Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What They Didn't Teach In Library School: When to Call for Help

'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.

When to Call for Help
by April Pavis

Being a Teen Services Librarian in an enclosed Teen Center, I have developed relationships with some of the teen patrons. Many of them visit the library on a daily or weekly basis, so I know their name and I ask them questions about the book they are reading, their vacation plans, or the results of the test they were worrying about. You could call us friends; I wouldn’t correct you – they are my teens. And, being a responsible adult and friend, I look out for my teens. Sometimes, though, I have to be the rule enforcer, the professional librarian, or the concerned adult.
One of the most difficult things I have done in my professional life is contact the police on behalf of one of my teens. Recently, one of my favorite teen patrons, game me a day-by-day account of his life the preceding week. Through stuttering, slurred words, and crying, he recounted skipping school, insomnia, fits of rage, and incidents of self-harm and domestic abuse. He is one of my most clever, fascinating patrons and I love when I catch him in my peripheral vision walking quickly towards me to tell me about the hilarious moment he had with his friends, or the TV show he loves. But that day I knew that if I didn’t get him some help, he wouldn’t be that nice, funny boy any longer. He needed someone who could intervene in his domestic situation and a trained individual to help him safely work out his emotions. He needed more than I, in my position of Teen Services Librarian, could give him. I made the call and I cried as I gave the policeman my information, knowing that, in this boy’s eyes, my actions would likely be viewed as a betrayal. But I had to make a decision between keeping our friendship and ensuring his safety. I had to go with my conscience – not to mention my legal responsibility.

Librarians are not trained social workers. We have no scripts or procedures (beyond vague ‘library policy’) to follow if we suspect a teen is in need of serious help. Some of us are able to recognize signs of distress in our patrons even when they are not able or comfortable enough to use words to express themselves, not because we are taught to see them but because we are in tune with the teens we serve. One major red flag is out-of-character behavior. The aforementioned teen is autistic and therefore a bit eccentric and prone to brief moments of anger, but the tears and grief I heard in his voice that day were new. More than his explanation of the previous days (as hyperbole is a normal part of the teen language) it was that sudden and severe change that fully convinced me he needed outside help.

As librarians serving teens, we encourage teens to interact with us; to share their hopes, dreams; their highs and lows. Teens have talked with me about bullying, fighting, suicide, and domestic abuse and I have had to decide numerous times whether the issue warranted legal/professional intervention. For less-severe issues I usually go to a teen’s friend and express my concern to them, letting our mutual concern for the teen initiate the conversation. Sometimes my fears are quelled, other times I help the friend devise a plan to help their suffering peer. But the bottom line is: there is no real guidebook for teen serving librarians when the ‘Social Worker’ roll is required. We are, more often than not, on our own.

I wish there were a class to take, a book to read, or a manual to follow, but more often than not there is no time to consult such materials even if they did exist. We have to use our instincts, our past experiences, and the wisdom of our peers to help us make the best decision for each situation and hope for the best.

How have you dealt with difficult situations with teens in your library? Leave a note in the comments answering this question and help others learn from your experiences.

About April:
April is a Teen Services Librarian in a Northern Virginia public library. She reviews books on her blog A Librarian's Take and spends time with family and friends, and swims in her free time (which there is very little of after reading so many books!). April can also be stalked via Twitter @alibrarianstake.

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
February 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