We [Heart] Librarians

Sarah Rust, teen librarian

And we’re not the only ones! Leading up to National Library Workers Day, celebrated on April 5, more than 700 happy customers shared notes of appreciation for Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library staff. A sample:

“Every time I walk in, I get smiles, offers of assistance, and all-around good vibes.”

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, the library was my lifeline.”

“You are always so kind and helpful… getting books in the hands of kids.”

In honor of National Library Week (April 3-9, 2022), we invited one of our own all-time favorite librarians, Sarah Rust, for a chat with D&Me intern (and self-identified book nerd) Harnoor Mann, a senior journalism major at the University of Cincinnati. Rust, a teen librarian at the Mt. Healthy Branch of the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library, helped us launch our own Freedom Friends Book Club in 2020, and has supported us ever since with outstanding book picks, tips for youth-led discussions, and more. Thank you, Sarah, CHCPL and all our excellent area libraries, for all the resources you bring to the community. We don’t know what we’d do without you.

Harnoor Mann: What roles does a teen librarian fulfill within the library as a whole?

Sarah Rust: I work on collection development for the teen area: anime, manga, and other graphic novels. Magazines. I also make displays and try to highlight different parts of the collection. I don’t get to really order the books because we’re such a huge system. We do a lot of automatic purchase, as in we get everything that’s published by big publishing companies. I make displays and try to kind of curate my collection based on what interests our community. 

I’m also responsible for any of the programming that goes on inside and outside of the libraries that involves teenagers. I have regular programs after school for the teens, and occasionally special programs where guests come in. I also work with schools.

For example, today I was at the high school for a book club, and I worked with the teachers to put together collections for classrooms and conduct database training for students (for research assistance). I’m also meeting with the students tomorrow, because they’re doing a project where they need to work with an adult on a book.

As employees for the system, we started a teen Instagram account for the library (@cincylibraryteen), and we have a team for that which makes posts. We also have a team called the Next-Gen Teen Services where we’re just trying to work on big, system-wide Teen Services across our 41 branches. Being an employee here, you end up on many different committees.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

I definitely like working with the teens the most. I like getting to know the teens, building relationships with them, and providing a place that’s safe and welcoming for them and the community. 

When you come in, there’s not really an expectation to spend any money. You’re in a public place. I just like getting to create this space and relationships with the teens of the neighborhood so they know that they have a place to go.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020, how have your responsibilities changed? How has the library’s function changed?

We were closed from March [2020] until May [2020], so two months. During that time, we transitioned, and a few of the other team librarians and I created a teen Discord. We moved into having a virtual space where they could all hang out, game, watch movies, or just have a chat, so that everyone could stay connected. It was nice, because teens that don’t know each other from our different libraries have become friends since then. 

It was a lot of trying to do virtual programming, which has its ups and downs. Any teen librarian will tell you that a big part of enticing teens to come to events is food. It’s been tough not to have the food option in our toolbox. It’s been very different. Not getting to hang out and see people was and has been really hard.

So, we just did our best to try and be there for teens as much as we could. Once we came back, we started doing outside programming, which was interesting. That was really fun too, because that was the year with the cicadas. It’s been better now that more people are vaccinated and we’ve been able to go back to having programming inside the library. Zoom fatigue is definitely real. When you’re on Zoom all day with your teachers, you don’t want to go on Zoom at night too. 

We also haven’t been as busy post-COVID. At our events, we used to get a huge after-school crowd, with standing room only. Most just haven’t come back, and we don’t really know exactly why not. Our theory is that maybe parents, out of necessity, had to leave their kids at home more alone than they did before. Now, they might feel more comfortable with their kid going home after school. Our neighborhood also started bussing teens, which they didn’t do before COVID.

Some of the teens did, especially the teens that we’ve stayed in contact with the whole time through Discord. They came back.

Some of the other branches in our system have seen their after-school crowd come back, though, like the Avondale branch. Some branches just don’t have any school crowd at all; it just depends on the neighborhood.

How do you facilitate teens building relationships online? 

Normally, before COVID and before having our Discord, we didn’t interact with the teens outside of work. We always try to keep that boundary. I remember a lot of teens, when I worked on town, would ask for Snapchats. Yeah, no, we’re not sharing that. They have the same kind of relationships with us as they have with teachers. 

