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A Conversation with Joseph Wilk

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Joseph Wilk, 24, is a library assistant and teen specialist helping to make the Teen Room at Oakland's Carnegie Library a proactive, inclusive and engaging space -- by going beyond books and offering amenities such as video games, talking and Dance Dance Revolution. Wilk is also penning a guidebook, due out next fall, to help other libraries put together teen programs that are sexually and gender-inclusive.

Did you hang out much in libraries when you were young?

I spent a fair amount of time there, but I mostly used their computers. In our family, most of our media needs came from libraries. I was always borrowing Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff cassettes from the library. And Naughty By Nature. Those were about the only hip-hop cassettes they had at my library.

Besides hip hop, were you conscious of other aspects that were missing from your library?

My friends and I really didn't have a place where we could just convene, be comfortable and have open access to computers, games, music or anything else at our fingertips, if we wanted it. Or to know that at any moment, somebody we knew might drop by. There's such wonderful serendipity when you have community space.

Did you always want to be involved in libraries?

I knew that I wanted to be in a position to serve people and in a way that allowed me to be flexible with my interests and identities. People talk about the many hats people wear -- I have a closet full of metaphorical hats, and I order more every day. Any interest you can imagine is something you can apply here. If I want to be a teacher, then I can do a class if someone is interested, like how to make digital videos or about the strategies of analyzing popular media. If you want to make crafts, you can be a crafter and start a craft group. If you want to watch movies, you can start a movie-watching group.

I wouldn't immediately associate crafts and movie-making with libraries.

Every time I go to a classroom and ask people what they think of libraries, I'm always waiting for someone to say "boring," "quiet" or "research and schoolwork." And 80 percent of the time, somebody does. The next layer of misperception is that that's the way it is, and that's the way it has to be -- that it won't change. The library can be what people want it to be -- especially in the teen space, where we encourage active participation. Libraries are moving toward an interpersonal, open-source-type situation.

When you go to a classroom to talk up the library, how do you engage young people?

I like to break down barriers with absurdity. When I go to a middle-school classroom, I might incorporate performance aspects that help create a fluid, amorphous atmosphere that everyone can feel part of. So I put on a penguin head, with big googly eyes, and I call myself the "Motivational Penguin of Reading Awesomeness." I start playing a beat out of a drum machine and run around high-fiving everyone. We have a little dance party, and there you have it.

Libraries can be intimidating. Walking into the Main Library, I'm aware of the imposing architecture, the "shhhh" factor.

Part of being proactive in the Teen Room means we have a no-shush policy. If we shush anyone, we're in trouble.

No more shushing? That's like Vatican II for libraries. Do your contemporaries still see being a librarian as fuddy-duddy career?

No, they immediately ask how I got the job, because they want to work at the library.

So, the old image of the buttoned-up librarian is fading.

Yes, but you always run the risk of producing new images of young chic librarians, and having a new, age-ist assumption that you have to be in your 20s, dressed like a indie-rock poster child to be doing great work. I would hate it if that became just as fixed as the old image. Librarianship as a profession is open to change, new people and new ideas, as well new identities and non-identities.

Can you see yourself being a gray-haired teen librarian decades from now?

I very much could. It's just about listening and not judging. Judgment is the quickest way to become irrelevant in the lives of teen-agers.

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