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Call for Interviews

4 Jul

During July I’ll be interviewing anyone who works or has worked with teenagers in public libraries in the past 5 years. I’m currently an MA candidate at UCL, and the interviews are a crucial component of my dissertation, which is about the state of services to adolescents in UK public libraries.

No research has been published on this topic for over a decade, so if you’ve worked with teenagers in public libraries and are able to take the time to be interviewed for several hours, please do respond. No library service is too big or small. Any type of work with teenagers (special programmes to fortnightly book groups) is relevant. Fresh tea/coffee will be supplied at the interviews.

All interviews will be anonymised, and interview questions will be provided to participants ahead of time.

If you’re willing and able to be interviewed, please contact me at


‘Beyond Titillation’: What Type of Reading Material Can Young Brains Handle?

6 Apr

The subject of appropriate reading material for teens is one of much debate. Please share thoughts and critical feedback in the comments section.

The UK differs substantially from the US in that there are are not a tremendous amount of challenges to sex to scenes in young adult literature, or objections to sex education for teens. However, I still found that Beyond Titillation: Sexuality and the Young Adult Novel, presented by Jason Kurtz and Dr. Nicholle Schuelke at YALSA Symposium 2010 provided insight into what teens are able to handle when it comes to other types of reading material and challenging subjects such as sex and violence.

Jason Kurtz started by stating that teens bring their paradigm to books they read. This worldview is pre-formed by experience with parents, peers, and similar. As Schuelke says, the assumption is that reading changes people. But reading doesn’t shift that; parents, school, community all have a much greater effect. Teens interpret the books they read based on the way they already understand the types of experiences they’re reading about.

This may appear to be an obvious bit of finding, but it’s important to consider in the context of challenges and censorship of books. When librarians receive complaints about books for teens, the person lodging the complaint often deems the book inappropriate or offensive. What does this mean? The person requesting removal of the book is usually worried or scared that the book will psychologically damage young people and give them a distorted understanding of social codes. We worry that a book that portrays bad decisions teaches bad decision-making.

Those fears might be exacerbated by Kurtz’s statement that for some readers, reading the book is “almost like asking an adult [for advice], but not exactly.” However, he goes on to say that readers look to YA for topics they’re not comfortable with (and don’t feel comfortable asking about), and that they read to experience something that is not their own experience. They are vicariously experiencing things through the book. Vicarious exploration is far safer than going out and committing these ask oneself. As the controversial YA author Melvin Burgess writes, reading “an opportunity for readers explore moral issues in a practical way” that precludes acting on their impulses.

Moreover, if a book and it addresses sexuality (or violence), it’s assumed that the end result is going to be the young adult reading it engaging in a similar. However, research has found otherwise: people do not practice what they read![1]

Books for young people are often seen as simply existing to “teach them to behave” (Schuelke), but of course teen readers usually seek books that violate this dictum, preferring to make their own judgements rather than being lectured by the author. This is not unreasonable, as teen brains possess critical reasoning faculties. It’s not surprise that teens are eager to exercise these.

Schuelke pointed out that when a teen finds a book that upsets or disturbs them, they will self-censor. If a book isn’t aligned with their worldview they’ll put it down. I have seen teen do this many a time (“it was too much” “I didn’t like the part where [something that upset them] happened, so I decided to stop reading”), and I always encourage them to follow their instincts. If a book feels too overwhelming or too abrasive, it’s okay to put it down. If they’re still interested in the material, they can always return to it when they’re older and feeling better equipped to handle subject matter.

While this is not a definitive look at how reading morally challenging material effects teen readers, the implications are heartening. The majority of teen readers appear prepared to read critically, to use books to explore new experiences and evaluate them, and to set aside materials for which they feel unprepared. Of course, this does suggest that external forces, like adults and peers are important influences who may get a great deal wrong. That is a topic for a different post.

