By Rachel~Anne Spencer and Casey H. Rawson

Take a moment to reflect on the teachers and librarians who have shaped your life. What did they know about you that could have impacted the way they treated and instructed you? Can you think of a specific time that they used something they knew about you to improve your learning experience? Based on which examples came to mind, why do you think it might be important to know your learners?

Learning about the individuals and the communities we serve is a critical first step to effective instruction in the library. If we skip this step and design instruction based on our assumptions about children and teens and their communities—or, worse, if we don’t consider their perspectives at all when designing instruction—the result is programs and services that, at best, work for only some of our students and, at worst, are actively harmful. Consider Brittany Packnett’s keynote speech for the 2017 Knowledge is Power Program ( Packnett describes the names she and her family members were known by and how being misidentified made her feel alienated and disengaged. Describing the degree to which her school didn’t recognize value in some of the features she felt most integral to her being, Packnett said, “My school was high on rigor, and low on love” (Packnett, 2017). Why? Packnett expertly answers the question: “It’s because we forget discipline and authenticity can coexist.” The point of her speech is to remind us that systematic oppression exists in such a way that many of our learners feel unwelcome and discriminated against because we are so focused on the idea that what we’ve learned is “right” and “professional” that we’ve forgotten the importance of treating students like individuals, rather than standardizing their learning.

Neutralizing and standardizing the way we teach doesn’t combat systematic oppression; instead, it perpetuates it by assuming that privileged traits are the norm. Likewise, making assumptions about a student’s ability to learn based on factors such as race, gender, and income level denies their individuality; as educators, we should be both challenging our perceptions of students and investigating how their circumstances affect the ways in which they learn (Strauss, 2013).

Research shows that positive, trusting relationships between educators and youth increase learners’ engagement, motivation, and achievement (Baker, Grant, & Morlock, 2008; Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998; Hughes, Cavell, & Jackson, 1999). Many learners do not want to learn from a teacher so much as they want to learn for a teacher (Delpit, 2012). Thus, the more we know about our learners, and the more we can show them that we view them as whole people, the better we can serve them. In the rest of this chapter, we will discuss what it means to know your learners in the public library setting and provide tips for building relationships with the children and teens you serve.

Knowing Your Setting: Public Libraries

Unlike schools, public libraries do not have the same population of children and teens visiting every day on a predictable schedule. Nor do public librarians have access to much of the information that classroom teachers and school librarians have about their students, including a student’s past discipline record, medical information pertaining to learning disabilities, or informal commentary from other teachers. These differences can allow for more long-term relationship building between school librarians and their students compared to public librarians and the learners who visit their libraries. However, this does not mean that public librarians are incapable of building relationships with their learners, or that it’s impossible to find information about those learners.

One advantage that public librarians have over school librarians is that compared to learners in school libraries, there’s a greater chance that learners in public libraries opted to be there. Though it isn’t always the case (for example, kids might be forced to attend library programs by their parents), there is a much greater likelihood that learners in public libraries decided to visit the library. This is an important distinction to make because learners who are intrinsically motivated are often excited to learn, and may be more willing to share as well. Another advantage that public librarians have is that there is no grading or test-taking in the public library, and public librarians are not “in charge” of the learning process in the same way they are in a formal education environment. This more casual atmosphere can make it less intimidating for children and teens to open up to you, which means that trusting relationships may develop quickly in the public library.

The public library sees a wide range of ages, while the school library commonly sees only students within a set age range at a time. This can affect the way instruction is delivered in public library settings. While public libraries do have the option to set age limits for programs, these may not always be feasible to enforce. Say you’re hosting an instructional event for upper-elementary-schoolers, and you have several parents show up with their upper- and lower-elementary-schoolers expecting the younger students to be allowed to participate with the older students. This is an implausible scenario for the school librarian, but a public librarian may need to consider modifying the activity or having an alternate activity for young children to do to accommodate both age groups.

