Bright Idea: Five Ways to Help Your Library Become an Ally to Youth

Photograph of a young man reading a book in a library.

There are a lot of reasons the public library fits well into services for runaway and homeless youth. Libraries are protected from the elements. They have free community meeting spaces, computers, free Wi-Fi, books and magazines, comfy chairs. And homeless youth are already going to libraries as a safe haven from the streets and to use their resources, says Julie Winkelstein, post-doctoral researcher in information sciences at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.  

“Librarians can make great allies for the youth, who often need more trusted, caring adults in their lives, and great partners for the social workers,” says Winkelstein, who last year received funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for a project that aims to get libraries and social service providers to work together to promote wellbeing for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning homeless youth.

Unfortunately, Winkelstein says, as public spaces libraries often have rules that end up seeming unwelcoming to homeless young people. Some libraries warn patrons against bringing in large, or too many, bags. Others have policies against sleeping and odors. And young people without a permanent address may be unable to get a library card, which they need not only to check out books but also, at some libraries, to access the Internet.

While the intention behind these rules is to keep libraries hospitable to all, sometimes the rules stem from negative stereotypes that are simply a result of lacking understanding, says Vicki Terrile, director of Community Library Services at Queens Library in New York. By reaching out to their local branches, particularly to the librarians focused on teens and young adults, Terrile says, youth and family services workers can clear up misconceptions and better prepare library staff to welcome young people experiencing homelessness and point them toward services.

Here are five things you can do:

  1. Train librarians on how to recognize homeless youth, even if they are trying to keep a low profile, and regularly provide librarians with up-to-date information on local services to which they can refer youth.
  2. Find one person on the library staff you can send youth to for services they may particularly benefit from, like learning how to scan important documents or save files in the cloud.
    “Educating [all] staff to be more welcoming doesn’t always happen, but all it takes is one person to be a liaison,” Terrile says.
  3. Work with the library branch, or your library system, to create more-inclusive visitor policies. For example, Winkelstein says, libraries could provide lockers for youth and others experiencing homelessness to store backpacks and other belongings while in the library, and be more flexible about time limits on the computers.
  4. Encourage your library system to make library cards accessible to all by waiving for homeless people the requirement to have a permanent address or some form of identification to get a library card or access other library services.  Both Winkelstein and Terrile noted that some libraries accept a letter from service providers or whomever youth are temporarily staying with to either waive the requirement, or grant a restricted, or “surfer card,” that doesn’t allow checking out books, but allows Internet access.
  5. Recommend that libraries take the needs of LGBTQ youth (who make up a large proportion of runaway and homeless young people) into account. For example, Winkelstein suggests, libraries could provide a gender-neutral bathroom and put up “safe space” posters and stickers--or “hate-free zone” posters, if the library cannot guarantee safety. You might also provide training on working with LGBTQ youth, and on using non-gender-normative vocabulary in general. “If it’s going to be a safe space, [addressing librarians’ stereotypes] is work that needs to be done,” Terrile says.
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