Redeeming Our Relevance

October 27, 2009

A friend and I have an ongoing disagreement about teens and libraries, which runs something like this: I notice the latest study showing that adolescents don't turn to libraries to meet their information needs, and I utter dismayed comments about all the wonderful resources intended for younger library users. My friend begs to differ, usually asserting that teens' truly pressing questions—of the variety of "Am I normal?" and "How do I get a date?"—aren't what libraries are really prepared to answer.

Novels from Forever to Rainbow Boys do tackle such ambiguous and tough questions, but so do contemporary databases. Increasingly, specialty and general online resources provide what is sometimes referred to as life skills information.

In other words, the current generation of electronic tools does try to address the many sources of adolescent angst, as well as some of the pragmatics of life in U.S. society that immigrant children, particularly those who find themselves serving as translators for older relatives, may not yet have experienced.

E-resources that serve these needs include Rosen Publishing's Teen Health and Wellness and World Book's Online Reference Center and Discover collections.

Teen Health and Wellness has been garnering kudos since the database's unveiling in early 2007. An examination shows why it wins both praise and awards: Rich, authoritative information in accessible English—matched to teen perspectives—creates a simply amazing resource. It contains nonsense takes on everything from depression to menstruation, Down syndrome to vegetarianism, carbon footprints to volunteering. The features of the database are numerous and thought-provoking. In addition to expert overviews of a broadly defined range of health and wellness issues, there are "Myths and Facts" and "For Further Reading" lists for each topic; the subject bibliographies include fiction as well as fact heavy resources, and users can suggest new titles for inclusion.

Go fish

One intriguing feature of each topic is suggested questions, as in "Eight Great Questions to Ask an Adult about Down Syndrome" and "Ten Great Questions to Ask Your Computer Teacher." Instead of providing answers, Teen Health and Wellness is designed to encourage young people to connect with others in their community who can help them learn and solve problems. Other external options promoted by the database are the many hotlines of outside agencies, such as the Suicide Hotline and the National AIDS Hotline. Currency is also a strong feature: An entry on homelessness, updated in March, discusses the economic phenomenon of recession, and the H1N1 virus is part of a section on avian flu and pandemics, updated in September.

World Book has had electronic resources for some time now. The company's incorporation of life skills is a newer, yet prominent, endeavor. The front page of its Online Reference Center, for example, contains entry points to topics like computing basics, using credit cards (an entry that can be listened to and translated into 14 different languages, including Chinese and Arabic), and creating résumés.

Health insurance and medical care are also among the topics covered. In addition to the terminology explained in each entry, words are linked to World Book's online dictionary, so that fuller denotations appear in pop up windows when users double click on specialty terms.

If my friend is right, and teens think libraries can't answer the questions they really want answered, we should be including and promoting these resources in our collections. It is readily evident that these are materials born of a passionate conviction that teens deserve answers.

Jennifer Burek Pierce is assistant professor of library and information science at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Contact her at jennifer-burek-pierce[at]