Speaking of groups and interests, public librarians also have a unique opportunity to provide instruction for special populations, such as LGBTQ+ youth, autistic children, or Latinx teens (Hernandez, 2013). In a public school setting, outside of club settings, students are typically only separated into special populations for instruction based on shared academic needs (for example, self-contained classrooms for students with severe intellectual disabilities, or English as a Second Language [ESL] classrooms). Overall, this is a good thing, since educational research shows that, in general, heterogenous groupings of students work best for facilitating academic learning among all children and teens (see, for example, Wells, Fox, & Cordova-Cobo, 2016). Laws also require that schools maintain heterogenous groupings of students related to certain protected classes; for example, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids schools from segregating students by race or national origin when making class assignments, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that schools place students with disabilities in the “least restrictive environment” appropriate for their needs, which often is as a classroom where they can be educated with nondisabled peers.

There is no doubt that, in many educational environments, diversity in terms of race, ability, language, gender, sexuality, and other characteristics is critical and valuable. However, there is also value in giving children and teens opportunities to learn with and from others who share identical or similar identities. Spaces where people who share one or more aspects of identity can come together are sometimes called “affinity groups,” and their importance as sites for reflection, discussion, and support are well documented in research (e.g. Parsons & Ridley, 2012). Public libraries can facilitate learning within affinity groups in ways that school libraries cannot (at least during the regular school day; many school librarians do successfully facilitate student affinity groups afterschool or during other club times). For more on this, see the spotlight box on the next page.

Many other factors may come into play when looking at the differences between the settings of school and public libraries, even when examining these institutions within the same community. The number of schools compared to library branches may greatly impact the ratio of students seen in these settings. Hours, location, and access to public transportation are also relevant factors.

Knowing Your Learners Collectively

There are a variety of factors that affect how people learn. Developmental needs, culture, and community assets are a few of the many variables that can impact how people absorb information. Understanding the range of these variables within your community can teach you about the expectations of your learners and how to satisfy their needs and interests through programming and instruction. Before we discuss some of these categories, it is important to note that the information in this section explores differences on a group level. When making teaching decisions that impact individual learners, group-level information like this is valuable to be aware of, but it is important not to assume that any individual learner embodies a trait simply because they are a member of a larger group.


Spotlight: Black Storytime in Portland, Oregon

In 2010, the Multnomah County Public Library system used funds from a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant to begin an in-depth community analysis project aimed specifically at African American children and their families. This project was in response to reports that had recently shown wide gaps in social and economic outcomes for Black versus white families in the area.

After consulting community organizations, business leaders, local government agencies, library staff, and—most critically—African American parents and grandparents in the community, the library district decided to develop a new program series titled “Black Storytime.” This program, developed by public librarian Kirby McCurtis, features culturally relevant and developmentally appropriate books, music, and activities designed specifically to support Black children and their families.

While the library did receive some pushback, most notably from a local conservative talk-show host, the program has been a huge hit with Black families, who have described the program as powerful, forward-thinking, affirming, and nurturing (McCurtis, 2017). For a list of some of the books that McCurtis has shared during Black Storytime, check out the resource guide at

Developmental Needs

In most states, preservice classroom teachers and school librarians are required to take coursework related to child development. Typically, there are not similar requirements for preservice public librarians, so at least at first, it can be a challenge to know what content and skills are appropriate to teach to what age or ability levels. Complicating this evaluation further is the fact that within a given age range, learners can vary widely in terms of their readiness for the content. In school settings, some learners are labeled as “exceptional children,” which can mean that they have a physical or cognitive disability that impacts their learning or that they have been identified as academically gifted. These labels can be problematic; for example, research has shown that students of color are underrepresented in both special education (disability services) programs and in programs for gifted youth (e.g. Cosmos, 2016; Samuels, 2017). Moreover, labels such as “special needs” or “exceptional” can create distance between disabled students and their nondisabled peers by othering those deemed “special” (Linton, 1998). However, they do at least provide classroom teachers and school librarians with a place to start in terms of gauging the developmental readiness levels of their students.

In the public library, you probably won’t know about your learners’ disability status when they first show up to a program, and that lack of knowledge can be a great opportunity for you to focus on seeing each learner as an individual rather than as a diagnosis. Of course, that does not mean that you shouldn’t learn about various disabilities and other developmental needs that might impact your instruction and relationship building. Disabled learners may not feel comfortable disclosing their disability status to new adults in their lives and should not be burdened with having to educate librarians about their disability. Instead, librarians should take on the responsibility to educate themselves about the range of disabilities they may encounter among their learners.

