The following is the text of the LibChat (aka, library TEDTalk) that I gave at the 2016 Ohio Library Council Annual Convention and Expo.
A microphone! They don’t usually let me have one of these. When I was in college, a work friend saw me pass outside the Wendy’s on High St and said to his friend, “That’s the loudest girl I know. She’s going to be a librarian.”
Of course, what he didn’t know and what I didn’t know is that I was going to be a teen librarian. The ability to be loud is pretty important in my line of work. I can be a pretty loud person, both vocally and personality-wise, but what most people don’t know is that I’m really quite an introvert, which is also helpful. While plenty of teens are rowdy, noisy, and excitable, an awful lot of my nerds are quiet and awkward – they need someone who can come down to their level when they need it.
And that’s what being a teen librarian is all about – doing what TEENS need. Absolutely everything is about them. And if you don’t like TEENS, you shouldn’t work with them.
When most people think about teen services, they immediately think of teen fiction, which, don’t get me wrong, is having an amazing moment. But my focus has to be on what THEY want to read, not what *I* like. I mean, my favorite book, teen fiction or otherwise, is Christina Meldrum’s MADAPPLE. It’s a beautiful coming-of-age story about a girl raised in isolation, filled with beautiful imagery about nutritional plants and virgin births in various religions throughout history, and just a dash of incest.
That’s sounds like an easy sell to an eighth-grader, right?
So while I have an interesting answer for every teen reader who asks me, ‘Hey Sarah, what’s your favorite book?” for the majority of my patrons, I need to have an understanding of what THEY want.
A few years ago, I kept seeing THE GIVER on lists of books to give to readers of THE HUNGER GAMES, and I don’t think that’s accurate. Hunger Games is a masterful work of storytelling that compels you to keep reading because every single chapter ends in a cliffhanger.
And while THE GIVER is an absolute masterpiece that every single person on this planet should read, it’s not the book to give to a kid who just sped through the non-stop action-adventure of THE HUNGER GAMES. They need another action-packed thriller to keep them reading, even if it’s not of the same caliber.
Because that’s how you create a reader.
I mean, everyone loves John Green. But once they’ve burned through his four and three-quarters books, I have to know what else to give them. And that’s where knowing teen culture comes along. And let’s face it – we have a problem in the library world, where we still put books first. We’re the gatekeepers of knowledge and culture. Those things exist in a variety of mediums, and always have.
I’m going to list a bunch of things. When you know what I’m talking about, I want you to raise your hand.
If you didn’t raise your hand, congratulations. You’re out of touch with an entire generation.
That collection of people are Youtubers (and some of the biggest names at that). They are the movers and shakers of our culture for ages 30 and below. They are making movies, writing books, creating shows, and shaking the very foundations of traditional media. They’re connecting with their fans, raising money for charity, and creating genuine communities online. Millions of people around the world are tuning in to watch them each day.
Pewdiepie, the biggest Youtuber as of this moment, has 40 million subscribers. Network television would KILL for those sorts of numbers!
That’s one of the reasons why everything is being rebooted. Traditional media is desperate to reach this generation, so they’re going back to what they know worked before. I’m… not convinced it’s working, although most of my teens who saw it enjoyed the new Ghostbusters.
When I first became a teen librarian in 2007, I would frequently pair books with tv shows and movies for quick book recommendations. Now, I simply ask what they watch, and the answer is almost always ‘YouTube.’
Knowing what they like is a big part of the puzzle that helps you create programming and build collections. But it’s also a great way to prove to them that you care about what they care about. Teens are just beginning to discover what THEY like, and we as librarians have the power to legitimize those interests by simply having a bit of knowledge.
I had a young teen come in asking for THIS BOOK LOVES YOU and I immediately said, “Oh, the new book by Pewdiepie?” You should have seen his face when he found an ADULT who knew what he was talking about. It’s even better that I can continue the conversation by saying, ‘Pewdiepie is fine, but I personally prefer Markiplier and the Game Grumps.”
Asking if they saw the newest episode of Supernatural when you spot the Winchester tattoo doodled on their notebook means that you can have a conversation and create a connection. That in turn makes it a whole lot easier to demand good behavior – because they know you’re on their side.
Recognizing the red shirt with the yellow star from STEVEN UNIVERSE means that I know it exists. It’s a cartoon with lots of queer-friendly content, and that goes a long way to reaching a teen who possibly feels alone everywhere else.
You don’t have to be an expert on these things, but you do have to stop at Hot Topic and see which fandoms are in right now. Which music videos are they listening to while they check their Facebook? Which shows are on the CW, MTV, Cartoon Network, and FreeForm? All these things go a long, long way to connecting with an audience that is notoriously hard to reach.
Because again, the biggest part of the job is the teens themselves.
I often like to tell people that my job is a mix of bookstore manager, pop culture guru, party planner, and social worker/therapist. I’m somewhere between teacher and cool much-older stepsister.
Teens need someone like that in their lives. Most kids have that person: a youth pastor, soccer coach, drama club advisor. But for the kids who aren’t involved in those sorts of activities, I’m their person.
I’m often among the first they come out to; someone who they can trust to use the name and pronoun they prefer without question or judgement.
They come to me with questions about STDs. I know which of them are sexually active (and yes, I remind them to use protection).
They respond to ‘What’s going on?’ With a plea for advice on what to do now that his girlfriend is pregnant. He’s excited to be the father he never had, but she’s thinking about terminating the pregnancy, and he’s panicking about it. What would you say to him?
I know who has learned to ‘play the game,’ becoming a different person depending on the group they’re in so they can better navigate the moods at home.
I watch them return home when the college financial aid dance becomes too complicated and life on campus alone gets too scary without the support system so many people take for granted. Home might not be great, but at least it’s familiar.
I know which of them suffer from emotional abuse and avoid being at home as much as possible, often skipping meals to do so and walking long miles to get to the safety of Teen Central.
I suspect who’s being physically abused, based on the hoodies and jeans being worn during one of the hottest summers I can remember. I put the suicide hotline number in their hands after I notice what they were looking at online, asking no other questions.
They leave me notes that say things like ‘hey girlie miss you lol’ a few weeks before shooting their abusive father in the head at 2 in the morning while he slept. I hadn’t seen her in months.
There’s nothing that can prepare you for this part of the job, other than love for the kids. Yeah, being a teen librarian is filled with movie premiere parties, the latest social media app, the newest Five Nights at Freddy’s game and tons of nerdy, awesome laughter, but it is also a heartbreaking experience, one shared by all of your teen librarians.
And if you don’t like these noisy, smelly, emotional creatures, please, stay out of my profession. Thank you.