Career Strategies for Librarians
Something Different Every Day: Applying Outside Experience to Youth Services
by Rebecca Donnelly
Imagine finding this job advertisement in the paper: “Wanted: outgoing, book-loving computer expert or
statistician to work with children and teens. Must know how to sing, knit, play the ukulele, design a battery-
powered soapbox racer, and teach chess. Knowledge of sign language, foreign languages, history,
geography, literature, science, social studies, art, picture books, manga, and Captain Underpants
essential.” The best job ever? Possibly. I can’t say that I am an expert on all of these things, but as youth
services librarians my colleagues and I deal with all of this and more every day, and all the outside
experience we can bring to bear on the job makes us better and more creative at what we do.
Yes, We Have a Program for That
Programs are the heart of a community library, and youth services programming is as varied and complex
a field as anyone could wish for. In my small library system, we are lucky enough to have staff members
who have worked as a children’s book editor, a school librarian, a public school teacher, a tech services
supervisor, an engineer, an award-winning author, a crack Beatrix Potter impersonator, and a fruit seller.
All right, the last one was a part-time job I held years ago, but you see the point. (And I wouldn’t be
surprised if the day comes when the ability to distinguish between hachiya and fuyu persimmons is
critical to someone’s geography report.) Thanks to our other lives and experimental careers, we are able
to offer a range of programs that brings children of all ages and their families to the library year-round.
In an average week, we offer eight to ten programs at our branch alone, and that doesn’t include school
tours, homeschool groups, and special events. There’s a lot of room to be creative. Our engineer runs a
program called Design Squad, based on the PBS show, where kids learn fundamental science concepts
through hands-on design and construction. They’ve built tipis, bridges, electric circuits, and balloon-
powered cars. Most of the participants are homeschooled, and this program supports their home
curriculum, with the bonus of having someone with a scientific background to help the kids understand
what they’re doing.
Our former high school teacher has arranged manga art shows, elementary school poetry slams, and a
teen Mardi Gras party. Our performing duo takes their show on the road to promote summer reading at
local schools—and they’ve been invited to present at ALA. Before my job in the produce industry, I was a
certified massage therapist and studied infant massage; now I run an infant program that makes the
perfect platform for connecting early literacy to children’s wellness and development. Every library staff
has a unique set of talents and interests, and almost anything can be a children’s program if you
approach it in the right way. You love animals? Bring therapy dogs to the library and let the kids read to
them. You write poetry? So do third graders winging their way through their first haikus—invite them to
read at the library. You have a strange obsession with desert island survival scenarios? Have the kids
take the Robinson Crusoe survival challenge. You might even get them to read the book, too.
Reference and reader’s advisory are interdisciplinary by nature. Isn’t that what we all love about our jobs:
where else but the library would you have the chance to answer questions about everything from the best
easy readers for kindergarteners to science fair projects about water balloons to that book that they just
made into a movie, you know, the one with the girl …?
This is the place where outside experience and knowledge really pay off. The panicked father can’t find
any books for his son’s biography report on Metacom … but you remember that he could also be listed
under King Philip. (Thank you, American history class.) Your most recent book on Indonesia was
published before the tsunami in 2004, but you studied up on Southeast Asia for your vacation last year, so
you have a mental list of reliable web sites and articles for those country projects. Or a mom comes in
with her Cub Scout to find information about “how people lived long ago”—luckily for them, you’ve been
attending Renaissance Fair and jousting in the park every Saturday morning since you were fourteen.
Working in youth services gives you the chance to revisit your own childhood and teen years through a sort
of reader’s mosaic. Often patrons come in looking for the latest in a current series or the most recent
Newbery winner, but there are always those parents who want to introduce their children to the books they
loved when they were growing up. You might remember feeling the same way, coming home from the
library with Nancy Drew in your backpack, or perhaps you remember your daughter curled up with the
Baby-sitters Club series. Now you can introduce those books to a new generation, and in graphic novel
Customer service skills are essential to every job in the library. In youth services, you have probably the
widest range of ages and attitudes to work with, from the youngest patrons whose parents have managed
to wander to some other part of the library (in which case your bounty hunting or sheepherding experience
will come in handy) to grandparents who bring their grandchildren to find something to read. Adults with
developmental disabilities often use the children’s department to find reading material at their level. Any
outside work in customer service will help on the desk, whether it’s training in how to talk to upset
customers, how to handle inappropriate behavior, or just how to communicate effectively when your
customers are looking for help.
