A Game of Chess: Teen Doings at the Public Library

By Phila Rogers, Special to the Planet
Thursday December 03, 2009 - 09:12:00 AM
Librarian Will Marston looks on as members of the teen chess club battle over the boards at the north branch of the Berkeley Public Library.
Phila Rogers
Librarian Will Marston looks on as members of the teen chess club battle over the boards at the north branch of the Berkeley Public Library.

It’s 3:30 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon at the North Branch of the Berkeley Public Library. A dozen teens are gathering as Teen Services Librarian Will Marston lays out chess sets on the tables along with the all-important bowls of popcorn. By 3:45, the full bowls are reduced to a few unpopped kernels.  

The next day, Will is at the West Branch to coordinate the 4 p.m. Drawing Club, where students, after they’ve finished using their computer time, sit down at a table to draw. 

Will also visits King Middle School and Berkeley High once a week, where he runs the Earphone English program for students for whom English is a second language. The library collection of 300 titles includes audio books with accompanying print versions to help students with comprehension and pronunciation. “At Berkeley High we will be listening to Stephenie Meyer’s New Moon in class,” Will says, “and then we plan on hosting a Twilight-related program near the release date of the movie.”  

Will has been at the Berkeley Library for 20 years, working his way up the ranks to become an intermittent librarian 10 years ago and a permanent full-time teen-services librarian three years ago.  

“I love children’s and teen literature and enjoy sharing in the enthusiasm so many of them have for reading,” Will says. “I can also help them find what they want without the onus of grading or judging them. Many of them come to the library to wait for parents to pick them up, so one of my jobs is to instill the idea of respecting other users of the library while they still enjoy being here.” 

The North Branch on the corner of Hopkins and the Alameda is often awash with students from King Middle School two blocks down the street. When not in the library itself, they lean against the porch railing under the olive trees or cluster around the circular stone bench at the bus stop. 

While Will is with the Chess Club on Wednesday afternoon, Teen Services Librarian Jack Baur is with his PlayReaders group at Central library. The group was started 15 years ago by his predecessor, Debbie Carton, who now runs a similar library group with adults. 

“We read plays from every era and culture,” says Jack. “Our last play was A Flea in Her Ear, an early 20th-century French farce by George Feydeau. The kids had tons of fun with the double entendres and the ‘outrageous French accents.’ ”  

“Lots of these kids are interested in pursuing theater beyond high school, and many have,” Jack continues. “PlayReaders gives them a great chance to learn about the breadth of theatrical literature.” 

Amalie Vega, a senior at Berkeley High, is one of the PlayReaders. She sprawls on the rug in front of the fireplace in the Storytelling Room with five of her fellow readers. She’s a long-time member of the group she affectionately describes by saying, “We’re all big ‘dorks.’” With her fellow “dorks,” she performs in the annual PlayReaders show Bizarre Shorts. Like many of the PlayReaders, she intends to pursue drama in college. “This summer, I did the CalShakes acting conservatory camp, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed about a professional audition in December,” she says. (Check out Jack Baur’s very cool and hilarious video promoting the teen summer reading program, which features some of the PlayReaders: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1R5k6Wp_BHc featuring some of the PlayReaders).  

Jack Baur, a recent graduate of the University of Washington’s library program, is hardly more than a decade older than some of the teen participants, and he brings youthful energy and enthusiasm to the job he loves.  

“When I started grad school, I imagined I’d end up at an academic library, wearing a tweed jacket and being intellectual all day,” says Jack. “But as I went through school I was inspired by some of the incredible Teen Services librarians at the Seattle Public Library, who really pushed the idea of the library as a comfortable place for teens to learn about themselves while learning about the world. I realized that all those things I cared about and wanted to do in my library career—advocacy, programming, and building exciting collections and reference work—were particularly important for the teen populations.”  

Working with Jessica Lee, the teacher-librarian at Willard Middle School, Jack is developing the DigitaLit program to encourage young readers to explore technology while encouraging young computer users to read. 

Like many librarians these days, both Jack and Will divide their time as teen-services librarians between the downtown Central Library and the four branches. 

Meanwhile back at Central Library, senior Teen Services Librarian Joy Shioshita hosts a class from Berkeley High with Teen Services Librarian Kay Finney. They are giving a tour and demonstrating how to use online databases for research and reports.  

The Teen Room near the second-floor reference desk is full of students who have walked up the street from Berkeley High. Shelves on three sides are crowded with teen literature. 

In what she calls “a rewarding and extremely time-consuming process,” Joy recently helped to choose teens for the seven part-time jobs out of the 114 applicants. “Because we only hired seniors last year, we have a new group. Three will be working at Central with the other four at the different branches,” Joy says. Their work will be as diverse as repairing headphones, working in the Children’s Department, or planning an urban-fiction book discussion group for teens.  

Pratik Thapa, now a student at Berkeley City College, remembers his two years as a part-time teen employee as being “great.” “Along with shelving books, I sometimes helped my supervisors organize events, and occasionally I designed flyers. I worked eight hours a week, and I had flexibility choosing my working hours around my classes. When I volunteered during the summer of 2006, I got to manage South Branch’s Myspace page.”  

Joy continues: “Both Kay and I also staff the library’s main reference desk where we often field questions from teens. Kay typically staffs the reference desk four hours a day. If it’s one of our gaming weeks, on Friday afternoon we set up the Nintendo Wii with the large projector in the community meeting room. 

“The four of us meet regularly, with Kay ordering for the Central Library Teen Room with Will and Jack making selections for their branches. I review the orders, maybe suggesting some changes such as ordering more copies of books that are expected to be popular.” 

And then there’s all those meetings that librarians attend. With never enough hours to the day, you’re apt to see Joy reading a teen book while munching on an apple during her lunch break, or after work stopping by a bookstore to look over the teen inventory for titles she might have missed on the various publishers’ lists.  

Joy has worked as a librarian for over nine years, first at the Oakland Public Library. “I started my present job in Berkeley in February as the teen-services librarian because I especially enjoy working with teens. I’m interested to see how we can expand teen programs here at the library. I think that teen titles are among the most exciting new books being published.”