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Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

5 Things Libraries Can Learn from Starbucks and Lego

In March, two companies launched PR campaigns that were a bit of a misfire and received some backlash. First Starbucks launched their #RaceTogether initiative, which would have their barista’s write #RaceTogether on the coffee cups they served and asked their employees to engage in discussion with their customers. The thing is, it turned out that most customers didn’t want to engage in a brief chat about racial issues with a barista in the early morning hours, as evidenced by the backlash that began quickly on Twitter. Around this time the newest edition of the Lego magazine was released with a page that had some beauty tips. The problem here is that the target demographic for Lego magazine is 6 to 12 year old girls and many readers were repulsed at the idea that we were trying to inflict beauty standards on such a young age group. I tweeted some about  both situations, even going so far as to Storify my tweets about the Lego situation because my two daughters are in that target age group and I was horrified to think that they company that I had put my trust in and championed precisely because it was more gender neutral than most companies had betrayed my trust.

But as I thought about these two situations, I also thought about what libraries can learn from these corporate missteps.

1. Know Your Community

Both of these campaigns received backlash because they didn’t understand what their customers wanted from them. Customers coming into Starbucks want coffee or pastries and sometimes even music. They may want a social place to meet up and hang out with friends to have deep, meaningful conversations. They do not, however, want to have deep meaningful conversations with people who are basically strangers serving them coffee. That’s the thing about being a service industry employee, what people primarily want from you is indeed service, quality customer service that meets their needs and makes them feel comfortable. Discussions about race are a big, hot button issue. This is not what we want to be doing with what basically amounts to a perfect stranger.

Library personnel are service industry employees. We can argue the benefits of that service, and I will until the day I die because I believe in them. But at the end of the day the heart of what we are is service. Our goods and services may be “free” (even though they aren’t really), but what our patrons want for us is to come in, get the help that they need to meet their immediate goals, and to have a positive customer service experience. There is a reason most libraries have policies in place that forbid their employees from discussing politics and religion with their patrons, and that reason is to avoid exactly what Starbucks tried to dip their toe into by asking their baristas to discuss race issues with their customers.

Knowing what your customers – or audience – wants from your business or organization is key. Understanding how they use the library, what they want from the library, and how you can successfully give that to them is our number one goal. If Starbucks had a better understanding of what their customers wanted, they would have understood why this campaign wasn’t a good idea. In fact, it never would have made it past the brainstorming stage.

2. Know Your Message/Brand

The Lego situation in particular is a stark reminder that companies build for themselves a brand and when they try to change that brand they risk alienating some real loyal followers. Lego has historically been championed as a gender neutral toy, one of the few that still exist. The Lego company moved off this message slightly when they introduced the Lego Friends product line (though I understand it has been commercially successful) and you can still see the occasional Buzzfeed post that brings back the brilliant ad campaign from the 70s that reminds parents that Lego is gender neutral and is for all kids. And really, that’s a genius marketing strategy because instead of alienating half of your potential customers by being either “for girls” or “for boys”, marketing yourself as being for all people – pretty smart.

Lego Ad image via this Buzzfeed article:

The Lego Friends product line is problematic because it puts girls in gendered stereotype boxes: pink and purple bricks with shopping malls, for example. The great thing, however, is that you can buy the Lego Friends bricks (or receive them as gifts, which is what happens in my home) and mix them in with more standard sets and you get a null set of bricks with unlimited building potential that sparks creativity and innovation. But when they start putting targeted messages like the beauty tips in the Lego Magazine, it becomes harder to avoid and work around. The Lego executives claimed that they did this because customers said they wanted an advice type column in the magazine, but here’s the type of advice I want from Lego: What’s the best type of brick to use to make x. y or z? How do you preserve your builds? (My tip: Take pictures of everyone’s Lego creations and upload them into an electronic photo album).

Libraries also have a brand: we are the information centers of our communities. That information may come in the form of books, programs, or access to technology, but that is our main goal. If we start to veer too far from that brand, we dilute our effectiveness and muddy our message. We risk alienating our patrons and supporters while overwhelming our staff to the point where we are trying to do so many things that we do none of them well. Staying on message, on brand, makes it that much easier to communicate with our communities who we are, what we do, and why we matter.

