Libraries are supposed to be safe havens, the last refuge of civilization, a place of reading and knowledge. They’re still all those things. More and more, librarians are seeing at-risk teens, either hiding from violence or causing it. Homeless, abused, pregnant, or hungry, these teens show up looking for something—friends, an escape from home life, a connection to the outside world. What can librarians do when these young people show up on their doorsteps?
The librarians I’ve encountered in urban centers around the country are, by and large, a savvy and compassionate bunch, who have to be engaging, streetwise, and open to the unexpected. Beyond their duties as librarians, they act as part social worker, friend, and guidance counselor. A few of them talked with me about their experiences with at-risk teens in their libraries.
Xandi DiMatteo/teen librarian
Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County, Rochester, NY
We have a lot of teens who are homeless because they struggle with issues of drug addiction, gender and sexual identity, and behaviors that their families can’t cope with. Many come to Teen Central, because we have a great mix of youth professionals: two full-time YA librarians, youth mentors, and a digital media lab. We all bring something to the mix: compassion, tolerance, tough love, or just the latest version of Mortal Combat.
Many teens find acceptance and guidance in our room and develop a “library family.” Once, I found a young man upstairs who had a troubled family life and had suffered a neurological head injury. I invited him downstairs and a group of teen dudes adopted him, took him to the mall, got him new clothes, and helped him get his stuff together. He wouldn’t have done that without the library family.
Rochester currently has a huge problem with teens fighting at our new [city] transit center. When something is brewing, kids come in to get on Facebook to blow it up. One Saturday, 50 to 60 kids showed up. We had two staff members trying to keep it cool.
Library school doesn’t prepare you for the things that happen. A kid got shot and went to the library because it was a designated Safe Place, even though he was previously banned for fighting.
With other kids, you’re a reality check. They complain about how awful their lives are and you’re like, “OMG, are your parents beating you?” “Oh no, none of that…” We often provide perspective. We give them a safe place to land or a boot on their butt. I personally nagged three kids into graduating. They all came back, saying, “I wouldn’t have done it without you getting on my case.”
Carrie Dietz/manager of central youth services/teen services
St. Louis (MO) Public Library
[Our] libraries are dedicated safe places and when teens come in, we can call for help or help them figure out what to do. We let them make calls if they really need to have someone come in. Most of them come from troubled lives, and the library is their refuge. [They’re] either from gangs or homeless, wearing the same clothes every day. They come in hungry and ask if we have any snacks today.
The majority are good kids. There’s this one kid, Demiko. He got in a fight at school [and] broke a cello in the band room. He was in the library every day while he was suspended, and one of our police officers said, “What are you doing here?” He said he was kicked out of school. The officer brought him lunch every day. We got to know Demiko. He went back [to school] when his suspension was lifted. But he’s been coming to the library ever since. And his personality has totally changed. It’s amazing to see.
We have a case worker who’s been bringing this boy, John, into the library on Fridays. He had a pretty high library fine, like $40. We have this program called Read Down Your Fine, and for every book you read, your fine goes down. So he started doing that and got his fine down, but still had a ways to go because he reads very slowly. Our manager waived [the last] $27. Now, he keeps coming back.
Having a dedicated teen room and staff makes the biggest difference. A lot of teens get to know each other from playing video games together. Many are friends now [and] hang out at each other’s houses when the library closes.
LeVette Fuller/teen services associate
Shreve Memorial Library, Shreveport, LA
When I do outreach programs at schools, I ask the teens, “How many here get harassed by security at the library or hear, ‘I don’t want any trouble from you?’” Almost all. When the kids see the guards, they walk out. The biggest [hurdle is] gaining teens’ trust. We have to get our branch managers to retrain security people on how they react to kids coming in.
We know the kids, they respect us, and we can talk about any issue and they behave themselves. Treat them like humans and they act like humans. Treat them like criminals and well, you know. The biggest thing we can bring to them is empathy and understanding. Just the simple act of talking goes a long way. You need to be approachable, so they know someone there cares about them.
Amy Cheney/teen librarian
Alameda County (CA) Library; Alameda County Library Juvenile Justice Center
I had this old laptop that kids [signed out] in my college prep program. I had one kid who really wanted to learn typing. So I got him this computer and put the typing program on it for him. A new kid [comes] in and they start fighting over the computer. So I pull them apart and say to the new kid, “You know, I really put this computer together for Kevin so he could learn to type. He needs it for a couple weeks, then you can have the computer when he’s done so you can type your papers, OK?”
They both looked at me like I was crazy. Someone pulled me aside and said, “I’ve been to their houses, and they don’t even have a bed to sleep on. Of course they’re fighting for something they’ve never had before, and so what you said doesn’t make sense to them.” I went back to the kids and said, “Look, I have an extra computer, let me go get it, then you can each have one.” You learn as you go, and you try to make things work instead of reacting to fights.
I see a kid who comes in every day and I’ve been feeding him books for a while and one day he comes in and says, “I read 11 books!” And he has this big grin on his face. Before that, he’d never ever read a book. It’s a big part of what makes this job worthwhile. One kid, Jonathan, was in juvie for two years but came in for my college prep program. Now he’s heading to UC Berkeley and was on the Tavis Smiley Show!
Andria Amaral/young adult services manager
Charleston (SC) County Public Library
We were so personally affected by the recent shooting in the church here in Charleston. The night that we heard about the shooting, we were thinking of ways the community could respond, and then we found out that one of our own [librarian Cynthia Hurd] was killed. She had been at a meeting with us yesterday and now she was gone. Our library is a block away from the Emmanuel church, so it affected everybody. For several weeks afterward, the whole mood of everybody was very down, very solemn.
We had an older teenage boy come in a few days after the shooting who told us that he’d known Cynthia and just wanted to let us know that what we are doing here is just so important, and that we had to keep reaching out to kids. It was so important to him growing up to have this place to go to, and that’s why he was there now.
Teens are the underdogs of the library. I always say that when they’re little kids, everyone loves them. Then all of a sudden, they turn into teenagers and everyone’s like, “Eww, scary teenagers!” When I got hired here, everyone said, “Ooh, so you’re the one they hired to work with the teenagers. You must be really brave.” I heard this so many times that I started to worry about what I had gotten myself into. But they’re normal teenagers, who surprise and delight me every day.
All teens are at risk. They’re at risk of falling prey to ignorance, hatred, violence, and all the other negative influences that surround them. They’re at risk of failing to take advantage of the opportunities and resources available to them. Everything we do here in the Teen Lounge serves at-risk teens. The rules of the teen lounge are respect the space, respect the staff, respect each other. And that’s all we try to encourage.
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