Interview by Anna Shustitzky, CCB Outreach Coordinator
“You have the opportunity to really change people’s lives, and you never know when that’s going to happen.”
It’s been a busy time for youth services at GSLIS, with the latest news being Dr. Rachel Magee’s introduction to the youth services team as an Assistant Professor. Now that the semester is in full swing, the CCB was pleased to sit down with Dr. Magee to learn about her background and the perspective she brings to the field.
Skip to a Question:
What brought you into library science? Did you always know you wanted to work in the field?
Tell me more about your research interests. What inspired you to pursue those questions?
What are some challenges you see in your research?
What are some opportunities that have come out of your research?
Tell me more about how you plan to get youth involved in the research process. What does that look like?
Where do you think your research will go from here?
What advice do you have for aspiring youth librarians?
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you or your work?
I’m one of those unusual folks who really did have an interest in libraries right off the bat. I actually found my PSAT form when I was moving a few years back, and I had included “librarian” as the job I was interested in as a high school sophomore. That’s really because my mom started volunteering at our local library. Leon Valley, Texas had one library, and it was tiny. It was actually in a portable for the first few years I was there. It was run by this amazing librarian, Joyce Trent. I started going there when I was five, and my mom—she’s an early childhood educator—she started doing some reading program support at the library, things like that. When I was about twelve I started helping my mom.
I got my first job at the library, and my librarian actually managed to get a grant and got an actual building built. About five years ago they actually got an extension for a children’s wing, so it just shows you how amazing this one librarian was. She singlehandedly got a library built! So that was my introduction to librarianship, was her, and getting to work there. I ran a literary magazine and I did preschool story hour, and we used to have big Goosebumps nights, and science nights…. I really got right into the meat of librarianship as a teen. I always thought it would be a career trajectory. I studied radio, television, film, and English in college. I always liked stories, and I thought I was going to be a literary agent or something like that, and I got to New York and said, “ooh, no, this is not for me!” So I did my Master’s in about 13 months, and got right out into the field. I started when I was 24.
So “yes,” I guess is the short answer to that!
“Working in the field was what really started me on thinking about research.”
It really was being a librarian. Contrary to my experience in libraries, I never thought that I was going to go into academia. I didn’t follow research, I didn’t have much exposure to it, but as I was working in the field, there were a couple of things that made me start to consider my research. I was a teen services librarian, and the discourse around youth really didn’t jive with what I was seeing on a day-to-day basis. I was working with young people who had a really hard time using technology, and I was spending a lot of time helping them learn how to use things ranging from the library catalog and databases to video cameras and podcasting. I was saying, “this takes a lot of work, they don’t know this stuff yet.” That, coupled with the understanding that if I eventually became someone who was teaching folks who were going to work with youth, if I could ramp up my advocacy for young people rather than it just being on a 1:1 basis, hopefully helping other people to develop a positive relationship with young people, then I might be able to increase my impact.
Working in the field was what really started me on thinking about research. It was really because I was starting to ask questions that I couldn’t just answer by looking it up. I wanted to know what actually was going on in teens’ every day lives, and felt the need to get out there and ask them about it. What do you do when you’re a librarian and you can’t find the answer? You do a research study!
There are lots of different kinds of challenges. I think most people might assume that interacting with young people would be one, but I actually find that not to be the case for the most part. The overwhelming majority of interactions that I’ve had with youth have been not only positive but really impressive. That part has been the easy part, the fun part.
The tough stuff is getting all of the administrative, structural stuff in place in order to be able to get out and meet young people, because of the way that research ethics works and the way that our society is invested in making sure that we take care of young people. You have to be careful about how you go about those things. I have to get a background check done regularly. Little stuff like that… you just have to be on top of a lot of the boxes that need to get checked for access.
“[Make] sure that you’re working on ideas and problems that are going to be relevant for the people that you are studying.”
I think you have to be really long-term in the frame of mind that you take to thinking about what you’re asking young people about. The way that electronic information sticks around in particular, you have to be careful about how you share what people have told you, how you try to protect their identity. You can’t just think about how things are now, you have to think about how things might be five years from now when that person is applying to college or getting ready to get their first professional job. I’ve seen some instances where folks come at reporting their research or talking about their research with a non-digital kind of history, and that comes back to participants being identified. You’ve really got to be careful, that’s one that I really care about.
One of the others is just making sure that you’re working on ideas and problems that are going to be relevant for the people that you are studying, and I’m trying to work on that by getting young people more involved in the whole process. I think you have to have a really wide focus in terms of how you frame your studies and engage with research.
“Teens and young people are authorities on their own experiences, and I want to rely on that expertise and bring that into the process.”
When I worked as a librarian I could see how important artistic expression was to young people—it was on their mind all the time, we talked about it all the time—and that really carried through into how I’ve done some of my research. I wanted to make sure that rather than just talking to people, I gave them opportunities to engage in the kind of expression they were interested in, and that has worked out beautifully. It’s kind of uncommon, and I’ve had some people say, “you might not get very much information out of that,” or, “it might not be worth doing,” but I’ve been really excited by how successful that was in studies that I’ve done. I’m really excited to continue to explore that opportunity.