3. Know Your Staff Limitations and Comfort Zone

One of the biggest problems with the Starbucks campaign is that it asked its employees to do things they were in no way qualified to do in that setting. Race discussions are complex, rife with history and context and a vast array of sociological theory. There are people who spend years in college preparing how to discuss this issue in meaningful ways. Starbucks baristas are trained to provide Starbucks services. Asking them to engage in conversations of this nature is so far out of their comfort zone it is shameful to think of a CEO asking their staff to put themselves in such an awkward and potentially volatile situation. The chances of making a misstep in this type of conversation is so easy it is terrifying. All the CEO of Starbucks needed to do was spend 5 minutes on Facebook or read the comments on just one articles on racism to know how volatile this issue is. What they were asking of their staff was profoundly unfair, it put their safety at risk and quite frankly it puts the company at risk because one misspoken word and you now have an angry customer.

As much as it is our job to provide costumer service, it is also our job to create and provide safe work spaces for our employees. And I would argue comfortable work spaces. What Starbucks was asking its baristas to do violated this in my opinion. Don’t put your staff in uncomfortable, and potentially volatile, positions by asking them to engage in unnecessary tasks or conversations with patrons.

4. Know Your Library (aka, leave your ivory tower)

The truth is, all of this could have been easily avoided if CEOs of both companies spent more time in the trenches, leaving their isolated ivory towers behind and really observing what happens in their businesses, what their customers want, how their products are used, etc. And this is a common problem I see in libraries. Library administrators often (not all, of course) spend so much time in secluded offices that they don’t understand what the day to day business out in the library is actually like. They are making policies and procedures removed of the actual information they need to more effectively make those policies and procedures, and then putting it upon their staff to enforce them on a public that wants and needs something entirely different.

In comparison, The Mr. went through the management college of a major store and one of the first things they are taught is the first thing you do every day that you come to work is to walk the floor, making observations about the space, greeting your customers and employees, and being mindful of what is working and what isn’t. At the end of the day, you repeat this process. And the best of the best will make a point to do the same a couple of times throughout the day. In comparison, I have worked in libraries where I have gone months without seeing anyone in administration, they rely on the information to get back to them from the management they put in place not understanding that information can be given to them through filters of bias and personal agendas.

Ideally, library administrators would make it a point to walk around their libraries a couple of times a day. Even better, work a public service desk shift each week. Know first hand what is happening in your library, what the patrons are asking for and experiencing, and what demands are being put on your employees. This simple act will help administrators better understand what their patrons want and need, how they are or aren’t staying on message, and how their employees are being affected by the policies and procedures they enact. It’s so much easier to create buy in and earn the respect of your staff when they know that you are making decisions based upon the best information possible.

5. Know That You Don’t Have to be Involved in Every Conversation

In this day and age of social media saturation, it’s like we’re all trying to be all things to all people and involved in all conversations. This is not a good idea. Especially for a corporation – or a library. Some conversations are not about you and that’s okay. Sometimes it’s better to stay out of the fray then to make a misstep. Some things are bigger than us or more complicated then the medium we are trying to use. Actually, John Oliver recently addressed this point really well on his HBO show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. You can view the video clip by following the link provided to get a better idea of what I mean about this point, but I will warn you it is super not safe for work and contains language. You can view the clip here: As John Oliver points out, “You’re silence is never going to be controversial.

I viewed the Lego situation very much through the lens of a mom, but during the firestorm about the Starbucks situation I couldn’t help but think of those employees and what was being asked of them. Through it all I kept thinking, we can learn from this.

#FSYALit: Hooking Up with Jesus, a discussion of Jackson Pearce’s PURITY by guest blogger Jen Leitch

Today as part of our ongoing discussion of Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit, guest blogger Jen Leitch is discussing PURITY by Jackson Pearce. You can learn more about the discussion and see the previous posts at the #FSYALit Discussion Hub.

