Sunday, February 14, 2010

Cooler than thou

In her recent post "The Problem With Cool" on the YALSA blog, Sarah Ludwig points out that it isn't "coolness" that is important in working with teens, but rather being genuine and welcoming.

While both the children's librarians and YA librarians in my library system come in all types, shapes, ages, colors, and styles, it always seemed to me that we children's librarians, as a group, tended to be a bit more warm and fuzzy than those edgy, stylish YA librarians. I mean, you've got to admire YA librarians - they work with teens! They sometimes color their hair outrageous colors or wear ironic-hip clothing! My most essential fashion item as a children's librarian was always Interesting Socks, which kids at storytime never failed to comment on.

I always figured that all a children's librarian needed, besides an encyclopedic knowledge of children's books, was to be a kind person who likes and respects kids. I've seen young children's librarians and old ones, wildly outgoing ones and quiet ones, warm ones and elegant ones - and the best ones are genuinely nice.

But don't teens expect something more? I know that when I was a teen myself, I always felt that I fell well below the mark set by my cohorts - one of the big reasons, of course, why I didn't become a YA librarian. I remember being looked at and Found Wanting. Or so I thought at the time. Anyway, isn't it possible that teens do indeed expect coolness, or at least someone they can recognize as a person and not a faceless adult, in their YA librarian?

I asked my daughters, ages 15 and 18, what qualities they'd want in their YA librarian. Both of them almost immediately said, "To be nice." They also felt that a young librarian would a plus, but when I posed the scenario of a middle-aged person in sensible tweed pants and sweater (someone like, say, myself) offering his or her services, they said that this would be perfectly fine, as long as this person had a good knowledge and understanding of their library and literature needs.

I didn't really go to the library as a teen. My mother was a librarian and brought me home plenty of books, and occasionally I took the bus down to the Central Library where I now work to browse the science fiction paperback racks or do research assignments. But I interacted as little as possible with librarians (or anyone - out of shyness, mostly) and would never have joined a teen library program or club, even had one been offered. So it's hard for me to understand the motivation of kids that do - clearly they are very different teens from the one I once was.

But judging by the two teens in my family, coolness is not an essential feature of YA librarians. Sarah Ludwig is right - it seems that being genuine and welcoming is most important. And surely a respect for teens and a genuine appreciation (or at least thorough knowledge) of their literature and culture is essential as well.

So thankfully, pink hair is not a prerequisite! But on other hand, it can't hurt. Unless you are witheringly deemed to be trying too hard. Oh heck - as a children's librarian, I knew I couldn't lose if I was wearing my bright orange bumblebee socks and striped bee earrings!

Well, if one cannot be cool, one can be kind.

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