Everything Is Messy

The changing business of providing services to youth and families

October 30, 2015

Linda Braun

Until recently, if you had asked me how I would describe, in a word, working with and for youth and families, I’d have probably responded: awesome. But not too long ago I was talking with a colleague about our work and she offered a different word: messy.

I realized that word was a fitting—and not necessarily negative—description. Many people serving youth and families in libraries may find it to be a “messy” business. It’s messy because:

  • The audience we work with is not static. What youth and families need is always changing, and how libraries support those needs has to change too. Anyone who has ever made an adjustment to services—for example, transitioning from a summer reading to summer of learning program—knows that some people will love it, some people will hate it, and some just won’t care. That’s messy.
  • The role of the library and its staff is evolving constantly. Libraries are no longer transaction-based institutions. Instead we are shifting our focus to informal learning opportunities for youth and families, often aimed at people who might not have used our services in the past. This means a library staff needs to adapt how they do what they do. Guess what? That’s messy.
  • Lifelong learning isn’t just for the youth and families that we serve. We are always learning new things to keep up with trends in libraries, as well as educational trends, technology, and best practices in assessment. Lifelong learning can be messy.
  • We are no longer the sole experts on information retrieval and delivery in a community; increasing numbers of people, especially youth, are becoming savvy in this regard. Library staffers must accept that they are experts on some things but need to be co-learners with youth and families when it comes to others. Not knowing everything can be scary, and having others lead the way can definitely be messy.
  • There is a need to take risks and sometimes move faster than is comfortable. In libraries, it can be common to plan a big initiative over the course of months or years. But if we wait for everyone to agree and make sure every piece is in place, the world will have moved on and what gets implemented may not resonate with the community anymore. We need to take risks, be flexible, and move quickly—and if the initiative doesn’t work, analyze and course-correct. That’s messy.
  • We must realize that the purpose of outreach isn’t just to bring youth and families into library buildings. Engage people with what they want, when and where they want it. Instead of focusing on what you do as a function of getting the public through the door, demonstrate the value of the library no matter where the child, teen, or caregiver is present. Redefining how you reach your community can be messy.
  • We need to realize that a library space is not solely designated for collecting. It’s important, especially for youth and families, to provide spaces for collaboration, tinkering, and lively activity. This is how today’s youth and adults learn, and this type of learning certainly is messy.

Are you familiar with the song “Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie? It’s a quirky favorite of mine and I often have it running on a loop in my head, but I now customize the chorus to “everything is messy.” The earworm has become a mantra, and it’s such a small thing that is often a big help in keeping my work in perspective.

I encourage you to find whatever that small thing is for you and embrace the mess. It will be essential to moving libraries forward in 2016 and beyond.