“The only thing I leave the session with is a sense of certainty that Eve made a fair trade by eating that fruit.  She traded paradise for knowledge.  She wanted to know the truth about evil, about God, about sex, just like I do.  Way to go, Eve. … Maybe Eve did feel worthless for betraying God—maybe I’ll feel worthless if I have sex.  But at least that way, God would be coming through the way everyone predicted.  At least that way, I would know that the church’s version of God isn’t just a picture-book fantasy.” – from “Purity” by Jackson Pearce

Knowledge, Experience, and Truth:  the Holy Trinity at the heart of figuring out who we are, where we belong, how we make and live with our choices, and how we reconcile ourselves with the people around us.  There isn’t anything more fundamentally human than trying to understand yourself and your place in the world.

I’m not going to pretend that there isn’t plenty in this book to provoke strong reactions from some readers and their parents.  It’s a novel, after all, based on the “American Pie Experience”:  a teenager attempting to have sex for the first time before a predetermined deadline.   Where this novel breaks new ground, however, is in two key areas:  the character on this mission, Shelby, is female; and she articulates her decision-making and emotional processes in conjunction with pleas for spiritual and familial connection.   This juxtaposition of the traditionally sacred (spirituality/faith) and the stereotypically profane (sex), combined with Jackson Pearce’s feminist inversion of the traditionally male quest to “get laid” distills into something that feels simple, honest, and real.  “Purity” becomes an allegory about the eternal conundrum of wanting to find God and doubting His existence.

Shelby struggles with her Christian faith throughout the novel.  In the wake of her mother’s death, she finds herself yearning for the God she’s been taught about to make His presence obvious in her life.  Yet, alongside that very yearning, she has authentically articulated doubts, and cannot seem to synthesize the nursery Jesus with the God who, in her mind, refused to save her mother. Instead, she clings on to the three promises she made to her dying mother:  “Love and listen to your father.  Love as much as possible.  Live without restraint.”  Shelby’s attempts to adhere to the promises actually create barriers between herself and her father instead of uniting them.  Despite her efforts, the promises are kept only on a superficial level:  more a checklist than a philosophy.  When her father wants them to participate in the community’s annual Purity Ball, Shelby finds herself torn between two of the promises:  listen to your father versus live without restraint.  The relationship between Shelby and her father can be read symbolically as an equivalent to her spiritual relationship with God.  As she begins to break down the walls in her relationship with her father-who-art-on-Earth, so too does she reach an armistice with The Father Who Art In Heaven.

In a religious context, purity distills itself into ‘being and doing that which is pleasing to God.’  In the case of a Purity Ball, that generally means making a formal vow to your father that you will live a life free from alcohol, drugs, and sex until the appropriate church-and-society-sanctioned time.  Shelby’s decision to dispose of her virginity before the Purity Ball—in order to accomplish a feat of loophole-logic most lawyers would admire–essentially (and somewhat ironically) sets her on a path to hooking-up with Jesus.  Without spoiling the story, let me just say that all of the boys Shelby enlists in her “Lose Virginity Now” plan signal elements of the triune God.  Ex-boyfriend Daniel is distant; popular Ben is an approachable  Jesus look-alike; and new-guy Jeffrey’s name means “peace of a stranger”, linking him both in name, and in what he provides, to the Holy Spirit.  Alongside these interactions, Shelby also negotiates an evolving relationship with her best friend Jonas.  I don’t believe his name is a coincidence:  it has 5 letters, starts with J, vowel, consonant, vowel, and ends in S.  To further illustrate the analogy:  Jonas brings her a yellow rose–a symbol of friendship, of light in the darkness, of hope—to take to her mother’s gravesite, and she thinks , “ I could do it alone—I’ve done it alone.  But why would I want to?”  Many of Shelby’s thoughts and statements throughout the novel can be interpreted spiritually as well as literally.  Furthermore, while reflecting upon her mother’s favourite book, ‘The Little Princess’, Shelby reveals, “There was nothing magical about the book ending, if you ask me.  One of my favourite parts of the movie was the scene when Sara realizes her father was there all along, right across the street.”  Not only does this observation foreshadow a newfound relationship with her father/Father, it encapsulates the metamorphosis that occurs in her friendship with Jonas/Jesus as well.

