YA Strike Zone December 2016

YALSA’s Cynical Heart: Reproducing the Adultist Agenda

Anthony Bernier

American Library Association’s (ALA) recent dog-piling on young people for their incapacity to discern “fake news” got me thinking.

In its 22 November issue of ALA Direct, that “tightly curated” e-newsletter, the association pointed uncritically to a recent Stanford study cherry-picking on young people for media skills that our last election cycle showed challenged adults as well – with far more dire consequences. Unfortunately, cherry-picking on youth appears endemic to ALA.

YALSA, too, continually and cynically “punches down” on young adults.

I’ve been doing some cherry-picking of my own. The same deficit vision of young people on display in ALA Direct reappears in YALSA’s new “Summer Learning Approach.” This new programming recommendation indulges curricular goals unsuited for public libraries along with the always ill-defined “connected learning” agenda, as well as the desperate and equally specious “summer slide” cliché that remains contested among researchers. Further, a critical review of the association’s Core Professional Values statement yields the same deficit-based assumptions about youth: “responding to teen needs,” “builds and maintains knowledge of teens’ social, emotional, mental, and physical development” etc., etc., etc.

For all the professional capacity represented in these institutional documents, there is no attention to end user value. Moreover, the association’s current “Re-envisioning YALSA to Support Our New Mission” (see YALSA Blog 3 November 2016) reproduces what YALSA usually does – and says nothing about value for young adults.

But YALSA’s cynical punching down on youth gets worse than mere institutional aspirations. From another official blog post, we learn about “Bullying Prevention Month.” The cynicism is so deeply ingrained in this discourse that the conversation assumes only youth-on-youth bullying.

Teen birth rates have plummeted, crime rates are at all-time lows, and graduation rates are at all-time highs. Yet official YALSA blog posts continue to sound the alarm about these tired moral panics. Some teen girls do get pregnant. But teen moms gave birth to both Bill Clinton and Barak Obama. Can’t YALSA at least acknowledge that the rate has dropped?

Such official statements are not simply meaningless. They produce a dire, misleading vision of increasingly dangerous youth, self-destructive, and/or deficient – requiring all manner of “preventions” that libraries cannot prove they meaningfully address.

Why ALA and YALSA feel compelled to constantly regurgitate the “teen problem” wrapped in the same-old prevention talking points we’ve heard from pedestrian sources for decades is beyond me.

Imagine talking about any other social group this way.

Why don’t librarians just Google any of the thousands of sites dispensing these worn-out homilies over the last quarter century?

Librarians are supposed to be better than that. YA librarians, in particular, should be up in arms protesting anti-youth bigotry, not reproducing it!

Library professionals need to model using the best information, advancing innovative and critical thinking, not recycling clichés, stereotypes, and phony moral panics.

The most recent flavor of privileging youth incapacities appears in this November’s YALSA Town Hall summons. Come one, come all! Hear about how libraries can assuage the kiddies’ hurty feelings about what the adult electorate did to the country! Partisan politics aside; I can’t fathom YALSA calling a Town Hall had the other candidate won!

What evidence connects library service to demonstrably “helping youth cope with the challenges, stress, and even threats,” election or no. Further, the Town Hall promises resources to “build empathy and understanding among youth” – all easy to measures, right?

Wrong. Libraries are not positioned or prepared for these things. Nor do young adults need fixing from libraries.

Rather than chasing these indefinable emotional concerns or electoral politics, what if Town Halls punched up instead and developed audiences of professionals concerned with the widespread poverty more and more youth live in since 2008? What if YALSA concerned itself with collecting information for teachers about how schools and the FBI are eroding their students’ civil rights and intellectual freedoms? What about fortifying local organizations with information regarding youth immigration policy or defending religious minority rights?

Youth don’t need another do-gooding adult agenda punching-down on them.

Have you seen the news? From coast to coast youth are organizing in middle and high schools, in churches and synagogues, they’re marching in the streets and in the hallways, they’re on the radio and all over the Internet in creative and innovative ways connecting through their own interest groups – be they age, race, social class, sexual orientation, religion, or region.


San Francisco teens protest for their right to vote. San Francisco Youth Commission

In my region of the country, youth won their right to elect school board members (Berkeley). They gained 48 percent support for the right to vote in San Francisco elections. Just listen to them testify before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last May [http://sanfrancisco.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=10&clip_id=25297]

“Sure,” you say, “That’s the Bay Area.” But there’s a national campaign growing to enfranchise youth from age 16 – from Broward County in Florida to New York. Two Maryland cities have already enfranchised youth (Takoma Park and Hyattsville) and seventeen states already allow seventeen-year-olds to vote in primaries and caucuses. And this isn’t even to mention the twenty other countries in which citizens under eighteen already vote in national elections!

Given that high school students across the country peacefully protested November’s election – the assumption that YA librarians need to teach young adults anything about tolerance or empathy or civic engagement, if not blatant anti-youth bigotry and hubris, is at least deeply cynical.

Imagine that! The profession’s only association even nominally dedicated to serving YAs is institutionally cynical about their own users!

I say “nominally” because, first, despite our rhetoric about “serving young adults,” libraries historically seek to mollify adults more than young adults (in service development, execution, and evaluation). Despite lectures about “what we offer” it’s really been adults that libraries aim to please – to “help” youth “develop into mature adults,” “to succeed in school,” “to stay off the streets,” “to learn skills.” None of this youth development agenda speaks to their interests as individuals or as collective social agents in the here and now. Meanwhile, they are defining their own interests and exercising their own voices.

They rarely do it, however, within libraries. And, truth be told, they never have.

Second, while defining YA services through adult concerns, libraries have concentrated only on themselves. As YALSA’s aspirations document, libraries continue to count only self-reported “output measures” – how many books, computer stations, hours of tutoring, program head counts – but not young adult outcomes ­– their experiences, chances, meanings, and the value they derive using libraries. Instead, they go on creating their own meanings entirely independent of an institution presumably dedicated to serve them!

Despite all the claims libraries may feel forced into making, YA librarians really need do only two things:  1) contribute to the institution’s overall effectiveness with young adults — through ethical conduct, operations, and insuring delivery of professional informational services; and, 2) connect information and young adults based upon their interests.

And that’s hard enough.

Society does not and cannot hold libraries accountable for addressing large, ill-defined, or mythical social behaviors. It is not the responsibility of libraries to do so – the story is the same for school libraries (though here, curricular goals do matter). And libraries exhibit no small amount of cynicism claiming they can.

At some point libraries and YA librarians need to reconcile the difference between adultist agendas and rhetoric of assisting deficient young people in “growing up” versus the role they could play in enhancing and enriching the experience of youth people in the present.

One is about the library’s legacy; the other must be about its destiny.

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.




  1. Professor Bernier,
    Are you aware of the National Youth Rights Association? (www.youthrights.org) This is an organization that is intimately involved in both #16tovote and the Maryland voting initiatives you mentioned in this article. The way you write about youth issues, it sounds like you’re one of us already. If not, I think you are certainly a kindred spirit.

  2. Happy holiday’s John! Thanks for bringing up NYRA.
    Actually, it was my presentation, along with those of Mike Males and Bill Bystricky (former Ex Dir of NYRA) that sparked the San Francisco Youth Commission into action – nearly three years ago. The three of us worked on a presentation building upon Scotland and Bill’s successful campaigns in the east. The SFYC was a bit slow to see the possibilities… but then they just sparked into action like a wild fire. I was exciting as hell to see.
    But, yes, I’m a kindred spirit indeed!
    So glad you found this essay!

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