There is Something Rotten in the State of YS Professional Development

I’m seeing a worrisome trend in many youth services circles and departments. That trend is youth services practitioners routinely undervaluing and devaluing the work that they are doing. And that is a big problem.

What I’ve noticed can be summed up in one phrase: “I’m just an ordinary library staffer, I don’t have anything extraordinary to share.”

Okay, first thing first: Who has made you think that what you do is not extraordinary? Because those people are flat out WRONG.

Every day at your job, you are working to make meaningful connections between kids and literacy. You are patient in helping that reluctant reader find a book that will spark an interest and make reading not only accessible, but enjoyable. You are dedicated to finding and offering programs and activities that are both developmentally appropriate and fun while promoting all the library has to offer. You spend hours trying to find the best books for your collection and your kids, reading reviews and books at home to stay on top of new releases, and you’re not getting paid for these out-of-work efforts. You are listening to children every day and demonstrating to them that they matter. Do you know how many people do not, could not do any one of these things, let alone all of them? AND YOU DO THEM EVERY DAY. You are doing extraordinary work.

And you know what? We’re all ordinary librarians. That whole “rock star librarian” thing? It’s a fallacy! A red herring! Doesn’t exist! The only reason it seems as though there are extraordinary librarians is because sometime, somewhere, those librarians met the right people from the right library journal/blog/association and they got their names in a place that a lot of people read. That’s all it is: name recognition masquerading as absolute fame. Those librarians are not doing anything more extraordinary than you are. What they are doing is serving their unique communities. Every community is unique, so of course you will read about librarians who are doing different things than what you are doing. But “different” does not equal “extraordinary,” and it doesn’t rank one librarian above others.

Because the thing is, if you are doing this job, you have something worth sharing with your YS colleagues. You have your expertise honed from your experience doing your job. You have perspective that can help colleagues think about what they are doing in new, inspiring ways. You have your bag of tricks for what works in different library situations. And you know what? Your colleagues want to know these things.

How do I know? I’ll start with a personal anecdote: some of the most impactful professional development for me personally has been learning from my colleagues across North America. Some of that PD has taken the form of formal conference sessions and webinars, but formal programs don’t hold sole rights to quality professional development. I’ve also found informal sharing sessions to be incredibly valuable from a PD standpoint, as they allow me to have give-and-take, evolving conversations with other librarians who are doing my job, or something similar to it. Think Guerrilla Storytimes, participatory Conversation Starters, the unconference model. I have several times found that these informal sharing sessions are much more fruitful than top-down lecture-style presentations from “experts” or “rock star librarians.” It’s like when at trainings, your greatest take-aways come from conversations with other librarians over lunch as opposed to the formal program agenda.

And I’ve noticed that many of my colleagues have expressed a similar experience–that some of their greatest professional learning has come from basic sharing scenarios where everyone can contribute. Yet I have encountered many a librarian who is reluctant to share in these contexts because they aren’t “doing anything particularly special.” Maybe it’s a facet of the imposter syndrome? I don’t know, but I do know that it is bad. It is bad because it is you telling yourself that what you’re doing isn’t really important, or relevant to the profession.

Now I will say, this hesitance to share, the feeling like you don’t have anything to share, is by no means universal (think library bloggers, and basically all the Flannel Friday and Storytime Underground and other folks who are actively “out there” and sharing). But I do see it and hear it an awful lot, and oftentimes from people who I KNOW are doing really cool things that I and my colleagues would love to learn about. I hear it way too often for it to merely be attributed to shyness or discomfort with sharing in groups.

I hate it when youth services librarians sell themselves short, and it happens all the fracking time. That is what is happening when youth services practitioners don’t share because they don’t think what they have to say will matter or be of interest. That’s a HUGE institutional problem when professionals don’t think that their work has importance.

I really, truly want every single youth services library staffer to share. It should absolutely happen in a way they feel comfortable. It could be a conference presentation, it could be an idea-sharing conversation, it could be a staff meeting, it could be during the stretch break at a formal training, it could be a Facebook thread, it could be a listserv. Whatever the forum, whatever the topic, all youth services folks need to share. We all need to share so we can all learn from one another to do even more of the extraordinary work that each and every one of us do every day: serving children and their families.

And we also need to encourage one another to share whatever it is we’ve got to say. This rotten state of YS professional development is ultimately caused by an institutional problem: by YS work being ranked as less expert, less important, less worthy than other library work. We YS folks need to encourage one another to share because we can learn from one another, yes, but in the process we can also change this culture of devaluing YS work. This culture could be because of sexist thinking that youth services work is women’s work and thus inherently lesser. It may be because of administrators who don’t actually understand what happens in storytime who make use feel like storytime isn’t actually that important, not really. It may be because of board members who don’t see youth as “real” library users because they don’t pay taxes. It may be because of colleagues in other departments who think that because many of the children we serve cannot articulate their wants and needs in the ways adults can, then their wants and needs aren’t a priority and so YS is kind of just babysitting, right? It is absolute bullshit reasoning, all of it, but it has existed for so long and is so pervasive and entrenched that WE have soaked it in. It’s not that we agree with these arguments, per se, but they’ve left a lasting, silencing impression on us.

What you have to share about the work you do absolutely has value, and your colleagues want to hear it as much as you want to hear from them. Don’t sell yourself and your great work short.

Let’s get rid of this toxic, rotten thing that’s stinking up and stunting YS professional development.

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