We're in the process of doing strategic planning for teen services both at my library and in the county. Overall, I've really enjoyed the strategic planning process, and I'll discuss it more in future posts, but I did die a little inside when someone asked the question I loathe. I hear it all the time, read it in journals and on blogs, have been on at least one panel discussing it at a conference. Whenever I give a presentation, someone in the audience will ask this question. It's very rare that anyone likes my answer.
The question: "How can we make teens think we're cool?"
My unpopular answer: We can't.
Librarians in general seem to have some major desire to make the world think that we're "hip," as with the articles in the New York Times and elsewhere about the New York Hipster Librarians. Why is this? I know quite a few people who work in various IT jobs, and they don't sit around worrying that they're seen as geeks. They embrace their geekiness and joke about it. Do doctors, lawyers, social workers, project managers - pick a career - do any of them put out press releases describing their leisure activities? Why do librarians? Here's the thing - once you start screaming "I'm cool" from the rooftops, you've guaranteed that no one will ever find you cool again.
It's even more unlikely that anyone attempting to be "cool" will be seen as such when working with teenagers. Teen cultures (and there are many, not just one monolithic "Teen Culture," which is another of my pet peeves that I'll get into later) change frequently. By the time something becomes obvious to adults, it's probably already passe. If you honestly enjoy reading the books, listening to the music, watching "High School Musical 2," hanging out in the mosh pit, snowboarding, skateboarding, buying jewelry at Claire's, seeing teen sex comedies, texting, creating a myspace or facebook, or doing any of the other millions of things that make up parts of teen culture...good for you. But if you do those things because you think "Oh,this is the new cool thing," you've already lost all credibility.
Here's another sad truth that the well-meaning people in our strategic planning sessions don't realize. We're old. Even if we're only in our mid-20s, or early 30s, we're still old. The best we can hope for is that we'll be seen as "not that old." I once had a teen tell me that I must have enjoyed doing something during "my childhood in the 60s." When I pointed out to him that I wasn't born until the late 70s, he thought about it for a second, then shrugged and said, "To tell the truth, once you're over about 25 you all seem the same to me." I threw a pencil at him, but when I remember my own teenage years, I do remember classifying people into a few large categories: little kids, kids, teens, college students, adults, and old people. It was incredibly rare for an adult to fall into the "cool" category. The ones who did were the ones who treated me with respect and seemed to enjoy their own lives - not the ones who desperately tried too hard.
During strategic planning, and in general, there are a lot of questions I want to see asked. How can our department be relevant? What do we provide that serves the needs of our users? What do they need or want, and how do we determine that? What are we doing well? What should we be doing? What should we stop doing? What place do we have in the community? These are all questions that I think are vital and should be asked over and over again. Do libraries have a place in the lives of teenagers? I believe that we do (at least, I certainly hope so). Does "being cool" help us find that place? Not in the slightest.
"Cool" is ephemeral. Friendly, useful, helpful, fun, caring, respectful, dependable, thoughtful, passionate, inviting, positive, kind - those are the words that should be important. Those are the words I want people to use when they're thinking about the library. Those are the words that last.