Interview by Anna Shustitzky, CCB Outreach Coordinator
“What I like about youth services librarianship is that you’re never bored. If you like to multitask and you hate being bored, would do anything to avoid it, children’s librarian is a great job.”
Since coming to GSLIS in 1994, Christine Jenkins has played a significant role in making the youth services and K-12 programs what they are today. Jenkins will be retiring this fall, providing a bittersweet opportunity for the CCB to talk with her about her accomplishments, her learning experiences, and how things have changed during her time in the field. The initial interview covered a wide range of topics, and the following responses are the result of multiple subsequent conversations.
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Beginning at GSLIS
I came to GSLIS in January of 1994. I was completing my doctoral work in Madison and had been working for two years at the Children’s Cooperative Book Center as the Intellectual Freedom Information Coordinator. This was a state-funded position for a service available to all Wisconsin residents; school and public librarians, teachers, and sometimes even principals could call us if they had a problem with a book challenge or a book that was questioned. I would talk to them, get the facts about what the problem was, and then my office would gather information about the book’s author, the book’s reviews, the genre, and any other materials that might help them defend the book, and send it out to them within 24 hours. The job was a fascinating one and it definitely got me familiar with young adult books, since they were high on people’s lists of things that get challenged. The first class I taught at GSLIS was Young Adult Literature, a long-standing interest of mine, and I could use what I learned from my job at Wisconsin to find ways for students to see teens not as the Other, but as younger versions of themselves. So in the first week or two, each student wrote a reading autobiography, their personal history with print. Some of them read vampire books, or Fear Street, or Flowers in the Attic, or other books considered “too adult” or “inappropriate” for teens, but now here they were: lifelong readers who wanted to be librarians! So in their future work as youth services librarians, they could focus their energy on helping teens finding the books they would enjoy—helping them become lifelong readers.
The Start of the LEEP Program
Before I taught my first LEEP class in 1997, I was really resistant to the idea of teaching online, but when I finally started in 1997, I turned into a poster child for online education. My first online class was youth services librarianship–now LIS 506–and I loved it. The synchronous elements—the virtual classroom as chatroom—created an incredibly effective learning space that was a playful and engaging ludic space. Classroom discussion was dynamic and the students’ projects were wonderfully creative. We—students and instructors together—became a real learning community. Before LEEP started, we (the faculty) thought that LEEP students would be those who were totally comfortable with computer technology, but we were wrong. LEEP students might be people who were not tech savvy, but they wanted a master’s degree in LIS, and they wanted to work with children, and the only way they reach that goal was through the LEEP program. With a high incentive like that, you can do things you never thought you could do!
Transforming the K-12 Program
When I got to GSLIS, we did not have a full-service program for school librarianship. If students came to us with a classroom teaching certificate in hand, they could get the courses they needed for an Illinois school library certificate, but if you didn’t start out with one, you were out of luck. It was important to us to have a program where you could come here with your BA, get excited about school librarianship, keep going, do your student teaching in a school library, and end up with a K-12 school library certificate. That was one of the main things I got hired to do. It took a long time (seven years!), but in 2001, we finally reached our goal.
“Every single day you’re going to have to be assertive; you’re going to have to be positive, and solve problems in a positive manner.”
This advice is drawn from my own experience (13 years as a public school librarian), plus what I’ve learned from teaching LIS 506: Youth Services Librarianship. Take what you want and leave the rest!
Positive Problem Solving Attitude: In doing research on the history of youth services librarianship, I examined the early textbooks used to educate youth services librarians. One of the first was Effie L. Power’s Library Work with Children, published in 1930, which lists the qualities needed to be a successful librarian with children. Key qualities on Power’s list include:
A genuine interest in both children and children’s books
A sense of humor (this was very high on the list!)
A “positive problem solving attitude.”
This is good advice. Every single day you’re going to have to be assertive; you’re going to have to be positive, and solve problems in a positive manner. Don’t get discouraged! Sooner or later, someone in charge will question your work, ask you why you are doing this and not that, and so on. Being questioned or even doubted doesn’t mean you’ve failed—it just means you need to think about what you are doing (that is, how best to present your ideas to nay-sayers) and then keep on going.
Three Library Skills: My mother was a school librarian, and she said,
“Here’s how I look at it. There are really only 3 basic library skills you need to teach:
1) The library is a place for you—communicate that to all the kids.
2) There is an order to all this stuff, it’s been placed in some kind of deliberate fashion, and
3) You either have the smarts to figure out how it’s arranged or you have the intelligence to ask for help and learn how it’s arranged so you can find what you want.”
“You’re not just going to be ‘mother bunny in the library basement or way way down at the end of the hall.'”