Jackson Pearce’s great strength as an author is the way she infuses humor and a faltering humanity into all of the significant characters in the book.  They are understandable people facing real-world choices and spiritual conundrums while exchanging realistically snappy remarks.  The reader won’t always agree with the characters or their choices, but the novel respects each character and encourages the reader to empathize.  Although the characters sometimes come across as flippant, there is an unaffected candor to their dialogue that rings true.

Pearce doesn’t knock the reader over the head with any particular ideological hammer.  At the end of the novel, it could be argued that Shelby has not reconciled herself with God just as easily as it could be argued that she has.  (Obviously, I tend towards believing that she is, at the very least, on her way to doing so.  I’d be interested to read an atheistic-leaning interpretation of Shelby’s thought process.)  Notwithstanding the agnostic ambiguity, the novel’s purity lies in Shelby’s pursuit of an honest and legitimate expression of her life.  For me, this is exactly what Christianity is meant to impart:  that making decisions and becoming self-aware doesn’t mean getting thrown out of the garden.  Instead, it means reconciling the physical with the spiritual, transforming judgement into empathy, owning responsibility, and seeking to empower (pure) love.

Meet Our Guest Blogger

Jen Leitch works in two JK-Grade 8 elementary school libraries in Ontario, Canada. She is a certified teacher with an undergraduate minor in Religious Studies who wrote her Master’s thesis on the ways in which curriculum can and should support opportunities for discussions of faith throughout all school systems. According to her students, she “has awesome book knowledge”, “is very organized by the Dewey Decimal System”, and “is a great reader and a nice person.” (Thanks, you  guys!)  You can find her on Twitter @Jen_Lei  , where she’s as likely to be talking about books and libraries as she is about tv, movies, and gaming.

Book Review: Beast in the Mirror by Laura Bradley Rede

In Beast in the Mirror, a novella by Laura Bradley Rede, the story of Beauty and the Beast is reimagined with an interesting twist—Beast is a girl.


17-year-old Bella, a model, is just out of rehab for anorexia. She flies to Ireland to meet up with her cousin James, a photographer. Bella explains that she’s always felt close to James, not just because he got her into modeling, but because out of all the members of their large family, she and James are the only queer ones. Their photo shoot takes place on the grounds of the crumbling and creepy Blackston estate, a place her cab driver tells her is full of dark magic. While there, Bella and James discover a lavish flower garden and climb the wall to take some pictures in it. The Beast appears and initially tries to capture James, but Bella offers to trade places with him. Bella describes the Beast: “Its face is like a lion, with a lion’s mane, but two huge ram’s horns curl from its head. Its back is hunched like a buffalo’s, but it walks on two feet—hooves, really. Mismatched hooves, one like a Clydsedale and one like a goat.”


Once inside the estate, Bella realizes the interior of the house doesn’t match the outside—it’s gorgeous. She’s tossed into a small, dank room, where she overhears a woman chiding the Beast to remember that Bella is a guest, not a prisoner. She also overhears this woman telling Beast that Bella will need to eat to keep her strength up for what is to come.


Once out of her dungeon-like room, Bella is set up in a lavish bedroom of her own. In the dining room, she learns she only has to think about a food and it will appear in front of her. For someone with the issues Bella has with food, this is frightening. She learns more about the house and about Beast as they grow closer. Despite their appearances, the two have a lot in common and can understand each other in unique ways. At one point Bella says, “I’m not under a curse or anything,” and Beast says, “Aren’t you?” Bella is surprised to find being at Beast’s house is kind of like a strange rehab—one where there are no mirrors and essentially no one else to see her or judge her.


When Bella learns more about how the Beast’s curse works and the terms in which it will be lifted (Beast is free to leave the house when a man give’s her true love’s first kiss), she’s intrigued. The Beast makes it clear that she doesn’t want a kiss or anything else from any man. Bella comes up with a plan—a very surprising and complicated/risky plan—that will break the curse, but is it something she can pull off? Is it even something she should attempt?


