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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.

On teens & libraries: building the new literacy

I wrote last week, and promised to write again, about the very meaningful findings of a just-released report on re-engaging teenagers with libraries. Issued by YALSA, the young-adult services arm of the American Library Association, “The Future of Library Services for and with Teens: A Call to Action” notes that this is a time of powerful need among teens for what libraries can offer — and that creates powerful opportunities.

For almost every young person’s prospects for success, building 21st century information and communication skills is critical, and libraries can be key. But right now across the country, especially in lower-income areas where the need is greatest, both school and community libraries are facing cuts to staff, hours, and resources, if not outright closure. The report also finds that, although a 2013 survey found that 72% of 16 to 17-year-olds had used a public library the previous year, teens tend not to value libraries.

How to change that — how can libraries become cool again? One segment of YALSA’s report looks at what literacy means today, and how building it in broad and interactive ways can connect with what engages and excites teens, while guiding them in developing sophisticated new sets of skills.

“The library profession has come to understand literacy as much more than a cognitive ability to read and write,” the report says, “but as a social act that involves basic modes of participating in the world.” Teens, of course, are into this — we’re talking social media and online expression. By meeting them right there, libraries can help young people build their fascination with social media into “a much more meaningful and culturally relevant set of skills ... information literacies, critical literacies, media literacies, and much more.”
Drawing on a presentation made at a YALSA Summit on the Future of Libraries and Teens, the report breaks out a set of strategies:

1. Looking at media choices. Helping teens look at how they spend their time with media, online and otherwise (if there is an “otherwise” for teens today) can help them make more conscious selections.

2. Learning-by-playing with media and technology. “Giving teens the chance to actually try out various technology tools in unstructured and informal learning environments” helps them learn better, smarter uses.

3. Building better research skills — and analyzing media messages. Teens are inclined to take the lead in doing online research, so why not encourage that while providing expert guidance? In the process, young people can learn to think about who has put out what they find, why they did, how they did it, and who they did it for.

4. Creating multimedia content. Teens are doing this all the time. Helping them look at what they’re publishing, and what that says about them, works with their energies while helping them better understand today's media, along with their possibilities for publishing what matters to them.

5. “Exploring media issues in society.” How do the media that they interact with every day affect the things they care about? What are the media giants promoting ... and why?

6. Making the impacts you want to make. Far beyond posting photos and status updates, teens very often want to make a difference in the world — and they’re building many of the skills for doing that. Libraries can guide them in learning how they can make connections, join campaigns, and become part of the solutions they want to see.

Libraries can’t and shouldn’t have to do this alone, YALSA adds: “Educators, parents and caregivers, business leaders, and other members of every community have a role to play.” Expanding a library’s connectedness can do the same for young people.

And in our interconnected age, that seems to be the essential key.

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