There are a lot of teens who come to the library who don’t have adults they feel comfortable talking to when not at school. We don’t have a ton of training on some stuff they talk about with us. You know, I’m not a licensed therapist, obviously. Trying to have resources available is important, especially if you’re talking about really heavy stuff and trying to redirect. Maybe there is a counselor at school that they feel comfortable talking to, but if not I can listen and try to offer advice up to a point.

In our Teen Spot (the teen department in the Main Library) the teens were like a family and very closely knit with themselves and us. We are always trying to figure out a balance.

With creating the Discord, there were some things that we just had to do to create boundaries, like we all have the librarians turn off our online status. There’s been a really big increase in some of our teens feeling depressed and scared. We’re trying to keep boundaries, by not allowing direct messages and not trying to act like a therapist, but still being there for them. It’s more about creating a sense of community like in the general chat with everyone.

Some of their kids are really good at drawing, so we have like an art channel where they post their drawings. One of our kids, like, is always making new songs and stuff, so we have a channel for them as well. We’ve been building the Discord to also highlight what people enjoy and who they are.

People often point out how libraries can fill in holes in our society by providing an open and free safe space with so many resources. Do you see libraries as being important to building strong, healthy communities? 

That’s one of the biggest parts of our job! Knowing about books is a part of it, but being a public librarian is different from being an academic librarian or a school librarian. For example, we’re handing out COVID tests. Sometimes, libraries plug in the holes where we don’t really have a place where people can access certain things in the community. We fax to JFS (Hamilton County Job and Family Services), and help people send their paperwork because they don’t have the resources like we have. 

I do think a huge part of working in teen services is creating a place where teens can go with no strings attached. That’s something that I really value about libraries and my role as a teen librarian.

How did you become a librarian?

I wanted to be a teacher my whole life. I think this is a common pipeline for librarians, where I got to college and started doing my observations. I was like, “Okay, this isn’t really how I remembered school working.” I did my year of student teaching, and I was like “I don’t want to do this.” Yeah, I loved a lot of parts of it, all the parts where it was getting to the students and all of that like face to face time. Just the whole way that school is structured and with state guidelines and everything else, I just can’t help but feel like I would have gotten burned out quickly.

So, I started working at the library during a summer at the Sharonville branch. I would talk about school and be like, “I’m not really sure what I’m going to do.” My manager was like, you should just become a librarian. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it. I liked reading my entire life, but honestly, we normally bought books. I wasn’t a huge library user. When I actually applied to work at the library, I also applied to the bookstore, but the library called me first. So I ended up working at the library, but I never attended library programs when I was a teen or a kid. 

Once I was working as a shelver, and seeing how the library works, I realized the larger scope of what the library offers. I realized that I could kind of take all the parts I really loved about being a teacher, and then the things I liked about the library, and combine them to become a teen services librarian. So I applied to grad school and then became a teen services librarian.

What kind of afterschool programs are you doing right now, if any?

I do some video gaming programs, and then we do one called “Gaming Unplugged.” We do it just because the teens love it. They never get sick of Smash Brothers. They come here and play on our console. We just have a Wii right now, but we’re trying to save up for a Switch.

For “Gaming Unplugged,” they’ve gotten into trivia. We did trivia last month, and they just kept asking for more trivia, so we’re doing it again this month. Last month, we did a history of Valentine’s Day and chocolate candy around the world trivia questions. For this month, I decided to do general trivia. I’m building my arsenal of trivia.

One of the programs is just a wild card program, which I change out every month. We also have art studio, where we’ll do an art project, or talk about artists and create art based on famous painters’ styles.

Do you have any book recommendations?

Right now, I am really loving the Heartstopper graphic novel series. It’s basically the book equivalent of cotton candy. It’s so cute, and really nice, especially when every part of life feels stressful. A book is a really good way to escape that stress for a little bit.

What’s your favorite genre personally?

That’s difficult. I try to read everything. I hate the name for it, but I especially like women’s fiction, or new fiction written by women. I try to read a ton of female authors. It’s too hard to name all-time favorites. Recent favorites are Firekeeper’s Daughter and Raybearer.

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