Community over Comfort

Youth services staffers need to be outgoing for effective engagement

May 1, 2023

Youth Matters: Linda W. Braun

In recent months, I’ve worked as a cofacilitator on several projects that focus on codesigning teen services. As a part of each series—after our group of youth services staffers talks about connected learning, community engagement, outcomes, and assessments—we survey our participants and ask them to reflect on the assets and mindsets they bring to reimagining their work.

Usually, very few respondents say they have relationship-building skills. When participants are asked to reflect on what they want to get better at, most list skills related to connecting with community members. For example, respondents have said they want to get better at being outgoing, be okay with asking for help, eliminate social anxiety, and go out of their comfort zones.

I am always impressed by participants’ self-awareness and honesty but also troubled by these reflections. Designing and implementing library services requires constant community engagement. I’ve asked my colleagues what these self-reflections mean for public library youth services: Can youth services staffers who don’t have core relationship-building skills successfully work with their communities? If we are trying to serve traditionally marginalized users who are historically more difficult to reach, will staffers’ social anxiety be a barrier to success? And when library workers self-identify as introverted or shy, do some of them simply mean they lack skills to build relationships?

My colleagues agree that answers to these questions don’t come easy, and sometimes managers insulate introversion by not asking more of those doing outwardly focused jobs.

Introversion, whether going off a psychological definition or one’s own self-perception, comes up a lot in our line of work. It is sometimes used as a stereotype for librarians by those outside the field, but in many cases, introversion is used as a badge of honor by those within the profession. However, if a staffer tells community members and stakeholders that they are introverted, they could be signaling self-defeat and sending a negative message. That admission could be interpreted as, “it’s going to be really difficult to build a relationship with me,” and could give stakeholders the impression that the partnership will be transactional.

In many cases, introversion is used as a badge of honor by those within the profession.

Youth services work that is inwardly rather than outwardly focused affects our ability to serve our communities. Consider the pandemic: In many instances, when libraries prioritized adapting services, their efforts often missed marginalized populations. Many of the adaptations we saw in 2020—such as grab-and-go kits and curbside pickup—were services recast in a way that fit what the library already offered. Imagine what could have been possible if staffers, by and large, had strong community relationships in place before the pandemic. Many of us could have been better equipped to meet the challenges faced by our marginalized users, such as virtual learning or managing family needs when schools and workplaces shuttered.

If you’re a youth services staffer and want to serve your community successfully, you must ask yourself some tough questions: Are you able to engage traditionally marginalized populations if you are unable to move outside your comfort zone? Can you build relationships with people who you don’t know or have an easy affinity with? How can you be effective in meeting the needs of those who don’t come to the library often or those who don’t share your interests?

Luckily, there are resources to help address these questions. “An Introvert’s Guide to Networking,” a TEDx talk from Portland Incubator Experiment cofounder Rick Turoczy, provides ideas for getting started with relationship-building. And “Why Introverts Excel at Building Professional Relationships,” a recent article from Psychology Today, highlights skills linked to introversion that can be used to forge connections with others.

Remember that relationship skills can be developed over time. Going out of your comfort zone promises great rewards for you and those you serve.


Youth Matters: Linda W. Braun

One Goal, Many Approaches

Using the framework of targeted universalism to promote equity

Youth Matters: Linda W. Braun

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Examining the skills needed to reach nondominant youth and families