Saturday, May 06, 2006

Exploding Youth Services

I had an interesting discussion with my colleague, C., the Youth Librarian, today. C. is a new graduate who has made the brave decision to travel several thousand miles to take up this challenging position, even more so in that I am asking her to be the guinea pig in what is probably an almost unique youth library service in Australia if not the world (if you know of something similar please leave a comment as we could really use your experience...). But maybe being fresh is advantageous when you're working in a very innovative environment...

Anyhoo, back to the interesting conversation. (Just a quick re-cap - we have started a dedicated Youth Library in a shopfront on the main street of a small coastal town completely separate from the main library... see this post and others for more details. ) We were discussing the weekly dedicated session that C. has with the 20 or so students from the "alternative" campus of the High School - youth who in the main have been excluded from mainstream schooling due to behaviour problems. A significant number of these students have literacy problems or are actively hostile to reading because it is associated with "education". After a few weeks of just letting the kids "chill" in the very desirably cool space with quiet activities such as playing the Internet, flicking through magazines, sketching or watching videos (playing the game consoles is not allowed in this session as it is felt it would dominate and not leave room for other activities, however the literacy benefits of gaming are the subject of hot debate amongst librarians and educators), the teacher has asked C. to introduce some "literacy" activities. C. is acutely aware of the delicate state of these kids - anything that smacks of teaching, nerdiness or school will immediately break the bond she has been able to build up. So we discussed a few strategies. Are there any such thing as literacy games suitable for teenagers? a two hour search on Google failed to reveal any. Could we invent our own? Could we base something more structured on the magazines, which most of the kids seem to flick through? Could we base a quiz game on the contents of one of the most popular magazines? (Which happens to be a mag called "Explode". It's a barely legal combination of gross "Believe it or not" pictures (and I mean GROSS), girls in bikinis and game reviews which I actually ordered by mistake. But it has been such a bit hit we are thinking of congratulating the publishers on their contribution to teenage literacy!) .

Then I remembered an article I had read several months ago about a similar project in the UK called YouthBoox. The major difference was that the literacy program took place in youth centres but it was pretty revolutionary in that it involved librarians in settings that "at-risk" youth actually use rather than in libraries as such. A major finding of the project was that the combination of librarians and youth workers is a uniquely powerful one - and from the (admittedly limited) 5 month experience of our youth library operations, I can categorically state - guys, we can't do it alone. We are not social workers nor should we pretend we can somehow appropriate their skills and try to run youth programs with real bite without calling on their expertise. Youth work is not for amateurs, and neither is library work. It just makes sense to combine. (This is not to say libraries can't run any programs for youth on our own - but be realistic, we are running them for youth who have a natural tendency to be our customers anyway - still valuable, but different to capturing core non-users.)

In addition, the Youthboox experience pointed to the almost exruciatingly slow progress that one has to make with youth who have disengaged from education and reading. Just having young people glance at print after weeks/months of surly disdain should be counted as a significant triumph. And basically after reflection on the Youthboox experience, C. and I realized that we have been using exactly the right approach - almost sneakily leaving print around and surruptitiously getting kids to talks about what they're reading (even if it is Explode!). C. has had a minor win - a student at risk of exclusion from school who attends study group (another session that is run after school on Tuesdays) who has just read a book. It's hard to express the significance of this in print...

So forget the book talks if you're dealing with "non-traditional library clients". It really has to be softly softly, and only when they are ready. And success has to be measured differently too. It's very challenging, but very rewarding.


  • Thanks for a good and thoughtful post on working with youth--I'd say that a kid reading a book is always a triumph--but providing teens with a space to hang out where they feel comfortable is, to my mind at least, triumph enough.

    I was lucky enough to have such a place in high school, and it made all the difference in the world.

    By Anonymous Laura, at 4:18 AM  

  • Thank you for your post I enjoyed reading it. It is good to see what is hapening in this area. Good luck with it.

    By Blogger Andrew, at 7:16 PM  

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