YA Strike Zone February 2016

The Global Pulse: International Influences on YA Practice

Anthony Bernier

I come not to praise the superiority we feel about library service in the United States, but to bury it. This issue of VOYA (February 2016) concentrates on how technology continues to move ever more rapidly to the center of an information professional’s life in the U.S. In this constant narrative of technological advance, however, less apparent is how little we learn about the provision of YA services from other places.

Professional curiosity ought to, inherently, take advantage of the growing transnational flows of ideas and communication. To not inform such curiosity represents either a stunning culture of laziness or, worse, supreme arrogance—an assumption that the U.S., by definition, simply owns the apex of YA library service.

Increasingly, there are fewer and fewer excuses for this incuriosity and greater and greater professional need to pursue global experiences.

This coming August 11th, the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) is co-hosting a one-day “satellite” conference, “Child and Youth Reading in the Transition to a Digital Culture: Emerging Perspectives on the Role of Libraries” in Northern California. (https://iflasatellite2016.wordpress.com/) The conference, sponsored by IFLA’s Libraries for Children and Young Adults unit, promises to bring librarians the world over to our shores—no passport required! Many international attendees will then fly to Columbus, Ohio, to participate in the annual IFLA Congress, between August 13-19, to meet, learn from, and interact with colleagues from all over the globe. (http://2016.ifla.org/)

In the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to establish relationships in South Korea, Africa, and Germany. In some cases, these relationships required travel, in others, not.

Each experience sharpened and qualified my own comparative perspectives of what our profession claims to accomplish here “at home.” Not all countries, for instance, address youth services with relatively high paid graduate-degree-holding professionals. Not all countries envision or construct youth as mere at-risk candidates for adult status or projects for “development.” Neither does the U.S. corner the market on all of the important institutional resources required to support youth services professionalism.

Each year, the South Korean government invites international professionals to address youth librarians in a nationwide two-day symposium. I served as the keynote speaker in 2013. Rather than conducting more costly and redundant regional staff training, the National Library hosts this symposium to invigorate their entire youth services staff (largely paraprofessionals by our definitions) with new ideas and energy. The well-hosted event facilitates individual and panel presentations from invited guests (I attended with speakers from the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia) as well as various receptions, interchanges, and tours (especially the huge National Library for Children and Young Adults—something we certainly don’t have in the U.S.). Guests enjoyed world-class hospitality (to a degree rarely experienced in the U.S.) and met with top officials of South Korea’s National Library. The efficiency and scope of this event offers much to teach the U.S.

I also serve on the Program Advisory Board of Zambia’s Lubuto Library Partners, based in Washington, D.C. No travel required. (http://www.lubuto.org/) This award-winning grass-roots non-profit organization builds and operates youth libraries in impoverished Zambian communities while eschewing institutionally-derived top-down service models. Instead, Lubuto works closely with local communities, government agencies, and most especially with their end-users—young people—in developing and evaluating services. In this particular instance, my own research in developing evidence-based, purpose-built library spaces with youth well-illustrates cross-national learning reciprocity. Lubuto reports having benefitted from my research in developing youth spaces and design processes.


Reading and community-building experience, Lubuto Library Partners, Zambia

Lubuto serves as a most instructive example of enacting library services “up” from the end user, rather than from canned “model” programs, an example I find valuable in teaching my YA services classes. Despite constant rhetoric, the evolution of truly user-centered YA service remains a vision still lacking in much professional practice in the U.S.

Such experiences with Asia and Africa also offer a way to observe how youth in many cultures are not regarded merely as problems to be solved or fixed or as incomplete adults—targets of endless “skill development.” These international experiences teach us that this prevailing approach is not a necessary or biologically-determined circumstance and thus inform a critique of the universal claims and antique notions of “youth development” in youth librarianship in the West and particularly in the U.S.

Last summer, I visited Germany’s International Youth Library (Internationale Jugendbibliothek) in Munich. (http://www.ijb.de/en/about-us.html) Professional librarians  and bibliographers there host dozens of international research fellows, scholars, authors, and visitors each year as they take advantage of this globally unique collection of contemporary and historical youth literature.

Jugendbiblioteck, Munich

Internationale Jugendbibliothek, Munich, Germany

It’s difficult to understand why youth specialists in the U.S. do not value this as a career-defining destination or professional pilgrimage. Few youth professionals I encounter report ever hearing of it.

A key point here is that important institutions, such as IFLA, South Korea’s National Library for Children and Young Adults, the Lubuto Library Project, and Germany’s International Youth Library, exist beyond the shores of the American Library Association. (Gasp!) I argue that LIS in the U.S. does not define the pinnacle, the often-assumed exceptional instance, of library practice. Often we have more to learn from others than we have to teach. Professionals need and deserve broader and more globally-influenced experiences from wherever youth and libraries exist.

As some these examples also highlight, one need not necessarily even leave the U.S. to gain exposure or build relationships with information professionals, organizations, or institutions abroad.  Further, as libraries in the West migrate away from legacy buildings, professionals can more and more begin to envision themselves as contributing to the information experiences of library users through their skills in many different environments . . . environments like the rest of the world.

Bernier headshotAnthony Bernier teaches at San Jose State University’s School of Information where he conducts research, teaches, and publishes on the administration of equitable services with young people. A fourteen-year YA specialist librarian and veteran administrator, he is a former chair of YALSA’s New Directions Task Force, served a four-year term on ALA’s Committee on Accreditation (COA), and published a Festschrift honoring VOYA co-founder Dorothy M. Broderick in 2013. He lives in Oakland, California, and rides a BMW R1150RT.



Leave a Reply