Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What They Didn't Teach in Library School: Finding Balance - The Enforcer vs. The YA Librarian

'What They Didn't Teach In Library School' is a series of guest-authored posts,
written by YA Librarians from around the country, highlighting situations or skills
that were never addressed in formal Library School, but that are integral to librarianship.

What They Didn't Teach in Library School:
Finding Balance - The Enforcer vs. The YA Librarian
by Emily Passey

One thing I wish I’d learned in library school is how to be an authority figure without being The Man.

As youth services librarians we are in a tricky position when it comes to enforcing rules with children and teens in the library. For many of us, youth services librarianship is about providing that special third space - a safe, alternative resource for kids outside of school and home. But for all that I learned in grad school about my important role in creating that safe space, I am left with this burning question: what does authority look like in the library? How can I model the library as a welcoming environment while also enforcing the rules?

At my small public library in a densely populated suburb of Milwaukee, we have a steady flow of after-schoolers whose ages range from kindergarten through 12th grade. They come from three different schools, two public and one private, and bring a host of personalities, backgrounds, experiences and interests. Let’s face it, they also bring a host of behavioral problems, and, almost universally, it seems they bring a mindset that the library is a space without rules or boundaries. Most have been coming to my library for years, and in that time have been under the watch of several different librarians who have done their utmost to enforce our behavioral guidelines. I’ve learned first hand from the younger kids (K-7) that they do not like the ways that the rules have been enforced at the library, although I would guess this is at least partially attributable to their general dislike of our behavioral policy. Yet their frankness about their experience at the library has lead me to think deeply about how we could be enforcing our rules differently.

It seems to me that the problem is thus: when kids act up, they don’t expect to be told by a mere librarian to shape up or ship out. We’re their pals and their book finders, not their teachers or their parents. We don’t give detention or send home report cards. We definitely don’t ground kids. But when it comes time to lay down the law my persona as Friendly Computer Assistant/Homework Helper/Non-Judgemental Inquirer About Their Daily Lives does not go far in enforcing my requests for them to change their behavior. They often remain defiant, not seeing any of us librarians as legitimate rule-enforcers.

While I need to communicate that bad behavior will not be tolerated, I do not want to become the stereotypical "shushing librarian" of generations past. But I do have a behavioral policy - which predates my employment - to enforce, whether I like it or not. I don’t want to banish kids even momentarily from the safe haven of the library. I definitely don’t want them to get it into their easily-influenced heads that the library is a boring, quiet place where the librarian is always breathing down their necks about everything little infraction. Yikes - that is the opposite of what I feel my duty as a librarian entails! But, as I tell the kids every day, “in the library there are rules,” and when the disregard of them could harm other children, I have to step in to the situation and that sometimes means being or calling, I kid you not, the police.

Daily I must figure out how to be an effective authority figure and police the behavioral issues that plague our after school hours, while not falling into the trap of being “The Man.” I want to nurture in these kids a love of the library as a place to hang out and use the computer and find a little non-judgemental adult interaction.  But that desire to nurture must be balanced with enforcement of the rules they must follow if they want to be allowed to use this special place. My trial and error method includes a healthy dose of the word “respect,” and a lot of talking to them about working out problems amongst themselves, treating each other and the library well, and bringing a good attitude every day.

My dream is that the after school crowd grows up to be my Teen Advisory Board, but the only way to make that happen is to build strong bonds founded on their respect of the library and of my authority and my respect of them. I’m in it for the long haul because I just can’t help but feel a deep attachment to the little band of misfits who call my library home for a few hours everyday.

About Emily
Emily Passey is Young Adult Librarian at Shorewood Public Library in Shorewood, WI, a suburb of Milwaukee. She graduated from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in May 2012 with her Masters in Library & Information Science.  Emily writes and manages her library's teen blog, Shorewood Library Teens and also manages the social media for her library which is currently just in the form of a Facebook page but is growing all the time! She is currently reading Waiting by Carol Lynch Williams and Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers.

Want more posts on issues not covered in Library School?
Check out Teen Librarian Toolbox's series Behind the Scenes @ the Library.
What They Didn't Teach In Library School Post Schedule
January 1, 2013 - Overcoming the Pied Piper Syndrome
January 16, 2013 - Finding Balance - The Enforcer vs. The YA Librarian
January 23, 2013 - Dealing with Peeps Not Like Me
January 30, 2013 - Mousy & Mild Won't Cut It
Feburary 6, 2013 - Community Service and the Library
February 13, 2013 - Dealing with the Angry Folk
February 20, 2013 - Mistakes as Opportunities
February 27, 2013 - Librarians as Social Workers
March 6, 2013 - Adapt or Perish
March 13, 2013 - No Do-Overs
March 20, 2013 - Promotion & Programming