Libraries and childrenThere’s an intriguing article in the Jan-Feb 2008 issue of American Libraries called Design Thinking by Steven J. Bell, an associate librarian at Temple University. Even if you don’t read the article, which contains nothing that directly applies to youth services (but plenty indirectly – see below), there’s one line that I do want to pass on:

As a profession that mediates information from source to user – not unlike newspapers and travel agents – our future challenge is avoiding marginalization.

Notice that Bell cites two examples – newspapers and travel agents – that have been in serious trouble, in danger of marginalization, the past few years. The number of people buying 3D newspapers has stagnated since the turn of the century, and how many of us use travel agencies anymore when we can shop fairly easily for airline tickets and cruises from home? Again, our challenge is finding and trumpeting a role we can be proud of when many other people (most of whom never have been library users) wonder whether libraries and librarians have become superfluous.

Luckily for us youth services folks, we don’t work simply as mediators. We are also performers, we are also teachers, and we are also coaches for our young users and their caregivers. We work with the very young, who aren’t well served by technology and need face-to-face attention, and with the elementary- and middle-school-aged, who often neither know nor understand what they actually need for an assignment.

There are more things in Bell’s article that are worth considering. He believes that a key component of good library design is creating “memorable user experiences” for library users. He compares the difference between making your own cup of coffee for maybe 25 cents in materials and purchasing a similar cup at a hip coffee bar for many times that. Why are we okay about buying that cup of joe for $2 or more? Because the coffee bar provides a place we can socialize, relax, or hook into the Net.

Providing a memorable user experience in libraries for young people and their caregivers will become more critical as time goes on, and I think that it’s worth our while to think more intensely about how we’ll do that. Bell suggests a blog he moderates, Designing Better Libraries, and I suggest we youth people start visiting and asking questions. Start shaking up those cool, high-tech academic and administrative folks with questions about dealing with parents changing diapers on the study tables.