“But I Work with Adults”: What Academic Librarians Can Learn from Working with Children

Editor’s Note: We welcome Alex Harrington to the ACRLog team. Alex is a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Tidewater Community College, at the Virginia Beach campus Joint-Use Library. Her research interests include classroom technology, improving UX in libraries, marketing & outreach, and diversity and inclusion.

As a college librarian and a self-described “not a kid person,” I do not feel equipped to work with children of any age. Therefore, one of the great things about our joint-use library (part community college library, part city public library), in my opinion, is that any kids in our library usually head straight for the children’s room, run by public library staff.

Despite this, I have made a concerted effort to work with kids in our building anyway, and I’d like to offer some opinions on why you should try it, too.

Our community college hosts a series of week-long summer camps for different age groups with themes like career exploration or creative writing. The kids learn from different areas of the college, like the planetarium, the technology labs, and, yes, the library. We usually give them a tour and have some activities related to their theme, most of which are tried-and-true public library program favorites: usually STEM experiments or art projects.

My experiences with these camps have run the gamut from “what a sweet and polite group of young people” to “I am never doing that again, and if you ask me to, I quit.” The most common question I get from my coworkers about this work is some version of, “But why? You’re a college librarian; you work with adults.”

It is true that I was not hired to give pre-teens a tour of the library, highlighting features such as our 3-D printer and the young adult manga collection, guide them through writing a mystery, or teach them how to most effectively stack old encyclopedias to make a book tower. However, part of our college’s mission is “life-long learning.” The college usually talks about this in terms of senior citizens enrolling in classes, or teaching job skills to adults, but doesn’t it also include learning that takes place before college?

Our summer camps began as a way to boost enrollment. The idea is that, although these kids are ten years away from graduating high school, they have family who might be prompted by the summer camp experience to take some classes, and it gets our name out there. I think, though, that it’s valuable to give the kids a good college (and library) experience too.

The kids feel empowered when a college librarian, who usually only works with adults, shows them library services and resources that adults and college students use, and teaches them how to use them for their own purposes. I hear from them that they feel special, getting to do things that most kids their age aren’t normally doing, whether it’s touring the inner workings of the library or using a career database we show the first-year college students.

Kids are smart. Given the opportunity, they can make good choices, develop creative solutions to problems, and learn complex subjects. They deserve to have agency and respect like anyone else who walks into the college library. The kids appreciate being treated more like adults, and associate that empowered feeling with our college and our library.

The kids and the college aren’t the only ones benefiting from this situation, though. I have found that working with such a different audience has improved my reference and instruction skills.

As many of you may be, I’m accustomed to seeing our library, services, and resources in a certain way: through the eyes of our college-level students doing college-related work. The problem is, children don’t want to hear about scholarly journals, citation, printing, or any of the other things we frequently show our college students. In order to give an engaging library tour to children, I had to step back and think about our library in a new way. We have a 3-D printer, circulating video games, a giant chess set, downloadable comic books, and many other things I don’t normally mention at the reference desk or in the classroom. Now that I think about those things more often and have some practice talking about them to library patrons, I think of them while talking to students. A student might begrudgingly admit that they need the library’s help to finish their paper, but they’ll be delighted to learn that we have a digital media lab where you can make stop-motion videos.

My approach to instruction has been, for a long time, to use games, humor, and fun active learning activities to appeal to a student’s inner child to get them engaged with the class, making it easier for them to learn the library instruction content. Working with actual children in the same library space has taught me new ways to do this more effectively.

Now that I realize this, I make a point to attend more of the public library’s programs in the building, to observe how children and families use and think about our spaces. (The added bonus is that I get to see a magic show, listen to the opera, or pet cows and goats, while I’m at work!)

You don’t need to have a joint-use library partnership with a public library to gain these benefits. Just step back and look at how a child might engage with your library. Better yet, create opportunities to see it in action. Consider offering child-friendly programming, a partnership with your college’s early childhood literacy or K-12 teacher programs, hosting your local school district’s Battle of the Books or a Summer Reading Program event, or start a summer camp. Have you brought kids into your college library? How did you do it? What did you learn from it?

One thought on ““But I Work with Adults”: What Academic Librarians Can Learn from Working with Children”

  1. I was visiting my public library yesterday when a 12yo child ran up to the desk to thank the librarian for finding his phone charger, he proceeded to loudly fart at her and said that was my thank you and ran away, this made me glad that I work in an academic library.

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