When I first started as a full-time librarian, I inherited the plans for a teen space. We’d never had one before. The way that our current building is structured made it really difficult to carve out any space at all, so I was grateful for what I had received. The plus side was that the teens would finally have their own area! The minuses, well … they were numerous, but workable.
In my YA literature and service class in college (yes, I only took one because I thought I was going to be a cataloger!), we briefly discussed how there is a bias against teens, particularly loud teens. There’s a perception that teens are dangerous and wildly promiscuous wherever they go. I distinctly remember another student and I laughing that MCR’s “Teenagers” is the theme song of most adults (that is a freakishly good album, though).
So I knew I was going to have challenges to teen behavior simply because the Teen Space is smack-dab in the middle of the library and directly across from our Adult Reference desk. Due to staffing, I’m not able to be in the Teen Space at all.
I quickly noticed that many staff members relished enforcing piddly rules with the teens. For example, there is an old rule that states “no feet on furniture.” I understand that–here in the slushy Wisconsin winters, please keep your salt-laden boots off of the upholstery, please and thank you. But one of the items we purchased for the Teen Space was an ottoman. Please correct me if I am wrong, but the purpose of an ottoman, footstool, or whatever you call it is to place your feet on it.
Otherwise it is a useless piece of furniture. While adults who used the space in the mornings while kids were at school were more than welcome to use the ottoman as intended, teens were routinely scolded. I had to speak to the staff member in question and let them know that a footstool was, in fact, intended for feet.
By far my favorite OMG TEENS! moment occured while I was on my dinner break. Someone came tearing into the lounge and said, “THERE ARE TEENS SITTING TOGETHER IN THE CHAIR. COME DO SOMETHING!”
Just so you know, the chairs we got are really wide and have flattish arms, so you could easily stuff a couple kids in there.
I paused and said, “And?” “Well, they could be [inarticulate hand waving] doing something!!!” Ah, I understood. The dreaded Teens Having Sex All Over the Library situation. Statistically, in my system, I am a million times more likely to have to tell adults to go get a room than our teens. So I said to this staff member, “And are these teens sitting together in the chair actively having sex?”
I swear, I could have knocked that person over with a feather. First of all, because I actually said the word “sex.” Secondly, because I didn’t seem surprised at all. Eventually they said, “No. Just sitting.” And I said, “So they’re not breaking any of the rules of our code of conduct?” “No.” “Okay. So, if they start having sex, then we’ll have to say something. I see adults sitting together all the time–heck, I see adults making out in the checkout line! I’m sure they do a lot more stuff outside of the library.”
I often imagine staff seeing teens holding hands and swooping in to knock them apart. It’s a matter of retraining them from thinking like parents to treating these teens as patrons. There is a real problem with assuming all teens are Out to Get You and it’s not something we can solve right away. This is where modeling behavior comes in. If I have to address an issue with the teens–say, it’s eating in the library, which is an issue because we have a serious ant problem–I’ll take someone with me, do my “Guys, you know you can’t eat in the library. If you’re hungry, you can take it out in the lobby and then come back. But I really don’t want to have you help me kill ants later” spiel. Usually they’re like, “Wow. They listened to you.” Because I treated them like humans, not like gremlins.
So if you’re out there advocating for your teens, you’re not alone if you feel like people are prejudiced or unfair. It’s how society has trained adults to view teenagers. But by emphasizing an equal enforcement of policy and modeling appropriate behavior for other staff members, we can make the situation better.