Libraries, Literacy, and Community Building: An Interview with Brea McQueen

(Photo: Library at York University, Raysonho: Wikicommons)

In today’s post, senior editor J. T. Roane  interviews  Brea McQueen, a teen librarian in Cincinnati. McQueen has worked in libraries since 2014. She studied English Literature and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Miami University (Ohio) for her Bachelors degree and graduated from Kent State University in 2017 with her Masters of Library and Information Science (MLIS). As a feminist librarian, she works to incorporate intersectional feminism into all aspects of her programming, collection development, and interactions with patrons in order to ensure a welcoming and meaningful space for all. Follow her on Twitter @feministkilljoi.

J. T. Roane: Tell us more about the work you do to cultivate community in the space of the public library.

Brea McQueen: The library is such an interesting and wonderful place. Anyone is welcome to come in and utilize the space and services that we offer. However, the important thing to me is ensuring that every person who walks through the library’s doors knows they are welcome and feels welcomed. In order to cultivate community in my library, my first priority has always been to get to know my community. I have built friendships with many of my patrons. I know their names and their children’s names; I know what they do for work and where they go to school; I have attended school plays and have been invited to many sporting events. Through getting to know my patrons, I am able to better understand their needs and provide services and programming to meet those needs. Frankly, by building relationships and community within my library, I am empowered to be a better librarian because I know how I can best serve my community.

Roane: How did you come to this work?

McQueen: In many ways I fell into this line of work. When I started my undergraduate studies at Miami University, the goal was to become a special education teacher. However, the further I got into the program the more people talked me out of the career field. My mother is a public high school teacher and she  encouraged me to reconsider my choice. She loves her job, and she’s amazing at it, but she knows that teaching now isn’t what it once was. Not knowing what to do, I changed my major to English Literature because it was a subject area about which I was passionate. I also took a part time job at the local library. After my first week in the library, I knew that it was it. I was so confident that this was going to be my career field that after only working twenty hours in a library, I was already looking up masters programs. However, it wasn’t until two years later when I transferred to a low income, urban community library that I realized moving forward, I wanted to work exclusively in these kinds of community libraries because they are where I can really make a difference. In 2016 I moved from a middle class suburban neighborhood library to an urban library on High Street in Hamilton, OH. It was there that I found my niche in building meaningful relationships with young tweens (eight to twelve year olds)—particularly tweens and teens of color—and creating safe and welcoming spaces for them. I have recently moved to another urban library, now in a Cincinnati neighborhood, where I am in the beginning stages of building relationships with the members of the community and trying to understand their needs and how I can be of service.

Roane: What are some of the unique challenges of working with youth in the “tween” (8-12 year olds) or teenage populations in the context of Cincinnati? 

McQueen: I am not sure there are any challenges of working with youth that are unique to Cincinnati, but I do believe that there are some unique challenges in just working with tweens and teens. Personally, I think the biggest challenge is building relationships with the kids. The vast majority of the tweens with whom I work are young men and they are harder to build relationships with. Many of these young boys come into the library with a very hardened attitude; they are reluctant to show any kind of emotion, or do anything that might ruin their perceived image of coolness. In turn, I have to spend quite a bit of time building trust before they really open up and form a real relationship with me.

There is also the issue of staying relevant. Trends change so quickly and libraries on the whole remain underfunded, so I have a limited budget to provide engaging activities and materials that will keep the tweens and teens interested in coming to the library and seeing me. While we often think of libraries as a place to go check out books, we have become so much more and we do so much more. So finding cool and relevant activities on a budget that will keep drawing tweens and teens into the library can be very challenging.

Roane: How has this work shaped how you think about education, literacy, and society?

McQueen: After many years of working in a library, I have come to the conclusion that literacy and education are not my first priorities as a librarian. In no way am I saying these things aren’t important; however, I have realized that these things cannot be thoroughly achieved until we have built communities where our tweens and teens feel safe and welcomed. If the tweens with whom I work don’t feel like they have a safe space to exist in their neighborhood, then education isn’t going to be their first priority– surviving is. While my love of literature shapes my desire to put a book in every youth’s hands, I understand that right now, in these communities, that might not be what these young patrons need from me. Many of them need an adult that they can trust, someone they know they can turn to and who will unabashedly be on their side. I relish in the fact that the teens with whom I work know they can come to me with anything, good or bad.

I believe that by providing patrons with safe, welcoming spaces, we are contributing to their education. My current library is a hub for young children after school. We provide an afternoon snack for any kid who comes into the library after school Monday through Friday and have hired Homework Help aides onsite to assist kids with their assignments Monday through Thursday. The beautiful thing about these services is watching the relationships between staff and patrons develop. I have seen many young tweens who don’t have homework but who still want to spend time with the aid with whom they have worked. They will even grab coloring sheets and crayons to sit with the aids and participate in the Homework Help sessions.

When it comes to literacy, my biggest goal is to just get tweens and teens reading. I feel like there is a lot of pressure to get kids reading “on-level” and many kids and parents receive these Accelerated Reading Lists—an educational system designed to tell students at what levels they are reading  and should be reading—and find them overwhelming and discouraging. I personally believe these lists and scores do more damage than good. We already know that many students in lower income neighborhoods are struggling academically because they are enrolled in schools that are grossly underfunded. Performance across the schools are suffering on the whole. It’s a vicious cycle. However, constantly telling students they aren’t performing according to the “average” student does nothing to encourage them to read. My goal isn’t to get kids reading on level, but to just read. I want patrons to have books in their hands; I don’t care what level the books are.

I host a book club in collaboration with a local high school and the only rule of my book club is that you read. We don’t even have an assigned book! I have book club captains who will pick a genre and everyone tries to read something from that genre, but the goal is just to read. I pull a collection of books to take to the high school for the students to choose from. It is important to me that I pull a variety of books at a variety of reading levels—juvenile books, teen books, graphic novels, fiction from the adult collection. I intermix them all on the cart so that people aren’t paying attention to what is the “teen” books and what are the “kids” books. I want to eliminate the chance that readers might feel ashamed if they struggle with reading books that are technically considered “on their grade level.”

The key to improving literacy is, and always will be, reading. So my biggest goal is to just make reading fun. I have on average nineteen students who give up their lunch break once a month to come hang out with me in the library and talk about what they’ve been reading. We also talk about other things, like the latest Netflix special or the hot new celebrity gossip, but we always seem to tie it back into the books we are reading. We have built relationships with one another around books. The students now trust me to recommend books to them. I think one of my biggest successes was getting a high schooler who hadn’t finished a book since third grade to read a book cover to cover, enjoy it, and then ask me, “What else you got?”

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J. T. Roane

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of Africana Studies in the School for Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, ecologies, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript, Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @JTRoane.