Why I’m not a children’s/youth librarian (not right now, at least)

This may surprise some of you, but I went to library school with the full intention of becoming a youth librarian.

I had the perfect combination of elements to make a youth librarian, I thought. I was a former Head Start teacher, youth organizer, camp director, youth group facilitator and youth shelter worker. I like kids better than adults and especially love working with the people everyone loves to hate, “at-risk” or “high risk” youth. Add to all that a past in music and theatre, and a love of children’s – and particularly young adult – literature. Heck, I even had a kid of my own (which in effect means that every day in my life is storytime, so I might as well get paid for it). Yes, I figured my future was in public libraries, or maybe back in a non-profit, or verrry possibly in an academic library working with undergrads, first-generation or nontraditional students.

All this and yet, somehow, I ended up not a children’s librarian. It was so weird, the way it happened. I took lots of children’s services and children’s literature courses. I did a practicum in a great public library children’s department. I even got a student librarian job working on-call as a children’s librarian in a local library system. And then *boom* suddenly I had a great job as a not-children’s librarian.

How and why did this happen? Various reasons, which I think may take a while to unpack.

  1. No one around me valued children’s librarianship enough; not even the children’s librarians
  2. To become a full time youth librarian locally, it required starting from the bottom of a pecking order, and the bottom is not a family-friendly place to be
  3. I got very discouraged by the prevailing lack of social justice orientation of our youth services and my own feelings of social exclusion got in the way
  4. I just don’t have the energy to change all of the above right now in my life.

Regarding #1 above, the lack of value of children’s librarianship was expressed to me in so many ways, by almost everyone except my children’s librarianship professor (who was no longer a practicing librarian but a FT prof). Naturally, non-children’s folk looked down at youth work, as they do in most fields. The body of research on youth and information is rather disappointing, I found in grad school. Practically, libraries tended to limit how far you could ascend in the hierarchy of rank as a children’s librarian, no matter how many years of service or how great a job one did. When I got an academic job offer, supervising children’s librarians with whom I had previously been discussing employment acted really impressed and said of course I should take it. It was all very weird to me, someone who sees youth work as challenging and valuable.

Regarding #2, this is not entirely unique to public libraries, as we see variations on this theme of HR structure in academic libraries too. It seems less common in the special library world. I am strongly pro-union and see the value of job security – I’m not ashamed to admit I wish I had a little more of it myself – but I also see libraries as institutions self sabotaging by their strict policies of hiring from within which force most new entrants into the system to come in as part-time, temporary, or on-call librarians. Those who are unable or unwilling to enter the system in such positions have few opportunities to come in as mid-level librarians with regular jobs. And while it may be bourgeois of me, I’ve been a low-income single parent to a little kid, struggling to find affordable second-shift childcare, and you better believe it taught me to value regular hours and paycheques.

With regard to #3, what can I say about this? Working for social justice as an individual within a bureaucractic organization that does not share those values is exhausting. I’ve been there; you’ve probably been there too. I became a librarian to do social justice work and was shocked that so few of my colleagues shared that motivation. With the exception of special programs (generally time-limited, grant-funded and small) what I saw was good solid traditional children’s librarianship in the local area, and little effort/ability to reach beyond that. When I questioned this, both in library school and in public libraries, I was shamed. And I don’t even know if the librarians who shamed me realised that I was part of the group they were putting down. I think this point required its own post at a later date, so I’ll move along to the last point now.

#4. I read the above and feel sometimes like I “should” be out there fighting the good fight, reforming children’s librarianship. I have worn my self out in such battles before, though, and I am old enough to recognize that there are times in life when one can do that and times when it’s not a wise choice. My young family and my health are priorities right now. So I have found another way to fight a different “good fight” by doing public interest work elsewhere.

Right now I am completely happy with where I am. I have accepted that life often leads me down the most unlikely path, and I am loving and learning so much from health librarianship. I feel respected and treated well, which is a rare and wonderful thing in a job. I am working in the public interest, if not always directly with the public. I have met a lot of amazing people and learned tons from them. Doors I didn’t know I’d be interested in peeking through have opened to me due to my current position. And I have a job that is family-friendly; a very important quality while my child is young.

But every once in a while I do get a bee in my bonnet about getting back to work with kids, and working to make change in youth librarianship where I live. And at those times I think that someday, maybe someday, I will roll up my sleeves and jump back into that youth work I loved so much. I can only assume that if it is meant to be, the right opportunity will present itself one of these days – probably when I least expect it. We shall see.

If there are any youth librarians reading this, I am curious: have you noticed any of the above factors where you work? What have you done about it?

ETA – For aspiring youth librarians, what are your thoughts or plans regarding the state of children’s librarianship and social justice?

-Greyson

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14 Comments

Filed under The Profession, youth

14 responses to “Why I’m not a children’s/youth librarian (not right now, at least)

  1. dg

    Greyson,

    There are many, many ways to influence the lives of youth through the information they get and the books they read. I’m sure you’ll do that in various ways throughout your life. Being on this particular meaningful path right now doesn’t diminish other kinds of meaningful work you’ve done before or you’ll do in the future.

