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.
- No one around me valued children’s librarianship enough; not even the children’s librarians
- 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
- 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
- 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?