“There’s so much going on in [teens’] heads and in their lives, both present and future, that it can be easy to lose track of who they really are,” says Justin Hoenke, aka Justin the Librarian—popular blogger, retro gamer, music buff, and the very first teen librarian at the Portland Public Library (ME). “We try to help them understand life…We want to see them be really awesome adults who make a change in the world.”
And in changing the world, they have a great role model: it’s been a super productive few years for Hoenke, with even bigger plans on the horizon. Since arriving at Portland in 2010, his innovating programming established and expanded Portland’s service to more than 1,000 teens annually. A few weeks ago he was named a Library Journal Mover & Shaker for 2013. And next month, he’ll become a teen librarian at the progressive Chattanooga Public Library (TN).
In this first of a dozen planned interviews with the youth services librarians named as Mover & Shakers this year, School Library Journal explores in more detail what makes Justin tick—his inspirations, his passions, and his vision for the future of teen services.
When/how did you know library science was the right choice for you?
I was aimlessly wandering around in life until I met my wife Haley. Her mother Jill is a super awesome librarian at the Monessen Public Library (PA). She said to me, ‘you know, you would really like being a librarian and I think you’d be really good at it.’ So, yes, my mother-in-law pushed me into librarianship.
Why teen services?
That was another odd thing that just happened! I was going to school at Clarion University of Pennsylvania and someone told me they were looking for a library science student to run their teen programs in the summer. I went in, told them I’d give it a shot, and I haven’t looked back since.
What really draws me to this kind of work is how you can experiment and try neat things all the time. Teens are always changing their minds. One minute they’ll want to just hang out and be left alone and the next they are attempting to completely redesign your teen area. My brain sort of works like that too. I like to do neat stuff. So do teens. So we fit together really well.
What were you like as a teenager? What were you into?
I hung out in my room a lot, listened to every album by Weezer and The Beach Boys, taught myself how to write music, and played Nintendo. I look back on those times very fondly.
What were your favorite media and hobbies as a teen? Now?
Books: Hatchet, Batman: A Death in The Family, and Big Joe’s Trailer Truck
Video games: Anything Nintendo! The Legend of Zelda
Movies: The Empire Strikes Back, The Wedding Singer, and 2001: A Space Odyssey
Hobbies: Listening to music, reading about musicians, and video games
Honestly, I am pretty much the same person as I was as a teenager except now that I get to enjoy all of these things with my wife Haley and our two kids, Finn and Aero!
Can you tell us about your tattoos?
I thought, ‘Well, I really dig being a librarian and I want to show that to the world, so why not get a library tattoo?’ It has been awesome. It starts up a lot of conversations and it gets people talking about libraries. I have six tattoos total. I’m really partial to my tattoo of Link from The Legend of Zelda.
Why did you start your blog? Are you accomplishing with it what you want to?
I started blogging in around 2009. I just had a lot of ideas in my head that I wanted to share and blogging seemed like the best way to do it. My BA was in creative writing so I thought I’d put it to good use. My blog has led to some awesome things and for that I am very thankful.
Last year I got to travel to Hamburg, Germany to speak about video games in libraries with the Zukunftswerkstatt. It was so rad. I had never been to Europe and this trip really gave me a new perspective on things. I also made some wonderful friends.
What was Portland’s programming like before you got there?
I am actually the first even teen librarian at the Portland Public Library. My main goal when I got here was to focus on the community above everything else. Portland, ME, has an amazing community full of vibrant and creative people. I knew that if I wanted to make this library an awesome place for teens, I’d have to focus on their needs above everything else and tap into the awesomeness of the people around town to make this the best place it could be.
What are you most proud of there?
I’ve had a lot of really cool programs that I’m proud of (Make Music at the Library and Make Art for the Library are two) but what makes me the happiest are the hi-fives, fist bumps, and conversations that I have with the teens that come into the library every day. We’ll see anywhere from 50 to 100 kids a day and they’ll always walk by our desk and smile. That’s the coolest thing in the world.
My favorite things to do with the teens that use my library is to get them thinking about things creatively about the world around them. I like to give them tools and say, ‘let’s see what you can make—surprise me!’ I also really like to make the library a place that they equate with fun.
I was one of those teens that always fiddled with recording music (I still do to this day) and I knew how neat the experience was for me. [Make Music at the Library] was an attempt to basically recreate that for the teens of Portland what I used to do in my basement every weekend when I was 16! For the first year, we got a local hip-hop artist named Sontiago involved. She brought in some tracks and worked with the teens on composing lyrics and giving the songs structure. It worked out really well.
This past year we decided to try something new. We used a four track recorder and set up a synthesizer and a microphone. I was really impressed with the ideas they came up with.
I am also equally proud of the programs that got teens making other forms of art in the library. We collaborated with Maine College of Art; they gave us a student intern [who] we connected with teens, and together they made the original artwork that lives in our teen library. It’s really awesome because it really defines the space as ‘by and for the teens of Portland, ME.’
I also really dug having a make-your-own-video-game workshop. We collaborated with The Telling Room, an awesome local writing organization that works with teens. We had a six-week workshop where we got teens to think about the story/characters/plot/etc that all go into video game development. The catch was that we didn’t actually make any video games, we just focused on how important the story and the writing elements were.
