‘How can I find out?’ Fielding teens’ reference questions

First Amendment, Information Access, Minors

By: Lisa Rand

When faced with challenges to freedom of expression or limitations on access to information, teens require caring support and reliable information. In the past year I spoke with teens concerned with their school blocking websites, negative teacher response to political expression, and lack of LGBTQ+ health information. Librarians are in a position to support teens in locating answers to urgent and personal questions. Accurate information and compassionate listening can empower youth and make a positive impact. 

My community is particularly seeking information on civil rights and health issues, and other communities might have their own unique pressing topics. I have no doubt that the information seeking in my community also is happening in other places. Even if you feel “teens never come in,” still you must be prepared. Some teens will have excellent research skills and a desire to handle their problems independently, but your encouragement, listening, and reference skills still can make a life-impacting difference. Be prepared.

Being prepared to respond to intellectual freedom concerns of teen patrons requires appropriate professional development. Might you or your colleagues benefit from additional training? A helpful place to begin could be the free elearning opportunities available from the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, with topics including Intellectual Freedom and Minors, and Students Rights, Protests, and Free Speech. In addition, study the excellent student resources available through the National Coalition Against Censorship and make their website known to teen patrons.

We do not have a separate teen room or lounge in our small public library. However, adjacent to our section of teen materials we have a table with two public computers dedicated to teen use. That table houses self-directed activities such as trivia contests and a mini maker space. It’s also the place where I can display materials from the Trevor Project, the ACLU, and other pertinent organizations. My display includes, for example:

  • Trevor Project hotline details on a business card size
  • Know Your Rights booklet from the ACLU (with a Library Use only sticker, but I have a couple of spare copies in case of need)

Another option might be bookmarks highlighting “tough topics,” as a tool to make browsing easier and more private. For teens seeking information remotely, you might compile a list of (active, regularly updated) links to teen resources on your library website.

person browsing library shelf

Regardless of the size of your teen space or youth staff, teens who visit your library need access to reliable resources for diverse information seeking needs. In my community we have a skilled and caring high school librarian, but she may not be able to assist everyone, particularly when faced with institutional constraints. (For example, a student who is having a problem with a teacher might not feel comfortable bringing it up with another faculty member.)

What can you do to make information access easier for teens? How can you increase support for the right to read and for freedom of expression for all youth in your community? 

Lisa Rand

Lisa M. Rand is a youth services librarian in southeastern Pennsylvania. She exercises her commitment to equity and access for everyone by serving on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Pennsylvania Library Association. Lisa has studied at Simmons University and Kent State University. Whenever possible she travels, visiting libraries and walking in the footsteps of favorite fictional characters. Find her on Twitter @lisa_m_rand.

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