“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.”
When I saw the theme of “At-Risk Youth” listed for November at The BeZine, my first thought was how important libraries are to helping kids like these. For those who don’t know what the phrase “At-Risk Youth” means, it’s basically a label for any young person who is “at risk” of not making a successful transition into adulthood. They are typically minorities, live below the poverty level, have a higher rate of school drop-outs and illiteracy and tend to fall into gangs, drug use and/or turn to violence and criminal behavior.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in urban cities, where the library can often be an oasis of peace in the concrete jungle. They are usually quiet buildings with ambient lighting, lots of space and most have special areas just for children, with bright colors, lots of things to look at, activities to do and of course, lots and lots of books. We all know the power of books to transport and lift us from even the most depressing of realities, but today’s library goes far beyond that simple escapism.
I have worked in libraries most of my adult life and have witnessed first-hand how they can help at-risk young people. Many of the kids who come to the library after school are latch-key kids. They sometimes have to baby-sit younger siblings while their parent or parents go to work. A lot of them don’t do well in school, or don’t see education as a priority, so they struggle with basic reading, writing and arithmetic. They may live LGBT or other alternative lifestyles and face rejection and bullying every day. It occurred to me that the librarian may be the only smiling, accepting face these kids see all day. Most libraries offer literacy and/or homework assistance programs that can help on an educational level, but the librarians…they are the “people factor” that can bridge the gap and make the difference between engaging or alienating them further.
Today’s libraries often have after-school activities to help keep teens off the streets and out of trouble, or mentors to offer advice and assistance. Some participate in the YouthArts Program, which works to implement effective strategies to pair up at-risk youth with more art-focused programs. Others, like Memphis Public Library, have programs that teach teens how to do Music and Audio production, or Art Studio and Video and Photography classes. They also have resources like JOBLINC and employment workshops, giving youth the knowledge they need to find a job, create a résumé or ace an interview.
You may not know it, but the NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) has awarded $350,000.00 to the ALA (American Library Association) this year for the Great Stories Club, a reading and discussion program specifically aimed toward at-risk youth:
“The Great Stories Club funding will introduce more than 8,000 young adults to accessible and thought-provoking literature selected by humanities scholars to resonate with reluctant readers struggling with complex issues like incarceration, violence and poverty. Librarian advisors will consult on material selection, assist with development of programming guides and best practices for libraries and provide training for grantees.” ~ http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2015/03/neh-grants-ala-350000-book-clubs-risk-youth
If you know of any at-risk youth who are lost and struggling, try guiding them (or accompanying them!) to their local library. The library has been and will continue to be more than simply a building which houses books and information. It is an ever-changing and evolving source of inspiration, hope and problem-solving; it’s an integral part of society’s infrastructure. As one librarian noted in a Metafilter discussion about funding cuts:
“Every day at my job I helped people just barely survive. … Forget trying to be the “people’s university” and create a body of well informed citizens. Instead I helped people navigate through the degrading hoops of modern online society, fighting for scraps from the plate, and then kicking back afterwards by pretending to have a farm on Facebook.”
The entire response is here, and if you have a spare couple of minutes, I think you will find it quite eye-opening; perhaps it will give you another perspective and appreciation for how very, very necessary libraries have become for people who have no other options. When the rest of society is ignoring at-risk youth or struggling to find solutions, libraries have become spotlighted as hallowed halls of hope.
– Corina Ravenscraft
© 2015, essay, Corina Ravenscraft, All rights reserved; illustrations as indicated above