To better understand the needs and desires of learners with disabilities, librarians could partner with disability activists in the community and build trusting relationships with disabled people. Disability awareness training is also highly recommended, as it specifically addresses both discrimination and stereotype issues, as well as providing general instruction on how to work with and understand people with a variety of disabilities and accessibility needs. It is also a great idea to partner with schools to learn more about what students are learning at each grade level and how classroom teachers accommodate students with disabilities.

In public libraries, we need to assume that our learners will come to us with a wide range of skills. While this seems daunting, it can also be an opportunity to facilitate collaborative learning and cultivate empathy and respect for differences among our learners. Taking an asset-based approach to developmental differences will help us look for the strengths of each learner we encounter.

Demographics and Culture

Knowing the demographics of the community you serve is an important first step in understanding what their needs may be— although, again, it is critical not to make assumptions about learners based on demographic information alone. Knowing the basics about your community’s racial and ethnic makeup, economic status, religions, and geography can help you identify the types of instruction and resources patrons might find relevant and useful. To know these is to have a starting point for understanding what might draw your patrons in, make them feel comfortable, and foster their identity development. Examining demographic data may also raise your awareness of systemic inequality issues that may impact the learners in your service area.

Take race into consideration. Some people don’t believe racial inequality is still a problem in education, but as prominent researcher and author Gloria Ladson-Billings (2006) described, students of color in this country are still owed an enormous educational debt by a system that has failed them for generations. One lingering example of this debt is the disparity in the amount of money schools in lower income (often Black and Latinx) districts spend on students in comparison to wealthier districts. In the United States, the most recent educational funding data available from the federal government shows a national funding gap of $449 per student when the 25 percent of school districts with the highest amounts of student poverty are compared to the 25 percent of schools with the lowest amount of student poverty. For many states, the numbers are even worse: In Illinois, per-pupil spending in low-poverty districts is $16,375 per student, compared to only $13,885 in high-poverty districts—meaning that Illinois’s poorest students, who are disproportionately students of color, are funded at a rate that is nearly 18 percent lower than their wealthy peers (Barshay, 2018).

This isn’t even half of the race issue. Remember the example Packnett offered of her childhood and the pressure to conform to a name that wasn’t hers? Now take that example and increase it to the point where systemic racism isn’t only a mentally taxing barrier but also physically hinders a student’s education. Imagine you’re 15-year-old Zion Agostini, a Black teen who is harassed because of the color of his skin on his way to class—and perhaps even within it (Anderson, 2016). He described the weight, not only of understanding that he’s not the “default” student, but also of being racially profiled and patted down by police on his walk to school and even targeted as he passes through the metal detector leading into his school. He’s consistently late for class for these reasons and falling behind because of it. How can we supplement his learning in our public library spaces and help him succeed? Zion and millions of young people like him are being held back by a system of oppression and knowing this is the first step to developing a plan for eliminating that oppression in the library setting and fostering growth and learning.

Related to but distinct from race, culture is a wide category encompassing all the ways that a particular group of people experience and behave in the world. Typically, we think of culture being inherently tied to race, ethnicity, and religion, but it can include a variety of identities ranging from sports and music to family position or level of academic interest. Showing interest in your learners’ cultures and planning instruction that validates and sustains those cultures is necessary to make sure you respect them and understand their strengths and motivations. When working with learners from a different cultural background, understanding their culture helps you communicate your expectations and positively relate to them. We will explore much more about culture in Chapter 5.

Community Assets

When they’re not at home, in school, or at the public library, where do children and teens in your community spend their time? What resources, including human resources, exist in the community around your library that might impact the types of instruction you can and should provide? If you happen to live in the community served by your library, you may already know (some of) the answers to these questions. However, many librarians live outside of their library’s service area or in a part of the service area that may not represent the whole.

