Fostering Digital Information Literacy

March 27, 2009 at 11:01 am 6 comments

This past weekend I had the pleasure and the privilege of presenting at Sex::Tech 2009, a conference focusing on youth, technology and sexual health. I presented (a little nervously, I might add) highlights from the work young adult librarians are doing to support teen sexual health, as well as some of the barriers we face to providing comprehensive sexual health information in our libraries.

The conference was amazing–full of teens and teen advocates–and I absolutely recommend that anyone interested in health & wellness, youth advocacy, technology or sex education try to attend next year. You can check out the slides and some of the cool people I met over in the YALSA post. Full text for my presentation is after the jump.

[Intro to feel out how familiar the audience is with libraries and YA services.]

First of all, when most people say “young adult,” I think they usually mean the 18-24 group. But when librarians say “young adult,” we mean teens. So YA literature is geared toward teens, and YA librarians—whether we’re in schools or public libraries—work with teens.

And that’s a pretty new development. For a long time libraries did children’s services and adult services, and there was sort of a twilight zone in between. The traditional attitude was that kids would come back to the library when they grew up. You’d see it in libraries just by walking in—there’s the adult room, the children’s room, and the young adult shelf.

But now we’re more or less taking over the world. The Young Adult Library Services Association, YALSA (which is an acronym I’ll probably use a lot today) is now the fastest growing member division of the American Libraries Association. So now there are a lot of librarians—and a lot of libraries—committed to working with teens. I’ve been running this slideshow to try to give you an idea of all the different activities you might see teen librarians running, from gaming events to anti-prom.

One of the most important things we do is find information. I like to tell people that librarians might not know everything, but we know how to find everything. And that’s what we want teens to be able to do–to find the information they need and want. It’s what we call information literacy. If literacy is being able to read and write, then information literacy is a step above. It’s being able to understand. It’s the difference between being able to read a book and being able to evaluate the book. Information literacy is really important when it comes to website evaluation. Here’s a screenshot from a site we like to use at my high school. [Slide]

Now, take a second to scan this, and just raise a hand if anything jumps out at you.

We want teens to be thinking critically when they look at any source, whether it’s an encyclopedia or a website. Is this the kind of source I want? Am I getting neutral information, or is there a bias here? How do two different sources tell me different things about the same subject?

Nowhere are these questions more important than when they’re applied to sexual health information.

I don’t think I need to tell anyone here that there’s a vast pool of misinformation and misconceptions when it comes to sex. From Mountain Dew spermicide to “the first time doesn’t count,” we have a lot of teens who are confused about sex, and a lot of grownups who are either unwilling or unable to talk about it.

I say “unable,” because many young adult librarians find themselves in schools or communities with very strong opinions about sex and sexuality. One librarian I spoke to works in a school that hasn’t had a book challenge since the 70s, but it got so heated that they still haven’t fully recovered. Anyone want to guess the title of the book that was challenged? [Slide]

The town that challenged Our Bodies Ourselves is a pretty religious community, and the sex ed the high school offers is more or less abstinence-only. According to students, the message is, “If you have sex, you’ll get a disease.” And they want more than that. Their librarian thinks they deserve more than that, but her hands are a little tied. In a climate where library programs and librarians are among the first to go when schools make cuts, it’s hard to deviate from the party line. So her non-fiction resources are tied directly to the curriculum–meaning her resources around teen sexual health are very limited. She’s trying to sneak in some fiction with LGBTQ themes, but even that can be tough.

I’m hearing stories like this from librarians around the country, whether they’re in school or public libraries. The more dedicated a community is to abstinence-only education–or to staying out of the sex ed business entirely–the more difficult it can be for a library to provide comprehensive sexual health resources. Which is a shame, because of course these are the communities that need those resources the most. Another librarian told me that her dream high school library would have a bowl of condoms in the health section, but something tells me she’s not going to bring that up when she goes for job interviews.

Then there are the “unwilling” adults. Unfortunately, a few of them are librarians.

School Library Journal ran a great article last month about books that never make it to the shelf because adults–including librarians–intervene first. [Slide] These are situations where adults are either afraid of community reaction–reaction that hasn’t actually happened yet–or letting their own biases about what is and isn’t appropriate material for teens creep into their purchasing decisions.

And there’s a fine line–actually, a blurry line–between “adult material” and young adult material. One public librarian I spoke to shelves manga [Slide] rated above T in the adult section, but that doesn’t stop teens from checking it out–she said “I think they’d go to the roof if that’s where we kept Death Note and Fruit’s Basket.” The high school where I work stocks street lit, [Slide 5] titles by authors like T. Styles and Wahida Clark, but a lot of schools won’t touch street lit with a ten foot pole, largely thanks to sexual content. There are even schools that won’t carry Twilight, a book about a vampire who refuses to bite the love of his life until they’re married. Just to clarify, a book about an abstinent vampire is too racy for some libraries.

Beyond the book collections, some libraries also don’t think it’s their place to do anything on the topic of wellness or sexual health. When I came across a public library’s list of online resources on sexual health, I asked the young adult librarian if they offer any programs. Her answer? “We leave that to the public schools.”

I find that answer more than a little disconcerting–partly because I think the last administration made sure public schools weren’t adequately teaching about sexual health, and partly because I think it’s everyone’s job to raise responsible and informed teens.

