Why do libraries continue to strike out with young people?
Anthony Bernier | January 2023
The answer to the question why libraries strike out with young people is simple: libraries envision young people merely as information consumers, and many still believe that libraries are about books.
And we wonder why young people make libraries the butt of jokes.
When libraries privilege only certain materials and experiences over young peoples’ own ways of being, we must recognize that institutional behaviors, institutional priorities, and institutional agendas keep these institutions in severely compromised positions.
In acknowledging library visions of youth only as information consumers, for instance, youth allies should ask the whereabouts of school newspaper collections. Where the playbills and programs of annual school plays, sporting events, or extra-mural competitions? Where the archival collections of youth-created, podcasts, murals, or zines? Where the manuscripts of valedictorian speeches or debate champions… or youth poets, filmmakers, journalists, and authors?
Increasingly, and to unprecedented degrees, young people enact their own literacy practices through producing what I call “fugitive literacies.” Youth bend and shape new and ever-cheaper communications affordances and skills into literary vocal cords of their own.
Yet, despite all the ethical huffing and puffing librarianship does about commitments to “intellectual freedom” and “information access” libraries institutionally ignore youth-produced literacy enactments.
Youth produce these cultural contributions not through national publishing houses, but locally in small lots, often in one-time offerings, non-sequential, or non-serial, and often fleeting productions. The library world’s dismissive term for this cultural production is “ephemera,” a synonym for not-very-valuable; a synonym for “we don’t care about this stuff.”
Implicitly, it means that we don’t care about those who produce it, either.
I refer to the manifestations of these new literary vocal cords as “subversive materials that engage fugitive literacies.” I invoke such normally pejorative terms as “subversive” and “fugitive” to reflect how our institutions marginalize them.
One highly unusual example of a cultural institution taking youth culture seriously appears at Harvard University’s Hiphop Archive. Although focused on Hiphop itself, rather than on its creators, the collection inherently acknowledges the young voices who, since the 1970s, created an artform rivaling jazz as an American contribution to global culture.
Fugitive literacies, by nature, capture the ephemeral and fleeting. Yet they document not only the lives of young people as they live them in the present, but offer contributions as well to the larger culture – if only libraries would take them seriously…
For further thinking on the neglected status of youth-produced writing and cultural production, read Kate Douglas and Anna Poletti’s book: Life Narratives and Youth Culture: Representation, Agency and Participation.¹
Part of our job, as youth allies, should be to reverse the depths of this neglect and deploy the formidable skills and resources at our disposal to elevate the many ways in which young people document their world and ours.
¹ Douglas, K., & Poletti, A. (2016). Life Narratives and Youth Culture. London, England: Palgrave Macmillan.