You, or your library as an organization, may have completed a community analysis process in the past or may have ongoing community analysis efforts in place. When thinking about instruction, it’s important for those efforts to include an analysis of the assets present in the community that might help you understand and build relationships with children and teens you want to teach. For example, the Boys and Girls Club in your community might know a lot about a group of learners in your community who may not typically visit the library and may help you connect with these learners in a space where they feel comfortable. A local knitting group may present a great opportunity for an intergenerational instructional program: The adults could teach teen participants how to knit, while the teens teach the adults how to use Ravelry (a free online community for knitters and crocheters,

Figuring out which assets are present in your community does involve some legwork—literally! Experts in community analysis suggest that a community walk is one of the best ways to understand a community. Community walks are typically group activities in which representatives from an organization (in this case, the public library) walk through a community alongside people who live there to get a first-hand understanding of the community, its assets, and its people. For guidance on planning, conducting, and analyzing the results of a community walk, check out the Participatory Asset Mapping guidebook from the Advancement Project and Healthy City, online at

Knowing Your Learners as Individuals

Once you have some sense of the range of learners that are included in your library community on a collective level, it’s time to start getting to know individual learners on a personal (but still professional) level. From asking simple questions and jotting down observations to getting the whole community involved in a Community Assessment, there are plenty of ways you can approach this task.


The best way to find out about your learners as individuals is to go straight to the source by interviewing them. These interviews can be formal or casual, and you can interview learners individually or in small groups. Interview questions can be very specific—“What’s your favorite YouTube channel right now?”—or broad—“What makes you happy?” Consider writing down or otherwise recording the answers you receive to these questions. If you can remember a specific child’s interest and bring it back up in conversation with them later, it shows them that you care about them as an individual and that you consider their interests valid and important.

Products of Learning

Often in the public library, our programming and instruction is production-centered: Learners create and share something during the experience. Planning for open-ended activities is a great way to get to know your learners while instructing them. For example, if you lead a fanfiction writing workshop, allow the participants to choose their own source material to write about, and ask them what they love about that source material. You may find that you share some interests with your learners, which is a great way to start deeper conversations that can lead to ongoing relationships. Poetry slams, photography workshops, maker events, and similar programs where participants can create or share things based on their personal experiences and interests are great opportunities to better understand your learners as individuals. For an example of how one library learned about its teens through production-centered programming, see the spotlight box below.


Spotlight: Making Zines in Anaheim

Staff members at Anaheim Public Library (APL) knew their teens needed a creative outlet and wanted to provide that for them. They also knew their teens came from many cultural backgrounds and that many of them were bilingual, so they chose a zine (short for magazine) project to allow them to interpret their cultures and languages through poetry, collaging, short stories, and drawing. Zines are self-published works that usually consist of a series of collages that mix both original and repurposed images and text.

Because the program focused on self-expression, the APL librarians were able to learn a lot about the teen participants. Through experimentation and exploration, the teens also learned more about themselves during the zine creation process. Librarian Emily Otis explained:

In the course of our program, we discovered that many of our teens didn’t feel comfortable expressing themselves, perhaps because they were unfamiliar with how to do so, because they were shy or scared to expose personal things. So, the workshops also became very much about finding a form of expression each individual felt comfortable with and asking questions to encourage them and draw them out.  While we set out to teach teens how to make a zine, I believe we were most effective on a more fundamental level in teaching them how to bravely create, experimenting to find the best outlet for their voice. (E. Otis, personal communication, September 19, 2018)

By keeping track of who (rather than how many) attended each workshop and discussing the scheduling with their learners, the APL librarians discovered that the five-week series they had originally intended for the program wasn’t a good fit for their learner’s busy schedules. Rather than abandoning the zine program, APL staff started a zine collection in the library and developed workshops for teens to learn how to create single-page zines, which could be completed in a single session. In 2018, the library hosted its fifth annual OC Zine Fest (, featuring panel discussions, workshops, and an open mic zine-reading hour. For more about APL’s zine-making programs, watch this video produced by the library:


Leave the Library

Not all children and teens feel comfortable or welcome in the library space, and some children and teens may not be able to reach the library because of transportation issues. It can also be easier for some children and teens to talk to adults when those conversations take place outside of the adult’s work domain and the perceived balance of power is more equal. So, leave the library! Set up a book display in the mall, or partner with another organization to lead library programming in their space. Outside of work hours, consider attending extracurricular events featuring your learners; when children and teens see you at their band concert, basketball game, or cheerleading competition, they know that you care.

Leaving the library can also include meeting learners where they are digitally. Are your teens constantly checking Snapchat on their phones? Do your tweens spend hours watching YouTube gaming channels? When you notice that your learners are spending a lot of their time on a particular network or platform, you should consider whether and how the library might join them there in a way that maintains professional boundaries but also invites engagement and interaction.