As I mentioned, having young people get involved in the process of doing research is a gigantic opportunity that I’m getting to take advantage of now, that I haven’t gotten to do yet. Part of that is just my perspective that teens and young people are authorities on their own experiences, and I want to rely on that expertise and bring that into the process. I think that’s a huge opportunity that doesn’t happen much in research. Some people might say that it’s hard enough to get to young people that they don’t even do research studies with young people, and when they do, it’s even harder to get them involved in the whole process. It takes that long term planning perspective, but I think it’s going to be worth it.
This is in very early stages, but I’m hoping to develop something like a camp or an immersive experience where not only are young people learning about how research is done, but they’re also engaging in doing the research: coming up with research questions, thinking about how to answer those questions, and developing study instruments like a survey or questionnaire, followed by helping to go out and find people to participate in studies, and then actually helping in the analysis process and recording process. The terminology is “co-researchers,” and there are a lot of different research traditions that have employed that kind of approach, broadly called participatory research. They don’t just do it with youth: the idea is that you care about a community and you want to do research to make this community’s lives better, but again, the community is an expert on their own experiences. Bringing them in can help you to see things that you might not as a researcher understand on your own. What’s exciting about this is that not only do you get to improve the research, but you’re also giving your community the opportunity to learn how research works, and to really participate in something that’s creative and a big contribution. We’ll see how that goes. That probably won’t be running off the ground until maybe this next summer. That’s a project that I’m starting to work on now.
The traditional one is always publishing the last of my dissertation work. Finishing up reporting on some of the research that I’ve already completed is a big part of what I’m doing in the next year. I’m putting together these ideas and going out and asking for people to provide some kind of support for them, whether that’s finding grants or coordinating with local organizations in order to help meet young people that would participate in this study. All of that has to get into place before I can do research, so it’s a lot of that back-end work right now.
“I’m interested in looking at how young people are engaging in content creation and sharing.”
Also, I’m interested in looking at how young people are engaging in content creation and sharing. I did a little bit of that with my dissertation, and so I’m interested in building on that to find out how people who are engaging in those activities online perceive their experiences, particularly looking at things like audience and positive experiences with an audience, and how that impacts their willingness to continue sharing things they’ve written or drawn or participated in making. I’m also interested in—again, this sort of builds on my dissertation—looking at how teens express values and what those individual values mean for their technology use… I’ll definitely be keeping busy.
“Anything that you’re interested in can be really useful, so enjoy and go out and pursue those interests of yours.”
I’ll start with the advice that is maybe less buoyant: I think one of the qualities of a good librarian or good service provider is being able to do as much as you can with as little as you’re given. There are lots of different opportunities to be creative in these kinds of roles. A corollary with that, which is very optimistic and happy, is that it’s amazing what you can get done if you can just find one other person that’s excited and invested. When I was in my public library in the Los Angeles area, the children’s librarian and I just hit it off. We started planning programs together and we would have 300-400 people come to our programs—that’s the level of magic that can happen if you have people that are on the right page with you. Look for those relationships, look for people who you’re going to be able to be sitting in a meeting and you lock eyes and you’re like, “you know what I’m thinking,” because they’ll help you on good days and bad.
Recognize that—particularly for young people—you’re going to run into situations where the people that you’re serving are experiencing things that you don’t want them to have to go through. Be prepared for not only being able to provide the support that’s necessary in that conversation or that particular moment, but also be aware of your own mental health needs in that kind of situation. Be aware that you might need time to process or you might need somebody that you can rely on to talk through those kinds of situations. I had multiple young people in my library experience… still, it’s burned in my memory, the things that they were going through. Even seven or eight years later I can still see their faces and know what they were going through and wish that I could help more than I was able to. Be aware that that’s going to happen, no matter what kind of community you’re a part of.
“I always thought of my work as a librarian as knowing which rules to bend and when, and creating opportunities for learning.”
Particularly in the information profession, anything that you’re interested in can be really useful, so enjoy and go out and pursue those interests of yours. One day somebody will say, “You know what, one of our librarians really knows a lot about XYZ.” You’ll be surprised at how many opportunities you’ll have to share and help people in that way.
I always thought of my work as a librarian as knowing which rules to bend and when, and creating opportunities for learning. Somebody asks for a specific kind of resource, and as you’re walking them out to the stacks, say, “have you heard of this thing?” It can be as simple as that. But creating opportunities for the people you’re interacting with to learn something new or to have access to something they didn’t know existed, is something to look for in your work.
In my experience with my librarian—I still call her my librarian!—that I grew up with, was someone who made an indelible impression on me. I really feel like librarians are what make librarians, so that’s something to think about when you’re out helping people: you have the opportunity to really change people’s lives, and you never know when that’s going to happen, either. Remembering that you have a lot of power, particularly when you’re interacting with young people: power to create a positive experience, but also if you’re not careful, it’s really easy to have a negative experience that’s going to impact young people’s perceptions of you or libraries or information institutions. Just remembering that power that you have, particularly for youth services, I think is really important.
If you’re interested in getting to know me better, or if you have questions for me that I can help with, definitely get in touch. I’m still a librarian! I’m still willing to help connect people to information or resources. Once a librarian, always a librarian.