Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Sunday Reflections: Sometimes You are Not the One, and That’s Okay

One of my earliest and most terrifying encounters working with teens in the library came early on in my career, before I had taken a single class to help me understand the ins and outs of just what it was I was signing up for. A teen boy came in to the library one day, agitated and jumpy. There was a fierce intensity about him, a raw panic that made people stand back. I approached him and asked him if there was something I could help him with. It turned out he was positive he was possessed by a demon and looking for help. I’m not going to lie, it took me several seconds to even think about what I should do in this situation, it was a question I was in no way prepared for. I obviously didn’t really have what he needed, but I referred him to some local mental health places and a priest that I thought could probably help him and did the only thing I could – hoped that he would be okay. We actually talked for a bit that day and it was obvious that he wasn’t an immediate threat to anyone, but he did need help far beyond what I could give him in a single reference interview and in the pages of a book.

At this same library, a group of kids came in once and got me because they said one boy was beating up another boy right outside the library doors. I walked up to the doors and saw a very big guy beating up a very little guy. Right away I knew there was no way I was going to be able to do anything to stop it, so I ran inside and dialed 911. The next day, the bigger boy – the aggressor – came in to the library with several other kids, one of whom held a sledgehammer.  He walked up to the chair I was sitting in, putting one hand on each arm of the chair and pinning me in, and told me I better never call the cops on him again. A few weeks later he approached me at a gas station; the poor gas station attendant called the cops and came running out to make sure I was okay because it was obvious that this teenage boy was threatening me. He ended up being permanently banned from the library. That’s right, a teenager was permanently banned from the library under my watch and to be honest with you, I was perfectly okay with it.

Library administrators like numbers, but many of us working in youth and teen services know that there is more that matters than numbers. I can have a program where only five teens shows up and see how those five teens and I sat there doing those crafts and talked about amazing things and bonded. I can walk away from a program with only five teens and feel really great about the program, because I know that those teens had a moment where they bonded with and were affirmed by an adult and they will probably look back on that moment as a moment that matters. The five on a report handed to admin may look bad, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

I think this is in part because may of us who work with kids don’t just do so as a job, we do it as a kind of ministry. Many of us view being a youth services librarian as ministering to the individuals, to the community, to our world’s future. And we know because of things like the 40 Developmental Assets that this is true. Our work creates ways for a variety of those assets to be met and we are doing good things. And we also know that we have the opportunity to have those one on one moments with teens that can make a difference. Sometimes it is a one time thing, sometimes it turns into a an ongoing relationship between the librarian and a teen or group of teens. Other times, those interactions fail; the truth is that sometimes you are not the one and that is okay.

That boy who thought he was possessed by a demon – he needed someone to help him, but I was not that someone. I didn’t have the knowledge or skills necessary to help him. What was happening to him was way beyond here read this book or here is an adult that cares about you. He needed a mental health professional and I was not the one.

That boy who was permanently banned from the library – he too needed someone to reach out and make a difference to him, but I was not that someone. It got to the point where my safety became a higher concern to me than being the one to bond with him and maybe be the one to lead him to change. He needed someone that could approach him without fear and I was not the one.

We can’t be the one for many of the teens that walk into our libraries. Sometimes they need people with knowledge and skills in different areas of expertise than ours. Sometimes our personalities don’t click. Sometimes people just get lost in the shuffle because of the sheer number of teens that come in our library doors.This too is part of why it takes a village.

In our communities, there are other adults that care about teens and are working to meet their needs – get to know them. Network with them. No matter how awesome you are and what kinds of awesome programs and services you are offering, you can’t be the one for every single teen that walks in your library doors. And that’s okay. Your job is also to know the services and resources in your community that you can refer them to.

So when you have those moments when you are in fact not the one to connect with one of the teens that comes into your library, it’s okay. You are, in fact, only human. Do your best, provide great customer service, provides the services and programs you can realistically offer within the confines of your library space, staff time, and budget, and give yourself permission to be human. It’s not just that you aren’t “the one” for every teen that walks through your library’s door, because the truth is – you can’t be. The adult that made a difference in your life is much different than the adult that made a difference in someone else’s life, it’s not all on your shoulders. There are other shoulders out there to help bear the weight of the world. It’s okay to occasionally let your shoulders take a break from all the heavy lifting.


  1. I love this post, Karen. Thank you for writing it.

    And thank you for understanding that numbers don't tell the whole story. I have taught classes at libraries for a few years now and often, if only a handful of people show up, the librarian gets all apologetic and goes to round up every kid just sitting in the computer area watching YouTube videos or whatever and makes him/her sit in on “the writing class.”

    This is actually not anything necessary. I'd rather talk to a small group of kids who are interested in the topic at hand and give them the close attention that a small group offers than try to win over kids who are at the library for some other reason. (And this experience actually mimics English class experiences, for kids who love writing and language, in which they have to tolerate a whole load of kids who are just 'tolerating' the subject matter and don't really care about it!)

    I think these small experiences can be really, really big, actually. A lot of kids don't get a chance to talk about writing or books with adults apart from assigned work or required reading; teachers in public schools are given heavy loads in terms of curriculum and test preparation and all of that. In this instance, the library providing an hour class on writing for a couple of kids who just want to contend with the topic with very low stakes is more than a gift. It's an affirmation that books aren't just about grades or analysis, that writing isn't just something you do to fulfill a requirement.

    Anyway. Thank you for doing all the work you do.

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