YA Strike Zone October 2015
The Future’s Not Ours to See
Que sera, sera
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que sera, sera
I remember being terrified, as a boy, listening to Doris Day sing this haunting refrain in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). In the film, Day’s voice lilted softly through marble halls and ricocheted throughout a massive concert hall until it reached the ears of hero/dad Jimmy Stewart, just in time, of course, for him to come to the rescue. What can you say? That was 1956.
Today, however, it occurs to me that this song serves as an instructive lesson for young adult librarians, even if, perhaps, it does so a bit too blithely.
So much of our professional literature, our documented associational aspirations, the content in our workshops and training sessions, the claims we make in grant applications and monthly reports, the presentations we make to the public and to students, even the statements we make among each other in meetings and on councils and at conferences, all assume or state explicitly how libraries develop young people into future mature and thriving adults.
Library collections illustrate this assumption in how so much of it aims to “prepare them” for the coming labor market, for instance, and the global economy beyond. Library programs attempt to help young adults “develop their skills.” Librarians and library staff position themselves as models, mentors, and guides to that distant land we call “adulthood.” And our technological offerings appeal to administrators, schools, and parents alike in helping young people cross the digital divide into that brave new world always and forever ahead.
But is this assumption about our role in preparing young adults for “the future” justified? Is it something we can shape or control? Is it anything we can actually even prove?
If, as I believe, the answer to these questions is an adamant “No,” then YA librarianship needs to realign its claims, assumptions, and beliefs about itself and refocus on what it can justify doing, what it can shape and control, and what it can prove in bringing value to the culture and to young adults in particular. In other words, what is it that libraries can shape, control, prove, and improve in what we do for young adults in the present and while they are young?
It’s a fine and good thing, of course, to always model mature adult behavior for young people. For librarians, it is important to model professional conduct.
Still, librarians are agents of local government and largely civil servants. They are information professionals. As such, however, they have no responsibility, accountability, and certainly no service metrics for establishing, claiming, or demonstrating any direct impact on anyone’s future. In fact, ethically, librarians generally pride themselves in claiming that what people do with library resources is explicitly none of the library’s business. And it never has been.
Yet, I have seen library grants promise that afterschool poetry workshops reduce “gang violence.” I have read libraries claim that tutoring reduces misbehavior at home, even “dramatically.” I have heard that reading clubs improve chances of graduation and that libraries reduce urban crime . . . because, as we all know, cities with thriving libraries can demonstrate lower youth crime rates than cities without, right?
Of course they can’t. Predictably, none of these claims offer a shred of evidence – how could they? How is it even possible to directly connect something as episodic as attending a few library sessions to very specific kinds of behavioral outcomes even in the near-term, to say nothing of “the future?”
Further, what happens on the day the public comes calling for evidence that the bond measure and tax increase passed two years ago did not deliver on these bright and shiny promises? What, pray tell, does the library do now? What credibility will it have? What legitimacy will it have in its own future?
The fact that the public has not, historically, held libraries accountable for making such claims does not guarantee it won’t. More importantly, however, libraries have a big enough job, and an important enough job, in serving young adults in the present, now, while they are actually young. It’s a job that should be done without constantly pushing young people into or making empty and unsupportable promises about the future.
The librarian’s job in introducing dynamic and complex resources to enrich the lives of young adults today is challenging enough. Plenty of signs point to how professionals already have much work ahead of them on this score.
Collections focused on young adults in the present would respond much more closely to current youth experience than they do now – and this includes libraries finally valuing the many forms of youth-produced literacy enactments (zines, youth journalism, poetry, plays, music, film, among many other creative forms), rather than relying nearly exclusively on materials produced by huge corporate publishers.
Programs would re-focus on hosting, highlighting, curating, and celebrating the many dimensions of local youth experience today rather than relying on massively generalized and bleached national campaigns, themes, images, and content.
YA volunteer efforts would offer youth opportunities to exercise and practice skills required to compete for their first paid job, rather than distant college entrance or some future economy.
All of these present-focused activities promise new and rational opportunities for libraries to measure value, actually document and prove “best practice,” and point the way to constant improvement. Efforts focused on the present are much more easily accounted for, measurable, and demonstrable, to say nothing of how much more relevant to young adults themselves, than rhetoric about utopian “mature adults,” crimeless futures, and empty claims about how libraries produce kids that are, in the farcical words of Garrison Keillor, “all above average.”
Libraries need not adopt a Que sera, sera – Whatever will be, will be attitude about the future, but the higher value of YA librarianship lies in serving and celebrating its population in their here and now.
That’s a big enough job.
Anthony Bernier teaches at San Jose State’s School of Library and Information Science where he concentrates on research and teaching on the administration of equitable services with young people. A fourteen-year YA specialist librarian and administrator veteran and former chair of YALSA’s New Directions Task Force, he recently edited The Collected Wit and Wisdom of Dorothy M. Broderick, a Festschrift honoring Broderick, VOYA’s cofounder (VOYA Press, 2013). He lives in Oakland (CA) and rides a BMW R1100RT.