So far I’ve been painting a pretty bleak picture, and I haven’t even mentioned things like libraries that put the racy books in desk drawers or community challenges to …And Tango Makes Three. (Do people know about this book? It’s a children’s book based on the true story of two male penguins, Roy and Silo, who were a couple in the Central Park Zoo. The zookeepers saw them trying to hatch an egg-shaped rock, so they gave them an egg from another couple that had two. The egg hatched into Tango, and they raised her as a family. It’s really cute. But it’s one of the most frequently challenged books in libraries across the country.) But there is a silver lining–many libraries can and do provide fantastic resources and programs when it comes to teen sexual health.

There are online resource pages. This is very common among public libraries, many of which offer guides specifically for teens on a variety of subjects, but school libraries offer them too. I’ve grabbed screenshots from a few and I just want to flip through them quickly–I have the links for all of these if you want to explore them later. [Resource pages]

There are also some great community collaborations. Uni has a strong relationship with Planned Parenthood, which has actually helped shape the school’s health and sex ed curriculum. This is also a library that has had relationships with the school’s GSA (which is actually the QSA this year) and a group called the Sexual Health Awareness Group, or SHAG.

Some libraries also have amazing programming. Through generous sponsorship from TimeWarner, New York Public Library has been able to offer a variety of workshops, from HIV and AIDS awareness to dating tips for queer youth.

I also want to point out that YALSA, the Young Adult Library Services Association, offers some fantastic support for librarians who want to give their teens resources on sexual health and wellness. For the past three years YALSA has sponsored Teen Tech Week, a nationwide initiative to ensure that teens are competent and ethical technology users. This year’s Teen Tech Week partners include Do Something, a non-profit dedicated to teen activism–including activism in areas like HIV awareness and prevention–and Rosen Publishing, who offered their Teen Health & Wellness database for free to libraries who registered for Teen Tech Week.

I’ve been using Teen Health & Wellness with sophomores this month. We started out by just letting the students explore whatever topics interested them. So often we’re asking teens to find very specific information when they come into the library. But especially with a topic like health and wellness, I think it’s really important sometimes to let teens just browse and stumble into information and find things that interest them. And as the teacher who’s in charge of this particular bunch of sophomores for the wellness unit told me, there’s so much nervous energy around health and sexuality. I had students passing books around and laughing and yelling and trying to figure out what everyone was looking up–and that’s okay. That’s a part of negotiating all this new information and your own identity and just surviving high school. And that’s why it’s so important that libraries are places where teens can access information in a way that works for them.

In schools, that can be a huge problem. [Pause to ask the audience about blocking in schools.] Thankfully we’re pretty much past the days where keyword filtering made it impossible to use the internet at school to research breast cancer, but plenty of schools still block specific kinds of content. For my district, it’s YouTube and Facebook. If we ban cellphones and block social networking sites, we’re telling teens that these are technologies that don’t belong in a place of learning—and that’s just wrong. We know that adults do amazing things with online and mobile communities. Much of this presentation wouldn’t have happened without Twitter. How can we expect teens to grow into responsible and creative technology users if we never let them use technology in the place where they spend the majority of their time?

And the reality is that teens will find a way to get around the roadblocks anyway. I’ve lost count of the number of teachers and librarians I’ve heard say “If you want to get YouTube unblocked, ask a kid.” So why put these artificial barriers in place if teens are going to go around them—and see us as adversaries for putting those barriers in the way—when we could be using the technology to work with the kids instead of against them?

I just want to wrap this up by saying that I love my job. I think young adult librarians have this amazing opportunity to relate to teens in a way that is utterly unique. We’re teachers, we’re mentors, we’re advocates, we’re fans. We’re voluntarily working with a whole chunk of the population that other adults fear and disrespect and underestimate, and we do it because we love teenagers, and we love information, and seeing the two find each other is a beautiful thing.

But we can’t do our jobs when library programs and positions are cut. We can’t give teens the resources that we don’t have. I said it before and I’ll say it again–It is everyone’s job to make sure that teens grow into informed and sexually responsible adults. Librarians can make that job so much easier–but only if we have the tools and the support from our larger communities.


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What I’ve Been Reading What I’ve Been Reading

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Frances Jacobson Harris  |  March 27, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Nice! You should write this up and submit it to VOYA, or a health ed. mag., or….

    And I just realized, I’m also a Sagittarian librarian!

  • 2. pandanose  |  March 27, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Thanks! It’s been a bit of a whirlwind the past few weeks so I hadn’t even thought of turning it into an article, but that’s a great idea.

    (Hooray for Sagittarian librarians!)

  • 3. Joshua Reyes  |  March 27, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    Inspired. Funny, you don’t sound shaky at all in blog.

  • 4. pandanose  |  March 27, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Hmm. Perhaps I should consider giving any future presentations in a blog format.

  • 5. Caitlin Quinn  |  April 6, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    you make so many important points here. thank you for sharing your experiences, observations, research and resources!

  • 6. Anonymous  |  April 6, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    […] Caitlin Quinn Thank you to Sagittarian Librarian who recently presented at Sex::Tech 2009, sharing insights and resources pertaining to youth, […]


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