Category Archives: Teen Service

Steinbeck Gets It…

steinbeck

From the introduction of The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights: From the Winchester Manuscripts and Other Sources, published in 1976.

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Lucky

Another Escape Room down (more on that later, surely…) and with its conclusion comes something more significant, in terms of our library service for teens: The departure of Marissa, our part-time librarian trainee (or whatever she decided her job title was here...) off to begin her first full-time, professional library gig.

marissa
Some Molly Weasley realness…

Her last week was bizarre (wonderfully so) and intense, because she was the person who designed and executed this iteration of our Escape Room program (Escape from Malfoy Manor, because of reasons, using the manual I wrote so hey, at least we know it works!) so it hasn’t really sunk in yet. Marissa started working with me at age 16 as a page, after a lifetime of being a library kid, from story time to Mystery Night. When she told me she was going to library school directly after college and that she wanted to be a Teen Librarian, I was…surprised. It’s something I hear from teens from time to time, but thus far, no one has actually gone and done ‘the thing.’

I won’t say too much more, other than mentoring her has been the absolute best thing I’ve ever done as a librarian. (Cue: Weeping with joy...) She’s a fabulous human being with excellent taste in music, even if she made me cry in front of our colleagues at her farewell snack-break, making some people think that I was sad to see her go, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m so very, very happy that she has found her calling and that she found it so fast and early. Best of all, she’ll be right down the road at a fantastic library system so I’ll get to keep an eye out and watch her continue to do incredible things (and guilt-trip her into coming back every once in a while to help with big events…!)

I’ve always been lucky when it comes to the people I work with, in general but more specifically in the part-time staff who I have mentored, collaborated with and managed over this past decade. (I‘m fully aware of and grateful for our privilege in even having more than one staffer to work with teens. Like I said: Lucky.) Our department is small but there are a lot of expectations placed on us in terms of our reputation for innovation, the demand for more and more program additions each year, the explosion in teen literature and the correspondent need for sharp and authentic readers advisory…If you ask anyone who has to manage a schedule, you will hear all about the need to balance competency and dependability.  It’s an equation – you want the most skilled and talented employees to work for and with you, but it doesn’t matter how stellar someone is if they don’t turn up, or leave you hanging, or just disappear (years of book store management has certainly affected my perspective on this.) It’s not easy to find people who can handle the extremes of teen services, let alone those who want to work with teens, let alone those who are available during those critical after school hours, let alone those who both excel and can be relied upon, day in and day out.

And when that person turns up…anything becomes possible.

Jen, approximately

The most fortuitous thing that has ever happened in my career was when our Branch Teen Librarian, Jen, accepted her job. (Not pictured, as per her request) I didn’t quite know it at the time, but she would become the bedrock of not only an exceptional after-school teen center service, but of our entire department as well. I’ll never forget the first time I met her, very early into my career, when she was doing one of those grad school ‘interview a librarian and write a paper’ things. Her young son was antsy, so she was playing videos for him while she asked me about library science stuff (most of which I may or may not have made up.) (There is a separate post in here somewhere about the trauma of watching that little boy grow up and become taller than you and making you keenly feel your age, but…maybe not.) Her no-nonsense practicality was so impressive (and something I have to work very hard on projecting, personally.) I don’t remember anyone I meet only once but I remembered Jen when she came in to interview for the Branch Librarian position a few months later (and I remember what she was wearing…’lawyer clothes,’ – fitting, as it was her previous career after all…it just struck me as funny at the time, with my Teen library uniform of jeans and t-shirts, and knowing her now, it still kind of does!)

It would take me weeks to talk about everything I’ve learned from her over the years, and how much I admire her (especially her organizational skills, her ability to manage the rigors of her job and the demands of raising two kids, and the incredible speed at which she gets all sorts of stuff done. I can’t touch any of  it. She says it’s because I’m pulled away from Teen Services by my other managerial duties so much. I say it’s because she’s simply superhuman.) We’ve built this thing together and are a team in every sense of the word. My job is to support her as she executes her brilliance and to work as hard for her as she does for our department and our library. That she is still willing to work with me after all this time is something I consider a true measure of personal success.

I’m loud and opinionated and unreserved, a giant open mouth with wild ideas. Jen is subtle, measured and level-headed, with a talent for finding the most sensible way to transform many of those wild ideas into realities. We are (likely because of these differences) a talented team of Teen librarians. Her demeanor couldn’t be more different from mine and there is the object lesson: doing this job well isn’t about personality, but temperament. It’s about authenticity. Most of all, it’s about remembering. To paraphrase Dave Eggers, either you can see through the eyes of youth, or you can’t. You either remember what it was like to be a teenager or you don’t. It’s not something you can fake, or a show you can put on, or something you can turn on and off at will. In my opinion, that is the only true prerequisite for this job.

muskox

Everyone who has ever worked with me, from these two outstanding pros to our wonderful teen pages over the years, has been able to operate from this place of remembering. I’ll miss working with Marissa each week but I’m excited to see what she’ll do in her new role. I’d be bereft without Jen – a quaking, blubbering mess incapable of coherent thought. I get teased for ‘Knope-ing’ my coworkers and especially my staff, but I don’t care. They are, all of them, “beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful musk-ox(en). Thank you, ox(en).”

I’m so damned lucky.

Volunteer Frenzy! (Say Yes)

cart cleaning
Cart cleaning…don’t think about it.