Don’t Forget About Parents

As you work to develop relationships with individual learners, don’t forget to build positive connections with parents and guardians. In many cases, especially for younger children, the parents decide whether to bring their children to the library at all, so maintaining positive communication with parents is critical to the success of library programming. Parents also know their children well—in many cases, better than anyone else knows them—and can share information with you that can help you plan and deliver the best possible instruction for your learners.


Want More Ideas?

Education experts have lots of advice for getting to know your learners as individuals.

Setting Boundaries

As you get to know your learners collectively and individually, it will be critical for you to establish boundaries that keep your relationships with learners healthy and professional. This is often easier said than done, with behaviors like accepting a hug from a child, interacting with children and teens via social media, and complimenting learners on physical attributes occupying a large gray area where respected professionals may disagree about the appropriateness of certain actions.

Of course, your library’s official policies should serve as a starting place for you to navigate these tricky waters. Many libraries have written guidelines dictating how you should communicate with library users both inside the physical building and online. These official documents can be helpful in establishing bright-line rules of professional conduct, but they may be less helpful when, for example, a teen comes to you and shares that her mother has been diagnosed with cancer. Where is the line between showing this learner the empathy and care she needs and crossing a professional line?

In some situations, you will simply need to feel out your own comfort level and that of the learner as you go along. As college professor Kerry Ann Rockquemore wrote, “To be clear, I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong place to draw your boundaries. But it’s important for you to make conscious, intentional and consistent choices about your boundaries” (Why Boundaries Are Important section, para. 3). To help educators in that task, Rockquemore suggested that they ask themselves:

  • Where does my responsibility as a professional (in our case, as a librarian) begin and end? Another way to think about this might be, “What falls under my ability as a professional to address, and what might be better addressed by another professional such as a counselor or doctor?”
  • What nonverbal cues are you sending to your learners?
  • Do you know how to stop a conversation that begins to venture into uncomfortable territory?
  • What structures do you have in place to communicate your boundaries?
  • How do you feel when your own boundaries are crossed? Based on that, what are the signs that tell you a boundary adjustment is required?

As you develop individual relationships with your learners, you may find that they begin sharing information with you without you asking. This is a sign that you have become a trusted adult in the child or teen’s life; however, you also need to know how to respond if or when a child or teen shares sensitive personal information with you. Depending on the nature of that information, you may be legally required to report it to the proper authorities in your state. For example, if a child or teen tells you that they are being abused or neglected or that they are considering harming themselves or others, you have a professional and legal obligation to report that information. While only two states (Pennsylvania and Vermont) specifically list librarians as mandated reporters in their laws, several other states consider all adults to be mandated reporters, and all states allow for and encourage reporting from any source. To find out what the laws are in your state, visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway site:

The goal of establishing boundaries is to ensure that the learners you work with feel emotionally and physically safe in the library. For additional guidance in this process, check out Boundary Training: Promoting Healthy Student-Adult Relationships from EduRisk Solutions:


Now that we’ve discussed knowing your learners, take a few moments to reflect on what you already know about your students and what you have yet to learn. Though it may be difficult to plan for every student that walks into your public library, rest assured knowing you now have actionable steps to take towards cultivating a more tailored, inclusive, and affirming learning experience for your students.


Next Page


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Bronfenbrenner, U., & Morris, P. A. (1998). The ecology of developmental processes. In RM. Lerner (Ed.), Theoretical models of human development (5 ed., pp. 993-1028). New York: Wiley.

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Delpit, L. (2012). Multiplication is for white people: Raising expectations for other people’s children. New York: The New Press.

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McCurtis, K. (2017). Black storytime: Empowering children, growing communities. In Hughes-Hassell, S., Bracy, P. B., & Rawson, C. H. (Eds.), Libraries, literacy and African American youth: Research and practice (pp. 121-134). Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

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Samuels, C. (2017, August 28). Minority students still missing out on special education, new analysis says. Education Week. Retrieved from

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Wells, A. S., Fox, L., & Cordova-Cobo, D. (2016). How racially diverse schools and classrooms can benefit all students. The Century Foundation. Retrieved from