The parallels between Beast and Bella being trapped in their bodies in different ways, and their issues with how they perceive themselves and are viewed by others, are interesting. They are both complicated characters—stubborn, determined, sometimes foolish, and brave. Bella thinks about her anorexia, her body, and her recovery a lot. We see in great detail how she felt about her thin body, the issues she still has. She never minces words, so we get a very visceral and at times disturbing look at her thoughts. The twist at the end (Bella’s plan) completely threw me for a loop. The themes of transformation and insides/outsides and identities are taken to the extreme in the final pages. I think there’s a lot of fodder for discussion from this brief novella. What does having a female Beast do to the story? Can we forget Bella is still a captive as time goes on (and what does it mean if we do?)? Are they as similar as it might seem? What do we think of Bella’s risky and surprising plan? Does it change how we view her? Do we like or agree with her choice? I love Rede’s vivid writing and the details she infuses this world with. Readers looking for a unique Beauty and the Beast tale with a lot to think about won’t be disappointed. 

Laura Bradley Rede’s novella is available as an ebook from Amazon, B&N, and Smashwords. For an excerpt of the story, see our cover reveal post from earlier this year. 


Interested in more thoughts on the Beauty and the Beast story? Check out these previous posts on TLT: 

The Beauty and the Beast Effect in YA Literature by Karen Jensen

 The Beauty and the Beast Effect in YA Literature part II: A Discussion on Rape/Abduction Fantasies by author Christa Desir




Book Review: Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl

Please go buy this book. Buy it for your library, your classroom, your kids, your friends’ kids, your neighbors, yourself. Maybe, just to be safe, buy like 10 copies, so you have plenty to hand out for gifts. This book would make a great graduation present, a birthday present for kids of all ages, and a great gift for your adult friends, too.


Can you guess that I’m kind of into this book? Because I am. 


Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped Our History… and Our Future! written by Kate Schatz and illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl chronicles 26 American women who made an impact. Short biographies detail their major contributions while giving just enough background information to understand the women and their work in some context. The conversational tone makes the biographies accessible for readers of various ages. You could hand this to a 10-year-old just as easily as a 16-year-old.


The women included in this book often faced racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and more. They are artists, journalists, pilots, scientists, judges, doctors, athletes, musicians, activists, dancers, teachers, writers, anthropologists, and many other things. They fought for women’s rights, gay rights, equality of all kinds, the rights of the poor, the rights of the worker, for health care, and for abolition. They were fighters, dreamers, hard workers, innovators, feminists, humanitarians, leaders, and icons.


The diverse women they showcase come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Just a sampling of the women in this book: Angela Davis, the Grimke sisters, Kate Bornstein, Patti Smith, Sonia Sotomayor, Virginia Apger, Wilma Mankiller, and 18 others. Did you just count? That makes 25. I loved the entry for the letter X. “X is for the women whose names we don’t know. It’s for the women we haven’t learned about yet, the women whose stories we will never read. X is for the women whose voices weren’t heard.” It goes on and every word of it is fantastic.


At the end, they entreat readers to learn more about other rad women, to write reports on rad women, to ask their teachers about their favorite rad women. They offer 26 things you can do to be rad, such as act as an ally, educate yourself, listen, and stand up for what you believe. Also included is a resource guide of books, websites, and organizations. The electronic galley I read unfortunately didn’t have the art included, but I was able to see online that the bold and bright art from the cover is what’s inside, too. This is a fantastic introduction to a wide range of important women. You NEED this book.


ISBN-13: 9780872866836

Publisher: City Lights Books

Publication date: 4/14/2015

Review copy courtesy of Edelweiss

Middle Grade Monday – Reader’s Advisory and Reference Interviews with Tweens

I’ve had a couple of conversations in the library Twittersphere about Reader’s Advisory, and the lack of training we had in our Library School programs. I do remember having some brief training on doing reference interviews during my basic reference class. The thing I remember most from it was that it’s important to ask a lot of clarifying questions, because a lot of patrons either aren’t entirely sure what they want or won’t be able to articulate it sufficiently on their own. Which might be a rather condescending attitude to have when working with adult patrons, but it does lend itself well to working with tweens. I do wonder, though, at the lack of training in RA. I thought perhaps it was because the program I attended was very heavily focused on academic (higher education) and business librarianship. From the conversations I’ve had, though, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

As a school librarian, I would have benefited greatly from some instruction on Reader’s Advisory. After 20 years of experience, I think I do fairly well, but it has taken me a while to get here. One thing in my favor is my love of reading books aimed at this interest level. I’ve read a good number of books, from a diverse group of authors and genres, and feel pretty comfortable recommending titles.

