Dealing with teens at the public library can range anywhere from rewarding to entertaining to frustrating. A few recent examples …
The artist leading our drawing workshop is talking about incorporating different clothing and hair styles into character drawings. Talking to one of the girls in the group, he says, “For example, you have big curly hair, kind of like Lucille Ball.” The girl looks at him and replies, “Who’s Lucille Ball?” I’m standing at the back of the room taking pictures of the program, and the artist and I look at each other over the kids’ heads and start laughing (this often occurs when he brings up “grown up” topics). The girl says, “Never mind. I’ll google Lucille Ball on my phone” and proceeds to do just that so she can compare hair styles.
A high school class is visiting my library, and after my presentation is over the students browse our collection while I walk around asking if anyone needs help finding anything. Most of their questions are general, looking for things like sports books and “scary books, especially about ghosts.” But then in the midst of these questions a girl comes up to me and says, “Do you have any books about rape?” I take a moment to absorb this, and ask her some careful follow-up questions. Is she looking for fiction books on the subject of rape? Is it okay if the book turns out to be about that subject but it isn’t immediately obvious because it’s revealed later? After I get a yes to those two questions I ask if she’d read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and she had. I think about it for another minute and say we should look for All the Rage, which I read recently. She asks me if the main character is the one who gets raped, and I say yes. The problem is that I can’t remember who wrote it, so we have to walk all the way across the building so I can look it up in the catalog. I see that we do have a copy, so we then we walk all the way back so we can find it on the shelf, and then back to the desk to check it out. She tells me that she’s looking for more books on the same subject, but by this time we’re back at the service desk and I’m surrounded on all sides by other staff members. I don’t know how forthcoming she wants to be about asking this question of other people, and I’m not about to say SO HERE’S HOW YOU CAN FIND BOOKS ABOUT RAPE in front of my colleagues. So I take the copy of All the Rage that I’m holding, flip open to the copyright page to look for the subject headings, and see that it has “rape — fiction” listed. I point this out to her, and tell her that when she has time she should go to our catalog and do a keyword search for those terms. I’m pointing at the words, but out loud I’m saying, “so you type in that word, and then fiction,” because again, I don’t want to broadcast her question. I walk back to help the other kids look for sports books, scary books, etc., and by the time I return to the service desk she’s decided that she doesn’t want the book after all and she wants to return it. There’s this weird vibe going on, though, because apparently she’d had some kind of a conversation with D. while I was away from the desk, and HE’S the one telling me that she doesn’t want the book. I don’t know what she does or doesn’t feel comfortable saying in front of him, so I take the book to check it back it, and I say, “Just remember what I told you. Go to our catalog and type in those keywords, okay? Because there are a lot of books around on that subject, and that’s how you’re going to find them.” She leaves, and I ask D. about the conversation that I’d missed. He says that she told him that she didn’t want that book, and when he asked if he could help her find another book, she mysteriously replied that she was interested in books on “that subject” but she wouldn’t tell him what the subject was, and THAT was the weird vibe I felt when I returned to the desk.
After over 20 years as a librarian, I’ve had plenty of experience with patrons preferring to ask their questions of one staff member rather than another. You’re busy dealing with something, your colleague who’s a few feet away says, “Can I help the next person on line?” and the patron doesn’t accept the offer but just keeps looking at you instead. Then you finish what you’re doing and take their question. Sometimes you have absolutely no idea why they chose to wait for you. Do they dislike your colleague? Do they have a secret crush on you? Do they feel that you’re better at answering information questions? Was it racially motivated? Is the patron hard of hearing and didn’t realize they were being called over? But sometimes the nature of the question gives me a clue. Like, they tell my male colleague that they’d rather wait and talk to me, and then when they ask me their question it’s about menopause or sex positions or something else of an explicit / embarrassing nature and I’m like Ohhhhhh, THAT explains it!
Okay, tangent over …
So D. asks me if I’ll tell him what the question was about, and I say that I’ll tell him after the class leaves. After they leave and I’m walking through the office he asks me again, and I tell him. His first reaction is, “So, do I need to take care of someone for her?” and it takes me a moment to realize he’s asking about beating up the hypothetical guy who hypothetically raped this girl. And, while I definitely appreciate both the sentiment and the “guy” reaction of “what’s the problem and how can I fix it?” … well, it’s not exactly our place to issue vigilante justice. But this led to a follow-up discussion about dealing with reference questions of an explicitly or potentially personal nature. I said that as a librarian, my job is to answer the patron’s question, and that I should be as helpful as possible but I shouldn’t be prying into someone’s personal life. Now, believe me, there are PLENTY of times that patrons tell me WAY TOO MUCH personal information, which can make me feel depressed / disgusted / nauseated or worse. I also know that just because someone asks for books that are depressing it doesn’t mean that they’re going to jump off of a bridge (I used to write lots of sad poetry when I was a teenager, and I will never forget the teacher who treated me like I was suicidal because of a poem in my journal). And I ALSO know that if this girl is going to be reading fiction books about rape, that some if not all of them are going to include resources for rape victims … so IF she does need those resources, she will find them. I also mentioned a reference transaction I once overheard between Captain Bringdown and a teenager. The teen asked for information about STDs, and Captain Bringdown asked if he needed it to write a paper or if he needed it for personal use. I almost threw him out of a goddamned window.
I spent an afternoon sharing social media stuff with my teens. It was cool watching their reactions to the stuff that entertained them the most, including awesome quotes by Oscar Wilde, fake library events, an old Sesame Street video, John Green’s review of the Kendall and Kylie Jenner iPhone game, a shout-out to Narnia, and the 2016 Best Picture Nominees, But With Puppies.