Forging new paths in youth engagement

Laura Caygill is a librarian based in Ōtautahi (Christchurch), Aotearoa New Zealand. One of the judges for the 2022 New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults, Laura worked as a journalist before moving into libraries. She has worked in libraries in Ōtautahi, Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland), and Waimakariri, where she is currently the Community Experiences and Diversity Team Leader.

Allen Curnow “Landfall in Unknown Seas”

Simply by sailing in a new direction. You could enlarge the world.

These are the opening lines of Allen Curnow’s “Landfall in Unknown Seas” . I have a copy of the poem fixed to the side of the returns bin next to my desk. It is a beautiful reminder that new paths lead to new discoveries, new experiences, and new understandings. It is also a reminder of the craft of storytelling.

In public libraries we often find ourselves expanding our worlds. We adopt new technologies and new service models. We adapt to changes in funding and to global pandemics and we strive to move as our communities move, striking out by building new branches, hiring staff with new skills and new ideas.

This expansion is often naturally reactive (no one could have seen the Covid-19 pandemic coming), and when people are in crisis mode, when the goal is not in question, there is often little need to go into battle. You simply do what you need to do to get the job done.

But what if you need to convince people of your destination, and of the path to get there? It is often our task to convince decision makers, and often our teams, of the value behind certain projects or changes in direction. In these cases our task is to show people the new, expanded world that we hope to find, and that we have what it takes to get us there safely. The most significant direction changes I have led in my career so far, and certainly those that I am proudest of, have centred around how we serve our young people. They have been shifts that have required commitment, not only to better outcomes for our tamariki and rangatahi (children and youth), but also to telling the right story in the right way.

Be like Ted Lasso – “believe in believe”

The day my team member walked off the job in a library in Tāmaki Makarau because the behaviour of the local kids was too much, was the day I realised I had to forge a new path for my team and the community we were serving. The environment the team were working in clearly was not safe, and all the team were able to do in a day was (barely) manage the difficult behaviour of tamariki from our local community.

I asked the team what we wanted our library to be like. Together, we got specific about the kinds of things we wanted to see and feel in our library space and in our workplace, and the things we needed to do to bring them about.

This planning was about getting the team to voice the story of what they wanted for the community (a vibrant space for everyone to enjoy, where kids wanted to stay for a while), but also what they wanted for themselves as a team (to feel safe, calm, and capable; to feel invested in and enjoy engaging and interacting with the kids). Most importantly, it was about establishing the belief that we could get there.

The actions we put in place were simple, but needed a great deal of mahi (work) to be successful. Investing time in learning children’s names, building connections with our local primary school, implementing the same behaviour management techniques so we could give the kids consistency, and co-designing programmes and activities all took a large amount of time, effort, and focus.

Not everyone wanted to be on board. One permanent member of the team decided they would rather be a casual member of staff. I remember them telling me when they resigned that they admired what I was trying to build, they just did not want to be part of the team making it happen.

I did not consider it a failure. To me, it meant that I had successfully communicated the vision of what we were trying to achieve. My team members understood what we were working towards, and it was absolutely okay to decide not to be a part of it.

For those that did commit and worked together to increase engagement with the local tamariki at Te Whare Mātauranga o Onewa (Northcote Library) I hope they, like I do, remember that piece of work fondly. Together we grew our confidence and ability to positively manage behaviour, but, most rewardingly, we spent more time reading with kids after school (that’s right, sitting down with them one on one and letting them read to us), and the number of children and young adult titles borrowed from the library went up.

Bringing your team with you is one thing, but what about convincing decision makers of the need to do things differently?

At Waimakariri Libraries we recently gained approval to cease our security guard contract, and instead appoint a Rangatahi Engagement Co-ordinator.

The full time role is focused on establishing programming designed to increase the number of rangatahi engaging with and using our libraries, and helping other team members build their skills and confidence in managing behaviour.

It is a great opportunity, and one that we are excited about, but it is only a temporary one. It was our role to sell the story of the need for it, and it will be our role to tell the story of the need to keep it.

We knew that security guards sent a negative and unwelcoming image, not just to our rangatahi but to our community as a whole. We knew that relying on security guards to act if, and when, an incident occurred, was reactive not proactive.

We also knew that security guards were not building our team’s skills. And we knew that having security guards as our primary means of risk management was not doing anything to positively change attitudes in a community where racism can and does still rear its head.

To secure the funding we needed to focus minds away from risk management, and tell the story of what a member of staff dedicated to rangatahi engagement could achieve: a safer, more welcoming space where all members of the community feel more comfortable, and one that achieves better outcomes for rangatahi in our community.

We shared examples of small wins we had had with a culturally responsive approach that we hoped we could replicate on a bigger scale with a dedicated role. Examples included inviting whānau (family) members to a hui (meeting) to discuss their children’s behaviour and working with them to work off trespass orders.

Humour me while I head back to Curnow for a moment

I said earlier that Curnow’s poem was a good reminder about the art of storytelling. The poem was commissioned for the 300th anniversary of Abel Tasman’s European discovery of New Zealand in 1642. Curnow was chosen to write the piece, but not without reservation – the head of Internal Affairs wanted a piece that would speak to the general populous, and was concerned that Curnow might write something “too obscure for public acceptance” .

Asking Curnow to dumb down his writing might seem reprehensible, but this insistence on focusing on the audience was one part of what has made the poem so successful in the New Zealand canon.

Another was the medium of the message: before its publication Curnow approached New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn about setting the text to music. The resulting pairing led to critical success, and Curnow himself would come to refer to the music as offering “enlargenings” of his original work.

Making people see

My tutor at journalism school, Jim Tully, used to say that our job, no matter what we were writing about, was to ‘make him see’.

Over the next year or so, I have the pleasurable challenge of working with our Rangatahi Engagement Co-ordinator to make others see exactly what they are accomplishing. To do this we’ll need to appeal to heads and hearts in equal measure to make sure the message reaches our diverse audience of decision makers.

We’ll need to capture stories of positive impact, from the group of local boys who often feel judged wherever they go, but are now more comfortable coming into the library, to the greater level of confidence shown by a team member who stepped in to have a positive and effective conversation with a child who used a homophobic slur.

Stories like these will convey the āhurutanga, the sense of warmth and comfort, we are building in our library space.

We will also need to include statistics like numbers of youth memberships, numbers of youth trespasses, and the fact that (as I write this) we’re over halfway through a school holiday period that feels like it is back to pre-covid busyness and is – so far – without serious incident.

And we will need to consider the media we are using. Can we use the power of video and social media to share content that directly shows young people using our spaces positively? Might we think about inviting people along to see a youth-focused programme in action and experience it first hand?

If you broaden your thinking away from ordinary reports, you can start to see storytelling opportunities in more places than you might have originally thought. And that is where the fun really begins.



1 Curnow, Allen. Collected Poems 1933-1973. Wellington: A.H. & A.W. Reed Ltd, 1974.

2 Sturm, Terry. “’Landfall in Unknown Seas’: 1942-43.” In Allen Curnow: Simply by Sailing in a New Direction, a biography, edited by Linda Cassells, 168–180. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2017.

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