Posted by: bluesyemre | December 14, 2022

Teens, Trauma, and the Future of Libraries

Photo by cottonbro studio. Three teens dressed in black and white clothing standing in a gym. One teen in the center is holding a sign that says “I want to be myself”

Imagine if a library closed its doors from 3-5 p.m. every day, which just happens to be when the Senior Center across the street lets out for leisure time, and heading to the library was a popular activity. Now those seniors need to go somewhere else during that time.

Imagine if a library decided that they had too many behavior problems when disabled patrons were in the library, so they implemented a policy where all disabled patrons had to sign in at the door with an ID so that staff could track them and ban them if they damaged property or otherwise “misused” the library.

Imagine if a library restricted access to certain collections based on religious affiliation because leaders of the faith organizations felt that their congregation couldn’t handle certain material and needed to be protected from themselves.

Sounds bonkers, right? No one would stand for these policies, would they? The community would be in an uproar! Imagine treating people this way!

Well. In all of those examples, replace the population named with “teens”. And then sit with the fact that these are all real things that libraries have done/attempted to do/still do when dealing with teen patrons.

Photo by kat wilcox. Image of four teens sitting on a ledge in front of windows. Two teens are holding hands. One teen is drinking a beverage with a straw. Three teens are smiling. One teen looks pensive.

All those examples are pre-pandemic. And I’m extremely concerned that the ways libraries treat teen patrons is going to get worse and worse as time goes on, rather than better.

Let’s unpack this a bit. In 2016, library usage was high among Millennials, who in 2016 were between 18 and 35. (Which means they are now about 24-41.) So far there is no data I’ve found on Generation Z, who are currently between ages 7 and 22, and their library usage–and if the trends follow Millennial trends (which they are likely too, considering how in step Gen Z and Millennials are on many topics), many of them are likely coming to their library. The 7-11 year olds are probably being brought by their parents, and the older teens are making their way after school or on weekends.

What’s the context for these kids and teens? They have witnessed dozens of school shootings (some of them experienced a shooting first hand), are still living in a pandemic (which is not over yet), have witnessed hundreds of examples of violence against queer people and people of color, have possibly endured violence for being queer or a POC, endured a presidency that fueled racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic rhetoric, many of them have gotten sucked into alt-right pipelines via social media, and statistically many of these young people are living in poverty or enduring domestic violence–suffice it to say, this generation is traumatized. (Honestly, EVERYONE is traumatized right now, from the pandemic and violence and civil unrest, and when you add that on top of any personal, generational, and historical trauma, you have an extremely impacted population overall.)

How do people act when they are traumatized? Well, everyone reacts differently, but here are some common symptoms that can come out of trauma (list excerpted from linked article):

  • Irritability or chronic anger
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation, impatience or an inability to sit still
  • Feeling “out of body” or disconnected from other people
  • Becoming “shut down” or unable to accomplish goals
  • Struggles with depression or unhappiness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Engaging in risky, dangerous or unusual behaviors
  • Wanting to hurt yourself or others
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Feeling unsafe
  • Using drugs, alcohol or behaviors to numb anxiety or distress
  • Avoiding friends, loved ones or activities you used to enjoy

So. Pile that on top of the teen brain:

The rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until age 25 or so.

In fact, recent research has found that adult and teen brains work differently. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part. This is the part of the brain that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequencesTeens process information with the amygdala. This is the emotional part.

In teen’s brains, the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still developing—and not always at the same rate. That’s why when teens have overwhelming emotional input, they can’t explain later what they were thinking. They weren’t thinking as much as they were feeling. [emphasis added]https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=understanding-the-teen-brain-1-3051

When you add that all up, in our libraries right now we have traumatized teens with brains that aren’t able to think rationally. How do you think this is going to come out in their behavior? Fighting, damaging property, fucking around and finding out but never learning from finding out so they continue to fuck around, skateboarding in traffic or in the library–I’m sure you’ve heard examples of youth behavior or witnessed it yourself. It’s not just teens–younger kids are struggling too. Their social/emotional development is delayed, and this impact is going to be felt for years (maybe decades).

