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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

YALSA on libraries, teens & changing times

There are over 40 million American adolescents, “and they use libraries.” Nearly half are young people of color, 22% live in families below the poverty level — and about 3 million drop out of school every year. Are libraries giving teenagers what they need to not drop out, to succeed in today’s world?

This question and those facts come from “The Future of Library Services for Teens: A Call to Action,” a report published this month by the Young Adult Library Services Association, the YA arm of the American Library Association. To the question, in essence the report says no. In 21st century America, where literacy means more than just knowing how to read and where each young person, to reach for success, must build an expanding, two-way relationship with communication, learning, and discovery, public and school libraries have a ways to go to meet those needs.

Yet support for them right now is shrinking — especially in the areas where teens need them most.

“Libraries need to create the kind of spaces, services, and opportunities that today’s teens need in order to succeed in school and in life,” says the report, released on Jan. 8. However, “Library closures, reduced hours, lack of staff, and insufficient resources mean that teens in many communities no longer have access to the resources, knowledge, and services they need to support their academic, emotional, and social development, to master 21st-century skills, and to ensure that they become productive citizens.

“Now is the time,” the report says, “for school and public libraries to reimagine themselves as 21st century learning spaces.” But to get the support they’ll need for doing that, the rest of us need to see libraries as new types of vital institutions —as active more than passive resources, as centers indispensable to our kids, our communities, and ourselves.

But we usually don't. I think, in general, we tend to see those institutions that are key to forming people’s view of the world as they were when they were forming ours. Take television, for example. TV is no longer what young people sit and absorb when the programs they like are on: kids watch programs online when they want to, as part of a mix of interactive media, expecting that their choices and enthusiasms will shape the viewing experience. My stepson is using his earnings from the pizza-delivery industry to buy a 50-inch flat-screen TV, yet he sees no need to connect it to broadcast TV. He’ll just watch what he wants to, when he wants to, as part of what he connects with online.

I think YALSA is saying we need to start seeing, and valuing, libraries as vital resources in our kids' lives in ways that are dynamic and interactive. They can no longer simply be loaners of books; they must, and can, become places where teens can build the connected knowledge — and the intelligent connectedness — that they require for success and fulfillment in this networked age.

“Libraries used to be grocery stores,” said one participant in a YALSA forum. “Now they need to be kitchens.”

In the report’s words:

The library is no longer simply a quiet place to connect to physical content. It is instead a place, physical and virtual, to learn how to connect and use resources of all types from physical books to apps to experts in a local, regional or national community. It is a kitchen for “mixing resources” in order to empower teens to build skills, develop understanding, create and share, and overcome adversity.

I’ll write more about the YALSA report on Monday. It’s got something to say that will, I hope, be widely heard.

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