[1] People also generally don’t practice what they watch. A 2007 article from The American Journal of Psychotherapy titled “Horror Films: Tales to Master Terror or Shapers of Trauma?” (authors: Bruce Ballon and Molyn Leszcz) suggests that in the few cases that people have been driven to reproduce in real life the gruesome scenes from horror films, the people involved were already suffering severe psychological problems unrelated to that or any other film.

Against Cuts: Teen Library Services and Literacy

10 Feb

The National Literacy Trust recently found that libraries play important role in supporting literacy. From the article (emphasis mine):

“Children who use their local public library are twice as likely to be above average readers, according to research published by the National Literacy Trust…. seven- to eleven-year-olds are nearly three times more likely to use the library than 14- to 16-year-olds.”

The survey also found that library users are more than twice as likely to read outside of class everyday. More than a third (38 per cent) of young people who use the library believe it will help them to do better at school.

“The most common reasons children gave for not going to the library were that their family does not go (52 per cent) and that their friends do not go (40 per cent).”

Pre-teens, teenagers, and young adults need libraries, and, more than that, library services. After the age of 12 or 13, reading for pleasure falls off educational agendas. This is the time that teen library services can step in and help promote literacy and reading for pleasure.

It is not enough to simply place books (or manga, or graphic novels, or even magazines) on shelves and hope teenagers will find them. Libraries often have such a low profile that teenagers who are not already aware of their offer will not venture into the library. Moreover the library is often seen as quite geeky or uncool, and thus is not a final destination unless the teenager must use the building for schoolwork or Internet access. (Of course there are ways of branding local libraries as “geek cool,” but these take a concerted effort: staff, time, and money!)

Having at least one member of staff dedicated to teen work, and exciting teen events encourages more young people to feel comfortable on the premises. Moreover, a dedicated staff person can do outreach, going to schools and youth centres, working with specific groups like young carers or young offenders to make the library service relevant and accessible to those groups. Library outreach to teens meets them in spaces they feel comfortable, with material that interests them and encourages them to read. Once a young person has begun reading, it is often only a matter of time (and patience) before they make tentative attempts to read beyond the level or genre they were comfortable with. The first step is literacy, then pleasure reading material, and then, finally exploration of new materials, new genres, new ideas. This is how reading for pleasure and self-education take hold of a person. They are lifelong habits, so developing them in teenagers in paramount.

Library cuts and closures are potentially disastrous for teen literacy. Teen library services are already fragmented. They are not (currently) a national priority. Yet, they are consequential influences on young people’s quality of life and education.

YA Library UK will continue to feature information about outreach to teens and teen library services on a shoestring. However, I am entirely against these cuts and closures, and the need for libraries to offer many services with very little staff and practically no budget to speak of. Library cuts do not accurately reflect library usage or other needs within communities. They neglect the needs of teenagers. I urge both local authorities and the government to seriously reconsider whether libraries are in fact a “soft” target or a service necessary for communities and their education and quality of life.

If you’d like more information about saving libraries and opposing cuts and closures, please visit the wonderful Voices for the Library website.

Young People and Media Use Symposium Follow-Up: Part Two

8 Feb

You can read Part One of the Young People and Media Use Symposium summary by clicking here.

Matthew Applegate, the first speaker of the afternoon, gave an excellent example of using unconventional methods to encourage creativity. In Applegate’s presentation, titled “Cultural perceptions, ownership and interaction with re-purposed musical instruments,” he described working with young people ages 8-12 in order to make music on converted Nintendo DS systems converted to function as basic instruments. The Nintendo DS did not intimidate young people in the same way a traditional instrument might, due to its familiar (and for some, beloved) form. Instead of inventing songs or learning to play notes, the interface was based on Guitar Hero. You couldn’t play a wrong note, you couldn’t only play a note at the wrong time. The music was also played in groups, which masked individual mistakes.

