as rude non-readers, who are addicted to texting and whatever newfangled incarnation of that dod-darned rock music is out there. They’re intimidated by teens because they talk fast and are unpredictable. They don’t appreciate a teen’s open mindset and sense of curiosity. Librarians, particularly teen librarians, appreciate all of those qualities.

Yes, teens can be complicated. But then again, don’t libraries exist for complicated people? An ideal match, if you ask me!