When you put these traumatized teens with differently thinking brains into a library that has never been good at serving teen patrons, what do you think is going to happen? Repeated negative interactions with library staff. Teens being targeted by security staff as soon as they walk in the door. Warnings. Bans. Suspensions. Calling the police.

All of that’s bad enough, but what’s worse is that I believe that libraries are actively destroying the next generation of library users when they do this. And the stakes are higher now than ever before. Teens are losing access to a fairly safe space when they’re banned from the public library. So where are they going to go instead? What are they going to do? Think about where you went as a teen. What you did. Not always the safest places or choices, right? And really, think about it: you have teens acting tough IN A LIBRARY. They could fuck around anywhere and they choose to do it at the library. SO TOUGH. Knocking books off shelves and sass talking staff. It reminds me of terrified feral kittens puffing themselves up and hissing. VEWY SCAWY.

When faced with this behavior, we can make a choice: we can recognize that their behavior is coming out of trauma and is a cry for connection, or we can see them as a problem and eradicate them accordingly.

Let’s assume these teens are hanging tough in the library because they were brought to the library as kids and remember how they felt then, and now, in their time of trouble, they’re returning to a place they loved.

Think about it: in the majority of youth services departments, the staff works incredibly hard to instill a love of literature, learning, and libraries in their young patrons. We dance with them in storytime, visit their classrooms to tell them about books we think they’ll love, help them find a resource so they can ace a homework assignment. We give them craft kits to work on their fine motor skills and we have snacks at our after school programs because so many kids are food insecure these days. Sometimes you get to watch them grow from little lapsit babies drooling happily during their favorite bounce to big fifth graders who can talk for twenty minutes about their favorite Star Wars character. We develop relationships so we can help kids succeed.

And then, many times, when they age out of youth services there is a vacuum. Many libraries still don’t even have a teen librarian, much less a teen services department. Sometimes an adult services department will have one teen librarian, or even just one staff member who recognizes the worth of teen patrons and tries to help them. But if there isn’t departmental or organizational support for serving teens, how long will that one staff member try to adequately serve teens? And so patrons who don’t have staff who advocate for them or a space where they can be themselves are seen as problems and get repeatedly shunned or banned until they finally decide that the library isn’t for them. All of that work done by the youth services staff has been effectively negated. This once cherished child is now despised during a time when they are already so insecure. And as much as it hurts the teens, it is going to hurt the library, too.

If the youth department goes up to eighth grade or even includes teen services, things are better. A great teen librarian backed by a youth department that knows about how children and teens develop can change lives. They can make sure that a queer teen can find books that tell them that it does get better. They can help a teen find their first job so they can start building a better outcome for themselves. They can provide a space and an environment where teens can safely work through their emotions and eventually learn how to manage their big feelings in a safe and appropriate way.

Staff like this and spaces like this have always been important, but right now, they are more important than ever. Teens have always needed trusted adults in their lives, and in an ideal world, library staff who work with youth and teens are perfectly positioned to fill this role. Today’s youth need support navigating a landscape of misinformation, indoctrination, and radicalization. They need window and mirror stories so they can develop empathy and feel less alone. They need a space where they can figure out who they want to be, which is always a messy and sometimes truly unpleasant process.

Teens today need libraries. And tomorrow’s libraries are going to need today’s teens to support them. Eventually these teens will be voting on your referendums. Their library usage (or lack thereof) impacts your door counts, circ stats, wifi sessions, and all other metrics that impact funding in one way or another. They will give public comments at board meetings or even hold a seat on your library board.

When they do, how are they going to feel about the library?

And how are you going to feel about your contributions to those feelings?

Photo by Monstera. A teen girl with brown skin and curly hair is looking down, her expression sad, twisting her fingers in what appears to be a nervous gesture. Two sets of hands are gesturing in a negative way.

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