Honestly, what I think is most rewarding are the moments after school where the teens flood into the library. We go from having about 3–5 teens in our area to having about 30–50 teens in the matter of moments. It’s a really beautiful and at the same time chaotic thing. But it really gives me the chance to talk to the teens, hang out with them, and really become their friend and someone they can trust.
Who have you collaborated the most at Portland? Was that easy for you?
Collaboration came very easy to me. I figured out at a pretty early age that ideas could only be taken so far when you work alone and if you want the best, you’ve got to reach out to the best people the surround you. I worked a lot with Michael Whittaker, Sonya Tomlinson, The Telling Room, and Portland Police Department Youth Services officers Ray Ruby and Bethany Murphy. These folks were the people who really took everything to the next level. Without them, there’s nothing.
What have you learned from your experiences?
No matter how big the task is that you accomplish, there’s always something bigger and better right around the corner. I’ve come away from programs and other things in my library thinking, “phew, that’s over, time to rest,’ only to be reminded by the teens I serve that there’s never a dull moment.
The projects that didn’t turn out exactly as I hoped taught me to pay better attention to my community.
For example, here in Portland, ME, my teens are crazy about soccer—playing it, watching it, reading about it, and more. I tried some programs when I first started here that were very typical teen library programs: craft nights, writing nights, movie nights, and none of that worked. I found out that my teens really wanted soccer! It brought them together as a community. It made them excited to be in the library and be together with people that share similar passions as them. [At] our weekly video game nights…we play the latest FIFA soccer game on the XBox 360. It never gets old because the teens love it so much. Listen closely to what your community wants and give them just that.
I also learned patience! Sometimes my ideas might be ahead of where the library currently is and that’s OK. Sometimes it best to put those ideas on the back burner for a bit and let them really develop.
Do you hear from kids who participated in your programming? What’s that like for you?
All the time! When people ask what it’s like being a teen librarian, I tell them that it’s about 95 percent hi-fives, fist bumps, and talking to teenagers about anything and everything. So yes, I’ve had the good fortune of having a really open stream of conversation with the teens at all times. I love this. It lets us know what we’re doing right and what we’re doing that’s not working out. It allows us to continue to grow at all times and best serve the teens that are in our library.
Next month you start your new job. Why Chattanooga, TN?
So many reasons! [Those] are just a few. There’s just a great buzz going around the city of Chattanooga and I am so excited to be part of it. Corrine Hill is bringing together an awesome team of people at the Chattanooga Public Library and they are all very dedicated to doing amazing things for the community.
Do you have a plan of action on what you’d like to do in Chattanooga?
I want to sit back, listen, and take everything in for a while. I want to understand the community, the teenagers, and really get an idea of my place on the Chattanooga Public Library team. Moving, integrating into a new community, and starting a new job is all very hard work and I don’t want to let it overwhelm me. Lots of breathing and lots of listening!
What was your reaction to being named a Library Journal Mover & Shaker?
My eyes got really big and I said ‘Wow!’ Honestly, I am so honored. I look at the list of the past recipients of the award and I’m just like ‘holy cow, there are so many awesome people doing so many wonderful things on this list.’ It’s just so nice to be included in a list with such wonderful people.
Also, I was so jazzed to get on the cover of LJ. My younger brother Brandon was on the cover of a magazine when he was a little kid and I was always bummed that I wasn’t on the cover with him! Now there’s balance in the family.
LJ pegged you as an “Advocate.” Do you think that’s accurate?
Totally accurate. I think librarians that work with children’s and teens always have to have advocacy in focus. We’re the community leaders for these age groups and many times we’re their biggest champions. We need to stand up and advocate for tools, materials, programs, and more that can give these folks the best possible experiences in the library and in the community.
What reactions and feedback have you gotten on being named?
Lots of hugs, smiles, and good vibrations. It has really been a lovely experience.
What do you think is the state of teen services right now, the big issues and challenges?
So I’ve been a teen librarian since 2007. At that time, it felt like teen services were really a one-person show. Libraries found someone who was passionate about working with teens, breaking down boundaries, and just wanted to do exciting things.
However, there’s only so far one person can go. After that, you have to start collaborating and building a team. I think that’s where it’s heading right now. Teen services will be less about one teen librarian working alone and doing amazing things and instead we’ll see teen services become something bigger…more people working together to do awesome things.
What do you think teen services should look like going forward?
Less solitary teen librarians doing amazing things, more teams of amazing people coming together and doing amazing things for teens! Seriously, I think collaboration is key. Look at The Beatles. Of course, all of their solo careers were super awesome; they made some great music. But think about the music they made together as The Beatles. Great things can happen when you get amazing people together. Libraries should bring amazing people together and see what happens.
What’s on your career wish list? What would you love to do that you haven’t done yet?
I spent a lot of time as a teenager in video arcades: great games, great people, and great conversation. I’d love to build a video arcade in a library someday. There’s just something so great about a bunch of people enjoying a video game together. It’s a great community building exercise.
What are the best professional development experiences that you have ever had?
The connections I have made through my blog, Twitter, Facebook, and listservs have been so key in helping me grow as a librarian and as a person. Without my connections with these folks (you know who you are), there would be nothing. I cherish these connections more than anything else and I highly suggest that everyone make connections just like these and to always have an open heart!