Libraries Should Embrace Tweens, Not Shun Them

Several recent incidents highlight the need for more informed and compassionate policies when it comes to tweens in the public library.

Public libraries strive to be havens for their communities. All library professionals should aim to bring in underserved populations. Over the last year or so, however, there have been several high-profile instances of libraries ostracizing some of the community members that need them most, namely, tweens and young teens.

In Flossmoor, IL , the public library found itself with what could be characterized as a good problem: a large number of kids were suddenly coming to the library after school. The kids were unattended, with no parents or caregivers present. According to reports, the kids were too loud, and became disrespectful, even threatening. Library staff felt their only option was to require students to sign in with a school ID before gaining entry to the public library. Once the news hit social media, library professionals expressed concern. Many argued that such a policy breached the American Library Association's Library Bill of Rights, was an affront to patron privacy, and a logistical nightmare to enforce. Before the decision was confirmed, library officials changed their game plan and decided against requiring ID.

In Franklin Lakes, NJ, a reality TV star accused her local library of asking her and her son, who has autism, to leave the library. According to the mom, the library claimed that his presence was disrupting other users. A video was shared showing the child's behavior. Many librarians didn't agree with the library's decision. Others believe there may be more to the story than what's been shared. In the end, the library issued a statement claiming it was an isolated and justified incident.

In Aurora, IL, an art show at the library featured a piece entitled "Hijab means Jihad" that received a lot of outrage and negative feedback from community members. The library and artist originally justified the controversial piece as satire, but many disagreed. After three weeks on display, an apology from the board president and the mayor was issued and the piece was taken down. Library staff promised to take sensitivity training. Though this incident affected the community at large, not just tween and teen patrons, it illustrates an all-too-common gap in issues of cultural sensitivity that directly impact how patrons view their public library and whether they feel welcome and safe in those spaces.

While each community and situation is unique and will require different solutions, there are some basic accommodations that can head issues off at the pass and make the library a more welcoming, inviting place, especially for some of our most vulnerable users: tweens.

Spaces

Dedicated teen spaces have become fairly commonplace in libraries, but now middle school/tween spaces are becoming a trend. While having their own space can sometimes be a burden to manage, it's still an important and invaluable asset in the library. While it does corral noise and rowdy behavior into a single area, it can do so much more than that. It's like putting up a big banner saying "YOU ARE WELCOME HERE" in your department. You are giving them a share of ownership. You are giving them accountability. You are giving them a place of their own. While the prospect of a tween-only space may frighten some librarians and administrations, it's worth the time and investment. At my library, we've had our share of naughty behavior, like an old sandwich baggy thrown into our monopoly board game. But we've also seen younger kids eagerly counting down until they are able to use the room, and sad high schoolers reluctant to leave.

Inclusion

Librarians want to make sure that everyone that comes through the doors gets the most out of the library. Sometimes you need to make exceptions and accommodations to achieve that goal. These exceptions may include accepting an adult into a youth program if they feel that matches their competency level, or allowing an adult to accompany a younger patron with special needs in a "no adults allowed" area, especially if it's not being utilized at the time.

Some kids need time and exposure to acclimate to a new environment. Your library can assist with this adjustment by adding a social story to your website to prepare young users for what to expect. You can also provide tools, toys, and other objects that help provide sensory relief for anyone overwhelmed. With more libraries changing to bright cheerful colors, adding play and noise-making objects and toys, and even the ever-powerful Dyson hand dryers, it can be intimidating and just too much for those with sensory processing issues. Having some weighted pillows, squishy balls, and noise-cancelling headphones can help bring senses back to neutral.

Understanding

News, politics, and school and familial pressures can be overwhelming for young people today. Libraries have created campaigns to help create a welcoming environment for all that enter. Hosting panels and programs that promote understanding and compassion can help start respectful conversations. Librarians can run programs that calm and empower kids, or, at the very least, provide a distraction from the stress of the outside world.

Kids, especially middle schoolers, have a hard enough time figuring out who they are as it is. They come into a library possibly to get away from reality, escape into a book, or just hang out with friends. They don't need another place where adults are critical of what they look like, how they talk, or what they're wearing. Enjoy the fact that they chose to be in your library and take advantage of this with targeted programming, readers' advisory, and the chance to build solid relationships with future library advocates.

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