Although it might be a bit of a leap (and is something of a digression from my summary of the symposium), this made me think about the way that Role-Playing Games (RPGs) are a sneaky way of encouraging creativity. Characters are “guided” through the game (by the Game Master, who helps them navigate the world), but make their own individual decisions, or choose to explore unexpected aspects of the world (or take unexpected actions). Thus, gaming is both like having a story read out to and a group exercise in storytelling and invention. Just as using the Nintendo DS in a somewhat predictive format made young people feel that playing music could be “safe,” so gaming can encourage teens (and children and adults as well) to explore creativity in a format that’s comfortable.

It should be noted that Matthew Applegate was provided free Nintendo DS systems after sending some of his research on using them as music instruments to Nintendo.

The next presentation dealt with a different age group–university undergraduate and graduate students–and addressed their need for increased connectivity. Jo Morrison (a former member of Future Lab gave a presentation on the way that Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design used Ning to provide their students with additional resources and support. The frequent communication provided opportunities for busy students to communicate with practitioners in other areas (for example, fashion students and design students sharing different perspectives). While the sheer amount of work was too overwhelming for many undergraduates, the graduate students flourished. Perhaps a less intensive version of this could be used in public and secondary school libraries to allow young people to connect and share opinions on library services, reviews of books, and information about upcoming events.

The final presentation, titled “Global, national and local: Participatory culture in young people’s creative media production,” was presented by Reijo Kupianinen. Kupianinen studied media literacy practices in Finnish secondary school students ages 13-16. As in previous studies reported on during the symposium, Kupianinen found that students most frequently used TV, computers (particularly the Internet), and mobile phones. Mobile phone use was especially high, not least because it was used during school lessons.

Kupianinen examined the types of media teenagers publish on the Internet. Of those who publish some sort of content, about 50% upload photos (no surprise given the photo uploading capabilities of social networking sites), 20%* publish blogs or other writing/opinions, 25%* publish images of their artwork (drawings or paintings), 10% publish fanfiction, and somewhere between 15-20%* publish video. Although they did not note how many students took part in this, some also took place in text-based RPGs that they participated in by writing content.

Many students who made videos captured school on their vlogs, blurring the boundary between school (a private realm shared only by the students and staff who set foot on the premises), and the public realm (the Internet). This also suggests that even “public” areas like libraries can become public in ways that we don’t consider, i.e. broadcast to a much larger group than the constituency of the local area.

The day concluded with a rousing discussion. My main questions were on some of the things the studies avoided: what percentage of young people’s downloading or Internet time is devoted to accessing media (e.g. books, Wikipedia, videos)? How much piracy occurs and how that does inform young people’s media intake? What is likely to supplant current (and rather clunky) forms of social networking such as Facebook?

Overall, the symposium contained a great deal of information relevant to both to overall library services and to our understanding of how often, through what means, and with what type of perception young people are accessing media.

*The starred percentages are approximations, as I wasn’t able to transcribe the exact numbers mentioned.

You can read Part One of the Young People and Media Use Symposium summary by clicking here.

Young People and Media Use Symposium Follow-Up: Part One

2 Feb

On 15 September 2010 a group of academic and other interested parties gathered at Central St. Martin’s for a symposium titled Young People and Media Use, organised by David Gauntlett. Although the following report is nearly six months late, the research remains relevant to understanding youth media use and can be applied to library services for teenagers.

I’ve divided the conference summary into two parts, as the combination of reporting my research (hopefully well within the limits of copyright!) and relating it to teen library services consumed a greater number of words than expected. Part Two will arrive later this week.

I only caught the tail end of Fatimah Awan’s talk, titled Young People’s Mediaworlds (if anyone else reported on this talk in full, please let me know!). She stated that, while young people in her study valued connections made via social networking sites, they still consider face-to-face, in-person contact to be the most valuable and desirable. Of course this bodes well for library services, as it suggests our efforts to provide real life programming are in fact desirable and important to young people.

The next paper, “Media Literacy Matters: Children and Young People’s Media Use,” (presented by Fiona Lennox and Jane Rumble of OFCOM) looked at media use of young people. (They studied youth ages 5-7, 8-11 and 12-15, but I only took notes on the 12-15 age group). Their study examined not just the type of media use that young people engaged in, but also the amount of those types of media that they consumed per day. Unsurprisingly, young people used television, mobile phones, and Internet with the greatest frequency.