Get to know the school/public librarians: Generating and facilitating a sense of outreach and community involvement and engagement that’s not just kind of a nice thing to do when you have time to do it, it’s right up there in the front. You’re not just going to be “mother bunny in the library basement or way way down at the end of the hall;” you’re involved and engaged and paying attention to what’s going on in the world.
Be ready to multitask: What I like about youth services librarianship is that you’re never bored. If you like to multitask and you hate being bored, would do anything to avoid it, children’s librarian is a great job.
Learn Storytelling: The most useful skill you can put in your pocket and take anywhere that I learned in library school was storytelling. It’s so portable! You can just do it, and have magic happen right in front of your eyes, right in front of the kids’ eyes.
Get involved in ALA:Student rates for joining ALA are not expensive at all. It’s such a good deal, and it’s so rewarding. Sell lemonade, do whatever you need to do to get that money to get [to the conference]. Whatever reason you can think of not to do it, it can be overcome. You’re doing stuff for other people all day long, and this is what you’re doing to keep your positive problem solving attitude. And you get to meet interesting people and have a lot of laughs; it’s sort of like summer camp.
“It really is easier to apologize than to get permission.”
Don’t ask permission: One of the things that I learned from doing all my work with intellectual freedom and banned books is that it really is easier to apologize than to get permission. Again, that’s part of a positive problem solving attitude. Have asking permission be your last resort, not your first. A year later they can say, “Oh, you know Christine, she’s always running off doing that,” but you’re getting it done. You will be nice, of course, but just being nice and always playing exactly by the rules won’t get you where you want to be. Just do it!
Technology: Technology has really changed over the past several decades, and I think my attitude towards technology was a really good example of that. In 1995, I thought somehow that online education was just inhuman and cold and it was basically the opposite of “the library is a place for you.” I realized, how can this be a tool for us? People say, “well, there’s the tech people and there’s the children’s librarians.” We’re all here together! Does it really matter if it’s a 12 year old or a 20 year old or an octogenarian that you’re serving? You have to keep stepping up and saying: no, that’s not right—tech is for children! This seems like a no-brainer now, but that “tech is for guys, children are for girls” assumption is still something we need to resist—and keep resisting.
Books: Books are still going to be important, we’re not going to do away with books. They empower children; knowledge is power, being able to read is a powerful thing. It just opens up a whole new world. [Books] also provide a playing field for you—if I’ve read Tuck Everlasting and you’ve read Tuck Everlasting, and I’m 60 and you’re 10 ½, the thing we have in common is that we’ve both read this book. It gives you all kinds of opportunities, not just for me and a 10-year-old, but other 10-year-olds together, multi-grade classrooms…. These narratives provide meeting places, in a similar way perhaps as how online classes and the classroom in general provides a meeting place for people to connect.
“When you’re thinking about children’s librarians, look at what they’re actually doing. They might say, ‘oh, we would never do that,’ but they’re doing it… maybe they’re calling it something else, but they’re doing it.”
My dissertation was on the history of youth services librarianship leadership in terms of children’s intellectual freedom—it’s probably kind of obvious where I got those ideas, from my work before I got here. In 1939 the Library Bill of Rights was adopted by ALA, and no youth services librarians were involved in creating the document. In 1955, the School Library Bill of Rights was created entirely by school and public youth services librarians. So my research question was: What happened between 1939 and 1955 to make intellectual freedom and anticensorship a children’s issue? It was fascinating. It was a barrel of fun; it took me nearly 700 pages. But also, it was really important, because people would say, “are you talking about school librarians or public librarians,” and I would say “no, no, both, both!”
Children’s Librarians at the Forefront
When you’re thinking about children’s librarians, look at what they’re actually doing. They might say, “oh, we would never do that,” but they’re doing it… maybe they’re calling it something else, but they’re doing it. And children’s librarians have been at the forefront, if you look at what they’ve done. They were at the beginning of having written selection policies; there are lots of things like that that children’s people really took leadership roles in.
“This is the new normal, having books with diverse characters.”
Research in LGBT Issues
I started doing [research] in the ‘80s when there was almost nothing available on books with LGBTQ content for young people. It’s not that way anymore. That has really changed. It’s very exciting. I think the trend towards diversity includes lots of different diversities, and to have people say, “race, gender, ethnicity, ability/disability, gender identification, LGBTQ stuff,” to have that just be part of the list, is so exciting. That’s one of the places where ALA has made a huge difference. ALA is the first professional organization to have a gay task force, and that started in the late 60s. As a lesbian and an elementary school librarian during the 1970s and 1980s, I felt like I had to be pretty circumspect about who I was out to. I was afraid people would find out—and assume that it was totally inappropriate for me to be a children’s librarian—but really, being a children’s librarian was what I wanted to do. It felt like my calling—it still does! I’m not saying that we won’t take steps backwards, but we’ve come so far. This is the new normal, having books with diverse characters. I’m very excited about that.