Some of the RA I do with my middle school students is fairly straightforward – for example, I have a number of students who only like one particular kind of book and need help branching out. Discussing their interests, after school activities, and what they enjoy doing for fun often yields enough information to introduce new titles and options to them. It’s also fun to be the person that explains to them that, although their teacher is requiring them to read a mystery for a book report, I can help them find one that is also horror, fantasy, etc. (which is what they really like.) I try to empower them by explaining how to use the advanced search function on the OPAC, but sometimes it helps if I’ve read the book and can do a little hand selling.

On the other hand, I sometimes get odd requests that take a little digging. I recently had a student come in asking for The Grapes of Wrath. After some conversation, it turned out that her class is studying the dust bowl and the Great Depression. I was able to help her search for something along those lines, and she left with Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust. Then there was the student last week who wanted ‘books, you know, about teenagers.’ After some discussion, he finally said, “I don’t mean to be prejudiced or anything, but I want a book about kids who look like me” He’s African American. I found him several that I thought might appeal to him and then made sure I let him know that there is never anything wrong with asking for what you want.

I think where I may have benefited the most, however, from some training would have been in how to interpret student requests for information. And how to help them remember why they came to the library. I still remember my first year as a school librarian (in an elementary school.) A kindergarten student came in to the library and just stood at the desk smiling at me. I asked if he was there for a book (no) or on an errand for his teacher (yes.) Did he know what she wanted? No. This was before the days of intercom phones between classrooms, so I had to send him back with a brief questionnaire for his teacher. It turns out she had asked him to ask me for some old newspapers. Flash forward to today, when a sixth grade student walked into my office, handed me a printer cartridge, and said, “This is a printer cartridge.” Yes, yes it is. Sigh…some things never change.

Take 5: Comic Book/Strip Creation Tools

This year’s Summer Reading theme is the perfect opportunity for me to share one of my favorite picture creation apps – Comic Book. But then I started digging a little bit to see if there was something easier (or better to use) and below are my thoughts (some of them incredibly brief) about 5 Comic Book and Comic Strip creation tools that would work well for this year’s superhero themed summer reading program.

Comic Book App

This is one of my favorite Apps of all time. It’s quick and easy to use and perfect for this year’s superhero themed SRC. I spent the last couple of weeks using it to make artwork to decorate my teen area. I have also used it to make blog graphics and a father’s day present for The Mr. Yes, you read that right, a Father’s Day present. We made a comic book page about what a great dad he was, printed it out on regular 8×11 paper, framed it and it is now one of my favorite pictures in my house.

I am also going to be using it for one of my TSRC programs. We’ll take photos and make pages to print and it will be a glorious good time.

To use the app I create the image – and it does give you choices in layout and panels – then I save it to my device. You can then email it, upload it, etc to print it out or incorporate it into your social media or larger designs. Some basic elements come free, but they have a lot of additional elements you can purchase if you would like. I have never purchased any additional elements. There are word bubbles, text boxes, and more that you can add to up the wow factor. I also really love that you can give it a barcode and a price sticker to make it look more authentic. The basic app costs $2.99. You can use it on most Apple devices. I have used it on both my iPhone and an iPad.

This tool is new to me and I’m not very familiar with it at this point, but I wanted to let you know it was out there. It seems pretty advanced. Mashable says it is for “artists” and they’re not really kidding.

I have dabbled a little with Toondoo. One of the bonus of this site is that it lets you save mid creation and come back to it.

Bitstrips is another app that let’s you make little cartoons. If you are on FB, you are probably familiar with Bitstrips because they are popular there. I see at least one a day in my feed. They can be a quick and easy tool to make a little cartoon, but I like the quality of the creations created by Comic Book better. Then again, that’s really a matter of personal taste. It would definitely be quick and fun to make some Bitstrips to share on your social media pages throughout the SRC.

This online tool comes closer to creating comics strips and panels like I do in the Comic Book app then any of the others. And it was pretty easy for me to just jump in and start designing. I will say, I cheated because I used a picture that was already comicbookified (totally not a real word) by the Comic Book app.