The most relevant findings for public libraries related to how teenagers research or creatively engage online. For example, a sizable minority (35-45%) of the 12-15s queried reported having set up an online avatar (an alternate personality/character, often one who interacts in a fictional world) or a website. (How these are defined, I’m not certain–for example, would participating in a MMORPG like World of Warcraft count as having an avatar? I assume it would.)

Perhaps most interesting was the fact that 6% (from entirely varying class backgrounds!) had expressed views online, and 11% would be interested in doing so. However, only 14% felt comfortable with their ability to create content online (e.g. blogs, website). This indicates that at least some teenagers might be interested in workshops (possibly delivered in schools?) to assist them in learning to navigate blog tools and design websites to express their own thoughts and opinions, or share their ideas and art.

Unsurprisingly, the study found that 12-15s prefer to get info from friends and online than from parents or school. However, of those oodles of teenagers who searched for information online, only 50% made critical judgments about whether info search engines returned was accurate. The remaining 50% weren’t aware of making critical judgments (though it’s possible they did sometimes without thinking of it) and 20% reported never even considering the potential veracity (or lack thereof) of the sites they accessed. This suggests that media competence does not automatically confer media literacy. It also underscores the need to actively educate young people about effective methods to find and evaluate information (yet another indication of the necessity of teen library services).

The tone of “Youth Filmmaking and Citizenship in London” (presented by Alicia Blum‐Ross) deviated from that of previous papers. Blum-Ross analyzed the ideologies of funding bodies and young people’s filmmaking projects. As many libraries may apply for funding for teen programmes, it seems relevant to consider the rhetoric of grant-giving organisations and of youth projects themselves.

Most funding bodies assume that young people have a unique type of expression suppressed by the political system. Thus, the projects they seek to fund are those allow young people to “tell their stories” and interact with traditional political process from which it’s assumed they’re alienated. Any organisation applying for funding must place their project within this narrative. Subsequently, they are implicitly required to represent the young people they work with as somehow deficient (politically disengaged, lack of media skills, lack of education, et cetera). The money requested and provided is contingent upon this idea of deficiency.

However, in studying a number of youth filmmaking projects–in particular The Reelhood Project in London–Blum-Ross found that many of the young people involved were already politically engaged prior to joining in the project. Instead of engaging with the structured political system (ex. voting), they involved themselves in community politics by starting local groups, and advocating within their own neighborhoods or spheres of interest and influence (essentially, they became involved in grassroots organising). Instead of being disengaged, the young people devalued a political system which they believed devalued them, and prioritised their local communities, in which they could make active and visible changes.

Thus, while many of the youth filmmkaing projects studied had valuable outcomes, they were not so great as the frankly overinflated claims of funding applications (ex: the project will change lives, catalyze upward mobility, and improve young people’s exam marks). Projects could also have desirable outcomes (young people learning new skills and concepts, engaging in enriching experiences, et cetera) while having an artistically poor outcome–in some cases, the quality of final films produced was disappointing to the young people involved (unsurprising, given that they were in the process of learning how to create a type of art they in which they hadn’t previously engaged).

As libraries shape their teen offer, it’s worth keeping in mind some of the lessons gleaned from the above. Young people often already have a voice, and have ideas about how they want to express it and what they value. However, this doesn’t mean that they inherently have the technical skills or level of articulation (not just verbal articulation but also self-awareness) to fully express their ideas. A project that technically “fails” can still yield successful learning outcomes to young people.

It seems easy to adopt the rhetoric of youth involvement without considering the underpinning ideologies. In particular (and I’m speaking from personal experience!), it’s easy to fall into a rhetoric of deficiency that neglects the skills and interests of local young people.

When looking at the teen offer it’s also important to consider these questions: How do we measure outcomes of projects? Should we simply provide young people with materials to create and some basic skills or do they need more guidance (and if they need guidance, what type should be provided)?

Click here to read Part 2!