The Social Librarian
Working at the reference desk is only one of the ways in which we can exercise our social natures. The
public library is often the best resource center in a community for children’s services and information.
School and day care groups come to the library, and librarians increasingly go out to the community to
present outreach programs. This takes social skills in every sense of the term. Successful outreach
depends upon blending a thorough understanding of the local community with the knowledge of children’
s developmental needs. The more familiarity you have with your community, through involvement in local
schools, clubs, or community agencies, the better prepared you are for outreach. Theory is good, but it
has to be grounded in practical experience.
I went on my first outreach visit with wide eyes and a whole box of useful books and pamphlets, and
ended up speaking to two mothers and their children who primarily spoke Spanish. My college Spanish
classes helped a little here, but the real connection was the fact that we were all mothers: I remembered
how I had felt as a new mom, looking for advice or just encouragement in the difficult work of raising a
baby. Too often the experiences we gain through being parents are discounted because they fall outside
the realm of paid work; all I can say to that is that I couldn’t do my job with the same confidence and sense
of immediacy if I didn’t have that experience to call on.
In addition to being a resource center, the public library is a place where parents expect to find quality
programs and events. Any event planner knows that putting together a good show isn’t just a matter of
picking up the phone and booking an act. It takes negotiation, promotion, and a great deal of energy to
organize a good program. Sales experience is useful here, or membership in the PTA, Kiwanis, or any
other group that hosts large events. It also takes an understanding of what children want in a program. If
you’ve ever seen thirty preschoolers dressed like princesses or had to answer the phones when it’s time
to sign up for the next American Girls program, you’ll know what that means.
Behind the Scenes
In my department, three or four of us will be busy in the office at any given time, catching up on collection
development, putting together the desk schedule, or working on promotional flyers for upcoming
programs. We rely on each other’s expertise to help with a lot of our work behind the scenes. I might ask
our former tech services supervisor for help running lists of billed items in my 900s section, and a week
later she’ll ask me for help wording a paragraph on the library’s web site. One of us might be writing a
grant to fund a new program, and our statistics whiz will help to fill in the blanks with the appropriate
Experience with computers and technology is one of the most useful outside skills that can be brought to
the youth services office. We all love books, we all create programs like crazy, but designing a poster that
will get patrons’ attention or formatting a bibliography of great read-alouds is not, for many of us, as innate
as those aspects of our jobs that we are most passionate about. In the age of desktop publishing, good
graphic design is practically a requirement. Our patrons come to expect not only professional reference
work and programs, but professional design, as well. Children especially are drawn to what is visually
stimulating, and if a poster grabs their attention, they will point it out to their parents; if you can’t attract
patrons, it doesn’t matter how good the event is.
Collection development is another computer-driven process. The ability to create spreadsheets and
import data from the ILS allows us to keep accurate records of what’s in the collection, what’s billed or out
of date, and what should be weeded or replaced. But computers don’t make collection development
possible; they just make it easier. As with reference and reader’s advisory, subject knowledge is crucial.
When you’re purchasing for subjects that you know well, you are better able to identify the holes in your
collection, which titles have been superseded, and which of several possibilities makes the best
purchase for your library. Having a staff with diverse interests also helps: I select materials on geography
and exploration, and although I’ve never been to Antarctica, I can rely on the help of my co-worker, the
former manager of a South Pole research station, to ensure that our collection in that area is up to snuff.
Bring the Outside In
Plenty of better writers than I wax poetic on the potential of childhood—yes, this is the time when lifelong
learning and a love of reading begin, and yes, the youth services department at the library is there to
nurture and support those little explosions of intellectual development. I just think that this really is the
best job ever. I have the opportunity every day to learn something new and to apply what I already know in
new ways. I did a lot of odd jobs and took several circuitous paths on my way to working at the library. So
did many of us, but that has only strengthened the skills and the talents we bring now that we’ve arrived.
Had you almost forgotten those photography lessons you took, or the summer job at the stable back
when you were planning to run away and ride bareback in the circus? Believe me, you can find a way to
use it at the library.
About the Author:
Rebecca Donnelly is a Youth Services Librarian in Rio Rancho, NM. In addition to writing about the view
from youth services for professional publications, she is a master's candidate in the humanities and a
volunteer reviewer for School Library Journal.
Article published June 2008
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.