December 10, 2023

“Cultural Competence” Is Essential to Serve Teens


SLJ1402w_TK_NBTMuch has been said about the recent Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) report, The Future of Library Services for and with Teens. The more subtle aspects of YALSA’s call to action deserve a close look. Particularly the concept of cultural competence.

The report found compelling changes impacting the demographic and socioeconomic figures for US teens. The 2010 census showed that children of mixed race are the fastest growing segment, followed closely by Hispanic and non-Hispanic Asian and Pacific Islanders, while the non-Hispanic white population is stagnant. Meanwhile, the library profession is overwhelmingly white. Teens also face elevated poverty levels, record unemployment, and lower achievement in schools.

Therefore, YALSA recommends fostering cultural competence or “recognizing the significance of culture in one’s own life and in the lives of others.” Librarians, recommends YALSA, should proactively integrate cultural respect for “diverse linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic groups” into programs and services.

The YALSA report also revealed the importance of culturally competent planning in regard to connected learning. One cited study states that online, or “connected,” learning, is more typically available to “educationally privileged youth with effective learning supports at home.” Further surveys indicate an expanding gap between privileged students with home access to technology and those limited to bare-bones equipment at school. YALSA points to the leadership potential of libraries to provide a partial solution.

Libraries, both school and public, have long been supportive places for teens. It’s often in the library that LGBT teens find not only educational resources, but also supportive adults and a welcoming space. Libraries also provide tech access, with more maker spaces and digital creation centers opening each month. Even so, YALSA notes, more is needed.

Connected learning is not just about tech. It’s about socially embedded and personally driven learning. This is where the larger school or public library structure can break down.

“Working in school and public libraries with teens is no longer the purview of the library’s professional and support staff only,” the report emphasizes. Everyone must support teens in connected learning. YALSA Summit participants who helped inform the report called for more “non-supervisory adults” to engage teens as “allies, mentors, coaches” and in other roles.

For this to happen, library staff need professional development in cultural competence. Even in a best-case scenario of a relatively homogenous population, generational differences can be a challenge. Growing up with smartphones and the Internet has changed how teens interact with one other and the environment—and their expectations for engagement. Librarians must help veteran teachers adapt.

Add in differences such as ethnicity and socioeconomic background, and things get messy fast. Consider urban schools where teacher shortages are solved by using uncertified, untrained teachers. In such cases, the librarian has a much harder role. Janet Clark, a librarian from Newark, NJ, and vice president of the New Jersey Association of School Librarians, works in an inner-city school, where she’s taken a leadership role in helping teachers grapple with a new cultural situation.

This is a challenge that Clark has embraced. Growing as a culturally competent professional and helping colleagues become more culturally competent should be a natural role for librarians. We just have to put in the work to get things moving.


Christopher Harris About Christopher Harris

Christopher Harris ( is coordinator of the school library system of the Genesee Valley (NY) Educational Partnership.


  1. Adriana Burgos-Ojeda says:

    “Even in a best-case scenario of a relatively homogenous population…” It’s never the best-case scenario – that’s the point of developing cultural competence! I think the author was trying to express that it’s somehow easier to serve a homogenous population, not that homogeneity is an especially desirable state but it’s still a problematic statement. Do I do a worse job of serving my diverse population than someone with a less diverse population? Is it really more difficult? In truth, I have what I believe to be the best-case scenario of serving an incredibly diverse population that is inherently interesting and challenges me to keep upping my game (as we should all be focused on doing regardless). Professionally and personally, I can’t imagine a better scenario!