    And who knows; maybe working from a place of social justice and health and stability now will indirectly help you transform children’s librarianship down the road in some way you don’t yet expect.

    dg
    gofrolic.org

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  4. Julia

    Greyson,
    For many years I have struggled with this. I was a children’s librarian for almost ten years. Then, when I became a mother, I went back and got almost a full second masters degree in school media, only to be treated horribly by my principal and be told that I should stay a children’s librarian. Guess what, our public library system has not hired a children’s librarian in years! If they are hiring at all right now, they are asking for high school graduates as assistants. This is insulting to the profession and really insulting to their own employees. I too, have been turned down from an assistant position because a “paige” that was already working there got the job. Unbelievable! Certainly they don’t expect someone with a masters to be a paige? I am not getting my degree in teaching, which I should have gotten in the first place. I have to tell you that i was very unhappy with my college where I went to get my Masters in Library Science. I feel really lied to about the profession and no one told me that it was going to be a pure waste of time and money. Either the librarians are staying until they are 70 some years old or they are being replaced with high school graduates. Good Luck..if I were you I would pick a different career path. Julia

    • Aaron

      Hi, Julia,
      ouch! That hurts!

      But, you speak part of the truth about finding professional level jobs in the librarian profession.

      Well, let none of us fool ourselves and just be entrepreneur who don’t wait for the jobs to appear but create them ourselves in order to earn money.

      Also let’s keep aware of the changing world and be ready to survive in other fields such as teaching.

  5. greyson

    Hi Julia,

    Thanks for your comment. It sounds like you’re in a very frustrating position. I’m so sorry. From several details of your post I am guessing you are in the US, where education is very expensive, retirement is uncertain, health care is tied to employment, and the economy is in the toilet.

    I would/could never be a school librarian (as is probably more than obvious my from my words on schools in my teacher-librarian post! https://sjlibrarian.wordpress.com/2008/12/03/sucked-into-teacher-librarian-advocacy-part-i/). Not only do I not have the temperament to work within a school (hardly made it through as a student, and at least as a student you have an expected release date!), but also here in Canada school librarians are generally required to have teaching degrees, which I do not (and not required to hold an ML/IS, which is an interesting contrast to US norms).

    I will have to say, though, that I don’t feel totally disillusioned by the whole profession of librarianship — I feel like I have been fortunate to have many opportunities, and am treated well and making positive change in the world in my current job/path. I am just frustrated with the lack of support for critical youth programming. I have sung similar songs about social services, back when I worked in the field of domestic violence and sexual assault. Our cultural priorities do not place youth centrally, and severely devalue youth work.

  6. Hello,
    After 20 years as a public librarian (including jails, literacy and children’s services), I have returned to school to get my doctorate. I am particularly interested in how the library profession approaches social justice and multicultural issues.
    As part of a research project I am doing right now, I am looking for photographs or video footage of librarians who are in some way visibly not acting in ways that are considered stereotypes of librarians – not standing by or holding a book, not sitting in front of a computer or standing at a podium, etc. I am trying to look at the stereotype the general public has of librarians and offer images that contradict that stereotype – in particular, that librarians are white, middle-aged women. I’m telling you all this because I am hoping you might have suggestions on where I might go to get images like these. I have done considerable searching on the Internet and through some magazine archives but haven’t met with much success. Thanks for any help you can give me – Julie Winkelstein

    • Kara

      Julie,

      I don’t know about Greyson but I know from experience that the Seattle area is an amazing place to find alternative types of librarians. As a matter of fact, if you go to Facebook and look up the pin-up model “Smookie Tiger”, she holds an MLIS and works at the University of Washington, I believe.

      With great diversity in the area, you stand a better chance of finding the images you are looking for. In fact, years ago, the first MLIS student I ever met dyed her hair hot pink and had more piercings than I could ever count. Definitely now what I thought of as a librarian at the time, but times are a-changing!

  7. Greyson,

    Actually, in the library I worked in, the director was a former children’s librarian. In the library I volunteer in now, the majority of the librarians are officially children’s, but it’s so small that they mostly do everything.

    Of course, I’m relatively new to the profession but never really got the sense of a glass ceiling or lack of respect. The adult reference librarian I worked with was extremely confident on her desk and I always went to her for advice if I had to work adult reference. But I never got the sense she looked down on me because she asked me for advice whenever she had to work with kids. Of course, my library always rotated librarians to different desks at least a few times a month. So the children’s librarians would work the adult desk and the adult librarians would work children’s. I used to see it as a bit of a hassle, but I guess it helped some librarians from getting too over-confident and imagining that someone else’s job was easier than theirs.

