Reading and the Role of the YA Librarian

As a future librarian, it’s a safe bet to assume that reading has played an important role in my growing up and development and that I wish to share this experience with others. A few years ago, one of my middle school patrons came up to me at our circulation desk as she walked in from after school, and said to me “Emily, do you have to like reading to become a librarian?” I told her that no, it’s not a required skill, but it sure does help. It was a moment I wish that I had savored more, developed deeper, and used as a teachable moment to address her thoughts of me as a role model, someone whose footsteps she wanted to follow. It was powerful, and I got so caught up in the technicality of the answer, and the idea that by admitting it wasn’t necessary, she may not give up the spark that for whatever reason led her to want to work in a library (one of my sacred spaces) that I let the gravity of the moment slip through my fingers.

I still wonder if I had been more secure in my place as a full-fledged future librarian, how I would have handled the situation differently and what I could have said that would better emphasize the importance of reading to this impressionable youth (in middle school at the time) that may have kept her connected with the library after moving on to high school. We often find in our library that once children reach high school they fall out of touch with the library and its programming since they leave the community regardless of whether they attend public or private high school.

A few weeks ago, we watched and discussed Penny Kittle’s (2010) video about why high schoolers fall out of touch with reading. Overwhelmingly, the students interviewed cited feeling disconnected with, or bored by, the texts they are required to read, and that they feel they aren’t given a chance to read books that more closely align with their own interests. In part, this sounds like teens complaining about being told what to do, and not wanting to be forced to think beyond their current scope of likes and dislikes. Of course books are terrible when other people make you read and analyze them! It’s like being forced to watch the History Channel 24/7 when all you want to do is catch up on Teen Mom. But one has merit and the others don’t…right?

This is something I’ve grappled with for a long time, and I have come to realize that it is part of the process of getting older and looking at younger cohorts of people as being completely separated from ourselves and our cohorts. We talk about “today’s kids” as though they are aliens, so foreign to us that we cannot see how similar they are to us and who we were when we were growing up. It is important for youth to see themselves in their readings and to feel as though they have an act in shaping their surroundings. It’s not just youths, though! I have wanted to join a book club countless times, imagining the great fun it would be to discuss one of my favorite things with other people who understand how great books are. However, the idea of someone else telling me what I’m going to read every month is overwhelming to the point where it begins to sound like a chore. It is work to prepare for a gathering, and that is something I would have actively chosen to participate in. So I don’t join, because I’ve got a list miles long of books I’d like to be reading aside from the ones someone else is going to tell me to read (color me a hippy, but I also tend to avoid Best Sellers until they are looking at the prospect of being weeded from a collection).

The problem with Penny Kittle’s video is that it does not address the why it is important that youth read in high school. If the difference is they read five thousand pages of vampire romance novels, or five hundred pages of classic literature, where is the value? Isn’t there some sense of quality over quantity? Research tells us no, if we’re willing to open our ears. Take a moment to appreciate all of the research compiled in the following infographic:

(Lynsander, 2014)

Side effects of reading include: higher self-reports of positive mental health, lower stress, increased vocabulary, memory, and analytical skills, and communication/inter-personal skills. I repeat, people who read are better at interacting with people by understanding other’s viewpoints and expressing greater empathy towards others. In a world where teen’s constant barrage of information from technology and a need to keep up on social media outlets is affecting how teens are connecting to one another socio-emotionally the idea that the act of reading just twenty minutes a day could help offset this by helping student develop these skills cannot be overlooked.

Teens need their reading materials to reflect the world around them as they see it, but they also need to see themselves in their reading. In young children, it has been found that internalized self-concept is developed through seeing people like them (particularly in term of racial and cultural backgrounds) represented in the information they consume. This includes books, but also TV, media, and the communities around them, such as in administrative positions at schools, as doctors and librarians (Hughes-Hassell & Cox, 2010). This representation helps children internalize ideas that their identity is normalized in society; that it matters and carries value.

Teens need representation and validation, too. Not only do they need to continually see their racial, ethnic, and cultural identities reinforced as present and valuable, but as they begin to develop and explore other area of their identity, including gender expression and sexual orientation, teens need to see these identities represented in what they are reading. Schools, where teens who are all trying to figure out their identities and corresponding value in society, are breeding grounds for bullying and hostile and harassing behavior especially towards marginalized groups (YALSA, 2014). This means that marginalized youth need a place outside of those hallowed halls to find affirmation of their identities, and more importantly they need adults who speak openly and frankly about the realities they face at school, and care enough to nurture their self-discovery.

Public Teen Librarians have the potential to be some of (if not the only) adults in teen’s lives who can foster affirmation of teens identities and to develop their skills outside the classroom through engaging programming and materials available. What I, as a future librarian, can offer teens in my communities is designated safe space to explore themselves and their ideas about who they are and want to be. The books on my shelves should reflect the widest range of realities possible, with the realization that even if adults don’t think youth and children can handle certain topics (and I won’t discount some truth in this, as it depends on the person), many times youth are already experiencing these topics in their lives. They need to be afforded the opportunity to engage in texts that reflect their lives, connect with people who reflect their various identities, and have programming that seeks to develop them as future adults.

Working more closely with youth in the years since my interaction with a young patron years ago about her potential place in the library and in life, I have been awarded more knowledge and understanding about engaging youth in dialogue. Discussing why she feels she didn’t like reading, and opening her experiences up to materials or experiences that may have connected with her more deeply than whatever classics were being thrust upon her as part of curriculum could have helped her stay connected. It’s possible that her falling out of touch with the library was inevitable, but I let a teachable moment pass by, untaught, and I know that it could have gone better. I usually just remind myself that life is a winding road of obstacles and you can’t see them all coming, but that as they approach in the future, they’ll be easier to recognize. I’ll get it right next time…


[Author Unknown]. (2014, September 1). In our digital world, are young people losing the ability to read emotions? Retrieved from: http://www.futuretimeline.net/blog/2014/09/1.htm#.V_awXOArLIU
Hughes-Hassell, S. & Cos, E. (2010). Inside board books: Representation of people of color. Library Quarterly, 80, 211-230.
Kittle, P. (2010, March 15). Why students don’t read what is assigned in class. . Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gokm9RUr4ME&feature=youtu.be
Lysander, R. (2014, October 17). Benefits of reading infographic. Retrieved from: https://metamorphosisj.wordpress.com/2014/10/17/benefits-of-reading-infographic/
YALSA. (2014). The future of library services for and with teens: A call to action. Retrieved from: http://www.ala.org/yaforum/sites/ala.org.yaforum/files/content/YALSA_nationalforum_final.pdf



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