Y U No Respect Youth Reference?

I contribute to a statewide youth services blog and in the process of sharing a link recently and tagging the blog post, I used the label "reference". To my surprise, even after 578 posts on that blog, this was the first time that term had been used. I checked my own blog of 418 posts. Same thing.

It really stopped me short. And it made me think about whether and why- with all our discussion, posts, sharing and chat on programming and children's literature in the youth librarianship blogosphere - as practitioners we don't give props to youth reference, a less glamorous but very vital part of our work.

We are not alone in this.

When I first came to my present job, I know staff around the library didn't really respect the skills our youth services team had in the youth reference area.  I consciously began to look at what we did at our stand-alone youth services desk and compare it to our stand-alone adult information services (we have a separate circulation department).  What I discovered was...disconcerting.

Our Youth Services desk staff were expected to do many circulation functions (renew books; pursue missing pieces; decide on lost book and large fine forgiveness issues; hire and oversee shelvers of our collections). Adult Information services were not expected to do any of this.  Their desk time involved reference, reader's advisory, research - so did ours. But on top of that were layered functions that took time away from our programming, collection development, planning and RA and ref.

I began to ask at management meetings why there was this tremendous discrepancy in job duties between the adult and youth reference desks. It surprised my management colleagues. Those were questions that hadn't been asked before. The more I probed and brought up the subject, the clearer it became to my colleagues that there was a fundamental inequity in the perception of youth service librarians' skills and work expectations for the service desks. "Do you do this at the adult reference desk?" became a question that was answered by realigning job duties to create parity between the two reference desks and returning circ functions to the circ department.

During this process, I also had to ask myself if a lack of respect among our own YS team for our professional skills and perhaps our acceptance of the "you work with kids, you are therefore a child and less powerful" paradigm, fed into expectations of our reference work being perceived as less valued. Certainly the team loved and adored programming and collection development work. But did we love the dig-into-the guts reference work we did with kids, teens and caregivers as much?

The YS team has worked on this over the years and I have seen a definite but subtle shift away from seeing themselves as a adjunct Circ point and more as the MLIS librarians and reference/reader's advisory superheroes that they are. But again it strikes me that we are not alone in struggling with this part of our professional lives in youth services.

What value do we - and our colleagues serving adults in the rest of the library - place on our reference and research skills in youth services? What do you think?


  1. Could I just say "exactly" to this entire post? At our library, youth services has worked hard to keep circulation duties with the circ desk and I believe we've gained some respect for that with our co-workers. However, parents and children are still surprised to find that we can help them research with more than the books in our collection.

    I recently spoke to a friend I haven't seen since my undergrad days and when I told her I was a children's librarian she said, "But you're such an intellectual. I guess I'm surprised that you find that fulfilling." And my mouth dropped open.

    It makes me wonder what I can do to raise awareness for the many, many highly-educated men and women who love working with children but want the world to know that they have some brain power.

  2. Your last comment really reminds me of Hi Miss Julie's post from January, Ego, thy name is librarianship. http://himissjulie.com/2013/01/13/ego-thy-name-is-librarianship/

    Her points about the amazing nature of our work - certainly on a day-to-day level but also intellectually - really lit up the library blogosphere. I have found many of my youth colleagues to be smarter than whips and more visionary by a loooonnnng shot than most of the celebrated librarians in other disciplines who are fannishly followed by the library chaterati.

  3. I'm used to speaking very clearly to children. I think this helps me with adults. I find that some adult specialists talk to patrons as if the patron already knows exactly what they are talking about. I'm used to starting a ground zero and working my way up when I have realized what page the child is on. I speak efficiently and warmly, like many children's librarians. I think they (adult specialists) have quite a bit to learn from the work we do at the reference desk.

    1. (oops, accidently deleted this comment form my phone while I was on the road. So here is the comment!

      zbeforey (http://zbeforey.wordpress.com/) has left a new comment on your post "Y U No Respect Youth Reference?":

      I echo what my colleague Magpie Librarian (hi, Ingrid!) writes about performing reference interviews with children. A perception I notice among many (not all) managers that children are 'easier' to satisfy than grown-ups. You should be able to hand any random book to a child and he/she will light up at the literary growth they are about to experience. In reality, what we're doing when we're on the reference desk is probing, in a very efficient manner, for children's specific information needs, where they are in their reading development, and what their tastes are. Children do indeed have preferences and tastes, and they will let you know if what you are suggesting to them doesn't fill the bill. I don't have a lot of experience on adult reference desks, but it seems to me grown-ups should expect to receive a similar level of attentiveness when they approach the librarian.