It’s that time of year! As youth services librarians put the final touches on their summer plans  – events, activities, decor, classroom visits, reading games (or otherwise) – some of us are lucky enough to deal with another rush – of teens needing all the volunteer hours…right…now! No joke: I get several emails each day, starting in mid-May, from teens looking to earn service hours (2, 4, 6, 20!) before school lets out in mid-June. The library offers several options for volunteering, but no other area matches the teen department in terms of volume and tight turn-around requests for hours.

I mean it when I say ‘lucky.’ I won’t deny it – working with volunteers can be challenging. They run the gamut from ‘I want to be here’ to ‘I have to be here’ to ‘I really have to be somewhere or else I’ll be in big trouble so this will do.’ When I need help or coverage for things, my staff and colleagues are always ready to jump in, but our volunteer days are always the very last thing they opt for. They hate it and I get it. It’s not an easy thing, working with young people. Some adults don’t have an aptitude for it (not judging – they do their adult-y stuff very well.) Combine that sensibility with an activity where you are giving teens something they need and have literally asked (or pleaded) for, but aren’t really too happy or enthusiastic about doing, and you have a situation that is challenging for everyone involved.

The way we work with teen volunteers is a bit different from you might expect – completely drop-in and at-will. We offer a regularly scheduled volunteer opportunity each month (Service Saturday, the first Saturday of every school-year month, and its cousin, Service Wednesday in the summer) but there is no registration and no limit to how many teens can attend in the set time frame. I’ve been told that this is bonkers: How can you plan? What if you run out of work? How do you make it meaningful for everyone involved?

How and what indeed…I’m going to take that backwards.

‘Meaningful:’ It’s important for teens to feel valued. I work in an affluent area (with non-affluent neighborhoods including my own residential pocket, surrounded by less affluent towns with residents who use our services heavily) where teens are often seen, sometimes heard, but not always valued. There is a significant difference between these three things. General teen advocacy is one of the most important parts of my job. Teens have tremendous value and deserve to be furnished with meaningful opportunities to make a difference in their communities.

But…not during our drop-in service hours. We set this in place because we were getting so many (so, so many) requests for volunteering and it was proving to be onerous to schedule times that worked for ‘the library’ (or, the staff who didn’t mind spending time teaching teens how to do stuff even though they’d likely never become ‘permanent’ volunteers) and the busy, primarily high-school-aged teens who needed hours. A drop-in program meant that teens didn’t have to plan in advance – they can stay for as long as they’d like. They can turn up at any point in the day. They can skip a session. For over-scheduled teens, swamped with school, jobs, clubs, future planning – figuring out how to get hours done can be a source of stress. By moving to a drop-in system we did our best to minimize that for them. Yes – it meant more stress for us, but we are grown-ups and we can take it.

Once we settled on this course of action, we had to let go of the idea of volunteering as an enrichment activity. I wish it were otherwise. I am always looking for ways to extend what we do for volunteers into something with more intrinsic value, but the more we carried on with this plan of action, the more we realized that it was really okay – the teens are looking for and need hours. Skill-building is incredibly important. Opportunities to take ownership and feel a sense of responsibility are vital for teen development. (Hey ya, 40 Developmental Assets, I see you over there, judging me…we care about you and use you to evaluate most all of our services and programs!…Just not this one…okay? Please don’t be angry.) Sometimes, though, you have to accept that the teens you are working with, in that moment, aren’t interested in what you are selling, development-wise. They want hours. They want someone to check off a box or sign a form or scrawl a signature and jot a phone number on a sheet promising (threatening?) to check up on whether or not these hours were actually completed. (Never, not once, has anyone called us to verify hours, even those that were court-mandated.) We have heard our teen community, and while we know what teens ‘need,’ sometimes you have to give them what they are actually asking for.

sloth_(c)_Jorge_Salas_International_Expeditions
A recent teen volunteer

Once we let go of (or reluctantly set aside) of the idea of meaningfulness, it became easy to plan for volunteers without knowing how many would turn up. We’ve developed a list of stuff to do throughout the building and only on our heaviest days (when we get past 25+ volunteers) do we ever come close to running out of stuff for them to do. It’s not glorious – shelving and shelf-reading and the dreaded rounds of dusting and even worse, cart cleaning. We have to keep an eye out for teens so disinterested that they move past the point of caring about accuracy (no, we don’t mind if they approach their tasks in a fashion that would make a sloth look industrious, but we do run shelf-tests and have had our semi-nuclear moments when we spot egregious errors, but they are exceedingly rare. Most volunteers get the job done right.)  Our program has blossomed – like anything else, it has taken years of consistent and diligent adherence to our schedule, but there has been exponential growth in the number of teens we serve.

The word is out, and aren’t we lucky. Teens know this is a place that will help them with what they need outside of just the general providing of stuff. That’s a big deal.

They also know that if they find themselves in a ‘volunteer emergency,’ my favorite descriptor used during the May-June rush, we will do whatever we can to get them those precious hours. We say yes, whenever we can. Then, more teens ask. We keep saying yes. On and on it goes, and here I am today, with three volunteers who turned up because I said yes to one of them. They are shelving in our new book area. Maybe they’ll continue to volunteer in their spare time, but it’s more likely they won’t. After all, they are so busy all the time. They will, however, leave with a good feeling about the library. That has always been our most central goal –  it may not be lofty, but it’s meaningful.

UPDATE: We just crossed the 500-hour mark with our drop-in and appointment volunteers for this fiscal year!