Making Decisions and Cutting Ties

Embracing change in teen services

July 1, 2015

On Monday afternoon, Maureen Hartmann, division manager for strategic services at the Hennepin County (Minn.) Library, led a YALSA session titled, “What I Stopped Doing: Improving Services By Giving Things Up.” During the session, Hartmann spoke about the evolving face of teen services and emphasized the need for libraries and youth librarians to evaluate current and potential services in order to make the tough yet necessary decisions about which services to cut in order to focus attention on newer, more vital programs.

First, Hartmann gave an overview of the 2014 YALSA report, The Future of Library Services For and With Teens (PDF file), which, she explained, is incredibly helpful for youth-serving librarians, since it puts into context the things that librarians need to consider giving up in order to try something new.

“I can’t tell you exactly what you need to give up, and what you need to do to implement this report in your library,” Hartmann explained, “because it’s so different for each community, for the kind of library you work with, for what your staffing looks like, and what position you’re in.”

She did note that the report examines some of the shifts that are occurring in teen services, and also highlights some of the changing demographics that are being seen across the country, in terms of teens’ interests, needs, ethnicities, and socioeconomic status.

The report also touches on the changes that are happening in terms of teens’ use of technology, in addition to the fact that there are multiple literacies, beyond just print literacy, that youth-serving librarians and libraries need to address.

Next, Hartmann said that the report advocates for librarians to take on a broader perspective regarding the kinds of services that they are delivering in libraries. This extends to growing and expanding their understanding of what learning looks like, and what it takes to be effective educators, even in public libraries.

Finally, Hartmann outlined the priorities that the report sets forth, with regard to the top five attitudes and approaches that youth-serving libraries and librarians should take in their work with teens.

These priorities include:

  1. Be a facilitator, not an expert.

“Being an expert means that we’re the most knowledgeable,” Hartmann said, “while being a facilitator means that we ask questions and we put other people in charge of their own learning.” When it comes to giving things up, Hartmann stressed that teen librarians need to be more willing to allow other library staff who aren’t teen librarians to try their own methods for working with teens, rather than asking others to do teen services just as they themselves would do it.

  1. Everyone serves teens, not just teen librarians.

“Sometimes we make teen services so hard, so specialized, and so magical,” Hartmann said, “that others are intimidated because they’re afraid they don’t do the work as well as we do.” Helping and supporting coworkers in their work with teens means that teen services librarians must stop thinking of themselves as a one-man show, and shift toward an environment where some of the teen services workload can be effectively shared with their colleagues. This approach means that teen librarians will have more time or opportunity to pursue other teen services and programs, while gaining better, broader support for teen services in their libraries.

  1. Library staff need to learn new skills.

Hartmann noted that, in order for librarians to become more effective in serving teens, they must strive to learn new skills. This means that teen librarians should not only commit to keeping up on trends in changing teen services, but also work to think and learn outside the box of teen services, in order to ensure that programs and ideas are fresh and innovative, and incorporate nontraditional skillsets, approaches, and resources.

  1. Refocus our work beyond traditional roles.

Hartmann argued that all of us, even public librarians, are educators. She went on to state that there are always ways for librarians who work in other settings to think about intraspace learning, and to think more critically “about the ways that we measure and account for the work that we’re doing.”

  1. Partner outside of the library walls.

As Hartmann explained, much of the work of teen services is not just happening inside the library. It’s also happening in the community, and it’s vital for teen services librarians to build partnerships that allow them to advocate for teens and for the role of the library.

The catch, she noted, is in finding the time for these partnerships, which means stopping some other projects or services, prioritizing partnerships, and making decisions about which are the most critical. Some suggestions were to stop providing programs that see consistently low attendance or to delegate the building of displays and booklists other staff or volunteers.

These can be difficult changes to make and implement, she said, but also noted that “we will not be able to increase our effectiveness in serving teens if we just stay in our library and if we just stay behind our desk.”

In addition to the guidelines outlined by the YALSA report, Hartmann also touched on what she called “the people part” of change management. The personal, subjective side of change is sometimes the hardest part, she noted, because some services are ones that teen librarians may love to do or ones that they continue to do simply because things have always been done that way.

Hartmann suggested that, when deciding to stop services or programs librarians should plan well in advance, talk to staff and coworkers to plan out how to sunset a program, and make sure that teens are made aware of the change beforehand.

Sometimes it can be difficult to stop partnerships or programs because of fear. Hartmann advocated for temporarily stopping classroom visits to promote summer reading, with the understanding that youth librarians may fear taking this step because of the perception that summer reading participation might drop as well. However, she advised taking a yearlong break from these types of visits, in order to reallocate the time spent on these services toward other services, like new outreach opportunities, or designing a new program for teens. The change, she stressed, does not have to be permanent. If it doesn’t work, it’s always an option to go back to the way things were done in the past; but unless the risk is taken and questions are asked, it’s impossible to explore new, alternative, or better options for teen services.

Finally, Hartmann talked about the tools that librarians can use to prioritize and make decisions in their work. Her first example was a Priority Grid that divides tasks into quadrants based on their impact and the amount of effort it will take to complete each one. The grids serve as an easy-to-reference guide for deciding what activities need to happen as soon as possible, which can wait, which can be delegated, and which can be eliminated.

She also suggested the use of a Team Action Plan chart when making decisions about changing services, stopping programs, or choosing to continue certain activities. The chart allows for mindful exploration of current programs and organizes thinking so that the user must critically consider which actions to begin, how they’ll be beneficial, and take into account what to stop doing, based on ineffectiveness or impracticality.

In closing, Hartmann challenged attendees to take the first step by picking something in their own libraries to stop doing. “As a profession,” she noted, “we’re so energized by ideas, but we’re also a profession that has a hard time prioritizing.” Her final message was to reiterate that innovation and creativity cannot happen if we continue doing the same things that we’ve always done, without carefully considering whether or not they are the most effective or relevant services that our libraries can provide.