Thursday, August 17, 2006

Youth in libraries - are you really ready to welcome them in?

This is a post a long time coming because I have been pondering the issue very deeply over the last few weeks. It's about the challenges and opportunities of offering a totally inclusive youth library.
I have heard and read a lot of librarians say that their ideal youth/young adult/teen space would be a place where young people are welcome to "just hang out". In many cases attention is focussed on the resources needed in existing and new libraries to attract youth - funky furniture, some electronic resources, the Internet, maybe some music listening posts - these are thought to be some of the necessary ingredients for a successful "hang out" space within the library. Let's just say that these things are achieved - and you throw your doors open to all young people. And they come in their droves. Wonderful! Even lots of kids who never used the library before (in fact wouldn't be caught dead in one). And they DO hang out. For hours. And hours. In fact they hate to leave. They hang around outside after you close, making a nuisance of themselves (haven't they got homes to go to?) and they are there next day half an hour before opening time, hanging around in the street waiting for you to open, even banging on the doors begging you to let them in early. They are noisy on the street and swear and jostle and make adults who are passing by quite uncomfortable.

When you are open, there are lots of young people in the space, and they are in high spirits. Everything is new and wonderful and interesting. They are boisterous and noisy, loud and often use "expressive" language, and are sometimes a bit careless about the equipment and the furniture, but basically everyone is happy. Uh oh. Some young people are not happy. Some young people are intimidated by all this noise and rowdiness. Some young people just seem to be unhappy with the world in general. Some young people arrive sad, or anxious, or depressed, or scared, or angry, or intoxicated. Some young people are aggressive and obnoxious. Some young people's behaviour is so poor at the time, you have to ask them to leave.

Over time a pattern emerges. A core group of young people are hanging out at your library for very long periods of time. They are not content to play computer or console games or read or talk quietly for hours (indeed, they may have trouble concentrating on any activity for longer than a quarter hour). Most of the activities offered in the library are of a cerebral nature, and they have physical energy to burn. There is a lot of running and jostling, mock and quasi-mock taunting of friends and other young people that they don't even know. There may be incidents of petty and not so petty stealing and bullying, even physical fighting.

Who are these young people?

They can be variously described as the "disengaged", or "disadvantaged", or "at risk". They typically will be from dysfunctional family backgrouds, or have made some poor choices in the past with ongoing consequences. They may be younger than 15, but not going to school - because they have been expelled, or their parents don't care, or they have simply made a choice to stay away from school. They may have few models of successful relationships in their lives. If they are older than 15 they will probably be un- or under-employed, typically with little academic success and few employment prospects. They may suffer from mental illnesses or substance abuse. They are at risk of offending or have offended, typically for stealing, assault, or illicit drug use. If they are girls, they have a higher than average chance of early (and single) motherhood. They may be estranged from their parents and may be in precarious situations with regards to accommodation. Some of these young people show little regard for adults or authority. Some of these young people are downright scary. In fact, the complete opposite to the traditional teenage user of the library that you are accustomed to, ie the "good" ones.

If you get to this point, you are at a crossroads.

A. Do you decide that certain behaviours cannot be tolerated, and those displaying those behaviours will be excluded/discouraged from entering your very desirable space? (But you said all young people were welcome...)

B. Or do you decide that the young people displaying these behaviours have an even greater need for the care and understanding of their communities, of which the library is one part? Perhaps they hang out for so long because they have few alternatives?

I would suggest, if you go for A. , that's OK. Just be honest with yourself and young people about it. If you go with A, you will be giving a very good service to young people who would be inclined to be your customers anyway, and just needed that extra push to attract them. Feel free to enforce strict behaviour rules such as no rowdiness and no swearing. The "undesirables" will soon get the message and exclude themselves, the "good" kids will get to enjoy the facilities in peace without harrassment. And parents will approve too.

If you go with B, however, you will need some pretty stiff convictions. You will need to really believe that all young people have a right to equal opportunities to access information and cultural product of importance to them (like books, Internet games, music); that librarians can encourage and nurture all young peoples' literacy and information literacy skills (not just the bookish ones) ; and that librarians have a real role to play as significant adults in the life of the youth of our community, with positive personal and social outcomes.

What about the very real situation where the "good" kids are too intimidated by the "at risk" youth to share the same space with them? What good is a space inhabited only by "problem" youth? If they do not see and experience models of "acceptable" behaviour, will they not be in danger of disengaging even further from their communities, of more anti-social behaviour? Community disapproval may also be high, if parents and other adults perceive that "bad" kids are somehow getting a bonus that "good" kids are missing out on.

So the ideal is to maintain a critical proportion of "mainstream" kids to "at risk" kids who are using the space...

So you need to be fighting on two fronts - tempering the behaviour of the "at risk" youth, while at the same time fostering understanding, tolerance and resilience by the broader youth community and encouraging them to keep coming. You may have to face the harsh reality that some mainstream kids will not feel sufficiently safe or resilient enough to want to use the space under any circumstances. At this point you have to ask yourself, do the "good kids" have alternatives? Can they use other parts of the library or the main library for instance? Do they have access to cultural product at home or information at school? How critical is your service to them?

How can we help the "at risk" youth? After all, we (as librarians) are not social workers. Nor should we be. I stated in a previous post that youth work is not an amateur activity. That's why you should really be clear about whether you are really ready to welcome all youth. That means all youth with all their problems and manifestations. If you want to go with model B, you need the serious help and commitment of human service professionals working with you. In fact it takes the efforts of the whole community to help these youth, and there are incredible opportunities for librarians to make a significant contribution.

While this post has been very hypothetical (partly of necessity to protect privacy), I hope to bring some illustrative anecdotes on future posts about the strategies, policies, tactics, insights and experiences we have had in offering a truly inclusive library service for youth. And I would love to hear from colleagues who have had similar experiences.