    Julia,

    That surprises me. Where I am right now, even if someone did get a job in a school library, they risk having their job cut the next day. Public libraries are the only jobs here and not many of those jobs either. This isn’t the primary reason I didn’t get my teaching certificate but it certainly helped. (Note to Greyson – Here in the US we’re supposed to have both teaching certificate AND MLS to work in a school but quite a few have been known to ignore this requirement).

    However, it sounds like Julia is limited to a certain location which would understandably complicate things.

  8. greyson

    @ Julie W – You may want to contact the ALA, and in particular the Spectrum Scholars program, to see if they are interested in collaborating with you?

    @ Cherie – It’s great that you are so happy with your situation. Perhaps I should clarify that in my brief time as a children’s librarian I never felt personally looked-down-upon or disrespected by other librarians, and always had colleagial relationships with adult services colleagues; it’s the institutional barriers I found frustrating. However, you seem not to see these where you are. That’s great.

    It’s entirely possible that there are libraries in which 1) Children’s services staff are paid equivalent to non-children’s services folk, 2) children’s services are well respected in the budget and other formal structures, 3) It’s possible to “climb the ladder” of seniority without leaving children’s work behind, 4) Librarians can join directly into middle management, without having first to spend time on-call or filling in for temporary assignments, and/or 5) Children’s services are social justice oriented. However, I would propose that a library that incorporates all of the above would be a rather special and unique situation indeed. And I’d love to meet that library!

  9. Amanda

    I just came across this post while looking for tips for new children librarians. I just started my job about two months ago. I have to say that I don’t feel looked down upon. Maybe I got lucky, but my library system actually seems to place the children’s department above others. Even in the small library I work in, I find that many times programming for children is seen as the main service. Obviously, reference and adult programming is important, but in what I’ve seen, the children’s department is the one that draws in crowds and creates relationships with patrons. Then again, I only started a few months ago, so what do I know?

  10. Laurie

    We recently have a new director who is very supportive and encourages staff to further their education and keep current by taking classes in the library field. Hiring new staff is very tight we are govern by a school district. Staff is union and salaries which causes some friction. Recently a student MLS candidate was hired part time which caused staff to be concerned about their jobs changing because of the MLS. The person worked as a page and then part time in children’s services. These hours should have been given to other staff who have been waiting and had more experience. Certain positions do not require a MLS degree and a person having this degree doesn’t mean that they can push someone else out of a job just because of the letters MLS.

  11. I work for the Salt Lake County Library System, and it’s very geared towards children’s services. At my library, my picture book budget is the biggest budget in our branch. There is a ton of system support for children’s programming, including a lot of outreach activities that center around social justice. We do regular storytimes at a homeless shelter, and host activities at a refugee service center, not to mention the outreach services we do with area schools, and the branch specific work being done including one librarian who started a special needs geared storytime which has been hugely successful. All of that is done by staff being paid for their time and is organized by the county system. A huge part of why this is, is that we have a very young population, so it’s mostly children and families that use our services. In this area it’s much easier to find employment as a public librarian in youth services. I don’t think this positive view of children’s librarianship is limited to just the system I work for either. I’ve talked to colleagues from across the state who are engaged in interesting social justice centered work and are supported and respected in their libraries. Perhaps Utah is an anomaly, but if it is, it might be a good place for people to study who are looking for solutions to these frustrations. I’m sorry to hear about your negative experiences, but I’m not convinced they are representative of the youth services profession as a whole.

  12. Rosalie

    Julia…all the reasons you state are the reasons I finally retired as a children’s librarian after 40 years. I just couldn’t fight for professionalism any longer. I was too tired and too beaten down. Not only was there no respect among the administration for the knowledge of literature a traditional children’s librarian has, but there was this big push for “generalists” who, in my mind are “Jack of all trades, master of none.” There was a move to have us work the check-out desk and for clerical staff to answer reference questions. I must add that the clerical staff was was not too thrilled about that either. This was all part of a plan to move us “forward.”
    There were no pushes to hire trained children’s librarians, in fact, my library preferred the bookstore approach rather than book knowledge for the people who wanted specifics and research materials. Once we put in more computers the librarians were treated like clerks at Kinko’s; people were demanding that we teach them how to use email, or asking if we would watch their children while they either used the computers or went to the grocery! The whole concept of the quality books went out the window—classic children’s titles were discarded if they didn’t move, and all kinds of quick browsables filled shelves where once there was a good balanced collection designed to serve that particular community. The community appreciated it–the administration didn’t.
    Presenting entertainment programs became the priority; bring in more, more, more people in order to justify taxes! I tried my best to present programs of quality that related to children’s literature,and education, but was told I needed to broaden my approach to include pure entertainment. After I heard one vocal group singing about “tigers in Africa” I objected to bringing them to my library and was promptly overruled. That didn’t matter, they would bring in more people.
    After a while I could no longer encourage anyone to become a children’s librarian, at least, not in a public library. The profession I had loved for so many years had been dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.
    Thank you for your thoughts, Julia. I wish more people who feel this way would speak out.

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