Virginia Walter: New Book Highlights Teen Activism in Libraries

Emerita professor and former librarian shares research on how libraries help children and youth learn civic engagement and mobilize for causes.

As a public librarian, Virginia Walter integrated the role of the library as a repository of knowledge with its potential as a hub of community thought, support, and advancement. Her most recent book, “Young Activists and the Public Library: Facilitating Democracy” shares her observations of how libraries foster literacy, not only in terms of reading but as it applies to activism by children and teens. 

In her book, Walter, a past president of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), delineates the ways that libraries prepare children and youth for civic participation by teaching them how to recognize trustworthy forms of information, and providing opportunities to develop participation and leadership skills. She shares an overview of key areas of activism that are of the most interest to children and teens – which include racial equality, gun control, environmental awareness, school safety, and immigration – with actual examples from throughout California’s public libraries that could be adapted for a variety of institutions. Walter also shares an extensive list of additional resources, spotlighting informative and inspirational books to share with young patrons.

Walter is an emerita professor at UCLA’s Department of Information Studies and a renowned expert on children’s literature, youth services, library management, and outcome-based planning and evaluation. She has worked with California libraries and their communities since 1966, when she received her master’s of library science degree from UC Berkeley. She began her career as a children’s librarian in Sunnyvale before ultimately becoming coordinator of children’s services for the Los Angeles Public Library.

Professor Walter joined the faculty of the UCLA Department of Information Studies in 1990 and served as chair of the department in the early 2000s. She created the annual Frances Clarke Sayers Lecture at UCLA in honor of her late colleague and prominent children’s librarian. She currently is conducting a study for UCLA’s Department of Information Studies on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on libraries.

Professor Walter has served as president of the Association for Library Service to Children, and a representative of the American Library Association to the International Federation of Library Associations’ standing committee on Libraries for Children and Young People, and its standing committee on Reading and Literacy. In 2019, she was inducted into the California Library Association’s Hall of Fame.

Ampersand had a conversation with Professor Walter on the myriad efforts by librarians across the state to facilitate and support child and teen activism despite the pandemic’s closure of library locations, and how even the youngest of library patrons can successfully run an election campaign.

Ampersand: How do libraries create opportunities for children and youth to take part in civic engagement and activism?

Virginia Walter: Whether it was in an inner city-community in Oakland, or [an] upper-middle class neighborhood in San Diego County, it’s a wonderful thing that libraries can provide in addition to books and information and the other things that they do. Almost every library will have what they call a teen advisory board, and that’s a good place for teens to begin to get leadership skills and get involved. Within the last few years, there has been much more of an emphasis on this. 

One of the programs that I talk about [in the book] is at the Los Angeles Public Library, where the young adult servicescoordinator is Candice Mack (’07, MLIS). It’s called Teens Leading Change. At maybe a dozen branches throughout the city, they have mini-grants from the Library Foundation to actually do civic action in their own communities. In Echo Park, they worked to raise awareness about evictions and gentrification. In Chinatown, they did oral histories with some of the elders of the community.

Teens Leading Change has just finished their second year. For the first year, they did a big showcase at the Central Library, where they showcased what they had done. This year, it was done virtually.

Teenagers really want to do something to change the world, and they start with their own communities. The library can really provide them with a focus and a kind of legitimacy to do things in their community and they really value that. They … see what’s wrong and want to fix it. It’s important to their becoming grownups, and they know that. 

&: How do libraries ensure that budding activists can find the most reliable information that they need to champion a cause?

Walter: I do include a little bit of that in the book – the extension from information literacy to civic literacy, what that means, what kids need to know to be civically literate.

When somebody who is 18 comes in and says, ‘I’m looking for something on voting rights,’ the librarian [will point] them to resources. They will share a little informal information literacy: be sure to notice who the source is, check out the URL, that kind of thing. 

Here is a very typical definition of civic literacy, according to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. It is, “…the knowledge and skills to participate effectively in civic life, knowing how to stay informed, understanding governmental processes and knowing how to exercise the rights and obligations of citizenship at local, state, national, and global levels. Individuals also have an understanding of the local and global implications of civic decisions.” 

That’s what we’re aiming [at] for these kids, that they can really have all of that.

&: What is an ideal age for librarians, teachers, and parents to instill the concept of civic engagement and activism?

Walter: I have found that children as young as 2nd and 3rd grade can begin to learn how to do this and to participate in some ways. The most interesting example of that I’ve seen in libraries was before the last election, there was a county library in an immigrant community. The librarian there organized a huge “election” for children – 3rd to 5th graders. They put up their candidates – a rat and and dog – and had campaign speeches and posters and an election. 

There were some kids that were majorly involved in running the campaigns, but all the kids using the library were able to come to the election rally and to vote. They had a ballot box and everything, it was quite elaborate and wonderful. Evidently, their campaign speeches were fabulous. The parents got involved too, and it was really educational for many of [them], who didn’t really understand the American election [process] before this experience.

&: What have you learned recently about how COVID-19 has affected the public library?

Walter: There are really innovative things they’ve done in some places. There’s a lot of digital storytelling and doing science experiments by video. 

I was talking to the head of the libraries in Calaveras County … way up in the foothills, very remote mountain communities. What the staff did there – not even librarians, but the staff of paraprofessionals – were things like having kids email the librarians to say they wanted books on a certain topic, or a certain kind of book. The staff would put together a paper bag of books, especially chosen for individual children. 

The libraries there, like the libraries [in Los Angeles County], have curbside pickup, where the librarian will put the books outside for the patrons to pick up. But what this library did that was so cool was that kids could make an appointment to come up to the library. They have a big window in front, and the librarian could hold up book after book, and the kid could say “yes” or “no,” through the window, which I think is just adorable.

What some libraries are doing is getting a batch of picture books together for a parent. A parent will say, “I have a four-year-old, I want five books about horses,” and the librarian will pull them for the parent. It’s not as good as getting inside and actually browsing, but they’re making efforts.

Before the pandemic, many libraries were serving free lunches as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s program for feeing low-income children. This summer, those libraries shifted from serving meals indoors to offering grab-and-go lunch bags, or to offering enrichment activities at other meal sites. 

&: We are all too familiar with how the digital divide has affected the new normal of online schooling – how does it play out for library users?

Walter: Because school libraries are… almost non-existent, and certainly not available after school, teens [did] come to the library for homework. Sometimes it will be mostly teenagers in the library, between 3-6 p.m. That is no longer possible. 

What many libraries have done is add to their digital resources. Of course, this isn’t helpful for families without an internet connection. Some libraries have kept their WiFi connections live even while closed and many people come and make use of that from the parking lots.

Nevertheless, It’s been hard on a lot of people, it’s had an impact. A lot of kids relied on the library for their internet connection, as do homeless people.   

And universally, librarians working from home talk about how much they miss their patrons. There is a big sign in the window of my local branch library in Lincoln Heights that says, “We miss you!”

Photo by Eva Mitnick