YA Strike Zone August 2016

Born or Made

Anthony Bernier

Pop quiz: Which statement is more true: Successful YA librarians are more born or more made? Hint: this question asks for acknowledgment of a priority.

Some say, “Of course, it’s born passion! How can you possibly serve young people without being passionate about them?” Others, with similar conviction, say the opposite, “Of course, one needs study and preparation. How can you serve young people without knowing what to do?”

Herein lies much of what perpetually keeps YA services in the backwater of library and information services. If YA librarians themselves can’t prioritize what makes them successful, why should anyone else?

Among the very first things librarians understand about YA service is this “born” discourse: the natural capacity to establish connections and relationships. Librarians and library school students, no less than parents and administrators, talk about the absolute need for this natural, practically genetic, requirement. These natural connections frequently sort into two groups of predispositions: emotional and personal.

Sometimes, YA librarians are referred to as the people youth emotionally “gravitate” to; people the kids can “accept.” Conversely, librarians refer to themselves as having a natural capacity to accept young adults in all their flavors, the kind of people with whom, it is said, young adults can “feel comfortable.”  One might hear how teens “just have a special place in my heart” or how teens evoke “a special desire” out of a “special passion” or “need” to serve them. Less demonstrative reasons librarians emphasize the joy they find in working or “being with” young adults. At other times, more explicit emotional dimensions are cited: someone “just fell in love with them.”

Beyond these emotional predispositions reside more subjective and personal experiences explaining how one becomes “successful” with an age group so widely characterized as “difficult” and “challenging.” Administrators confess to constantly “being on the lookout” for these special and “unique” individuals to appoint into YA services. Managers look for people possessing particular kinds of backgrounds and experiences, such as parenting, youth volunteer experience, or people with particular kinds of high school backgrounds.

Librarians refer to having that “spark” and being a particular brand or “type” of person who exhibits special patience and energy, someone who “understands” young adults and knows “how to interact” with them, someone who “gravitates” toward YA culture, someone “hip” who “understands the teen lingo.”

Librarians also talk about people possessing particular habits of mind, “personality traits” capable of “reaching” young adults: they just “have a way.” Such people are valued as offering certain inborn gifts, temperaments, and capacities of patience and attitudes for working with this reputedly tricky and “chaotic” population. One librarian declared, “You can take all the course work in the world, but without these inborn skills, a YA librarian would have a very difficult time.”

Because, as we all know, “successful” YA librarians require naturally imbued empathy, emotional accessibility, and arrive on that first day of work with particular personal characteristics. Simple. Uncomplicated. Obvious.

Except it’s not true.

Many of these “born” assumptions echo the increasingly embattled discourse of what critics call “biological determinism” – meaning that behavior is largely determined by nature rather than experience. YA librarians know a variant of this theory called “youth development:” youth –the story goes–naturally require very specific “assets” in order to become thriving adults. These assumptions appear confirmed through otherwise uncontrollable hormonal behaviors, undeveloped brains, and sympathy for this “chaotic time of life.” Further, without our institutional interventions, they become at-risk, etc. The connecting assumption is that “natural” teen behaviors require “natural” attributes in librarians.

Rarely seen, however, are interpretations or critiques of how these naturally chaotic and challenging users suffer radically inequitable and historically insufficient institutional resources to meet their needs.

This naturally “special people” criteria, however, also fails to acknowledge how YA librarians actually become successful. This perspective values the more made than born argument. Here criteria fall into two categories: personal interest and executing professional responsibility.

Many believe successful YA professionalism develops through expanding on personal interest in serving teens. These professionals study young people because they are engaged in, or develop interests in, this population. Here, such terms as personal “drive” and “motivation to learn” reflect interests in examining, reading, and studying. These people express personal satisfaction in learning about young people – most frequently demonstrated in personal enthusiasm for YA fiction.

The second characteristic of those who believe that successful YA librarianship is achieved more through making than possessing the natural “YA gene” consider it their professional obligation to take a service population seriously – regardless of any inherent predispositions for (or against) young people, and even regardless of personal interest.

Yes, successful YA librarianship can evolve without “loving” young adults.

Librarians responding to professional obligation approach public service with very different vocabulary. Their contributions to the field come through the pursuit of knowledge, skills, and techniques for working with the population they serve. These librarians take initiative for developing their own skills and seek new inputs to continually learn about tools and techniques and ideas. They acknowledge how young adults require specialized skills from professionals, more specialized training, reflection on and evaluation of their own experiences and practices, and a disciplined dedication to craft. Such professionals read as much about young people as what young people read.

What these dispositions share, however, both “born” and “made,” is that they too narrowly define “success,” if they define it at all. Previous essays for this column have addressed how YA librarianship continues to lack a clearly-understood success measure. But when considering how to prioritize what constitutes a successful YA professional, both the “born” and “made” approaches fall short.

Clearly, professionalism ought to not rely on inherent natural tendencies. Why pay professional salaries; why take YA classes in library school; why attend library school at all?

On the other hand, while assuming professional responsibility for one’s public value obviously soars above “born” qualities, it, too, comes up short.

Successful YA librarianship today must incorporate concerns well beyond youth or youth culture. They must be more active in overcoming institutional and historic obstacles in advancing institutional change, not simply evaluating the summer reading program.  They must engage and influence entire staffs (security guards, too!) not just after-school favorites. They must fitfully engage institutions serving young adults – beyond schools.

If YA professionals fail to gain exposure and experience allocating budgets, for instance, or interviewing and training new staff, integrating TAG involvement across all areas of library operations, if they do not seek leadership appointments on staff committees and associational work, little of their born or made assumptions hold much promise for advancing YA professionalism.

Credentialed professionalism offers value to the public in three basic capacities that people without formal training can’t. First, it offers a commitment to the profession’s ethical principles (neither born nor made criteria extend beyond this). Second, formal training promises qualifications to work in any capacity in any information environment (paraprofessionals, volunteers, and people with BAs can’t). Third, professionalism assumes responsibility for the development of the institution and its staff (supervising, management, and training).

YA librarians do not get a “pass” because they may love working with youth. They are not entitled to a special pleading because they enjoy YA fiction, focusing only on youth inadequately addresses the institutional, historic, and cultural challenges “dealing with” young people require.

Librarians run libraries. And the degree they are not prepared to do so is the degree to which they put their own careers, their professional standing, and the institution, at risk – no matter how old the people they serve.

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.

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