Joseph Wilk: A Teen Librarian Making the Library More Than Just a Place for Books

by Daniel Priore

For years, a young student walked into the Carnegie Library Teen Department in Oakland with a scowl on his face. He hardly talked and usually just plopped himself down at the computers for hours.

That didn’t stop Joseph Wilk from being friendly. He always welcomed teens with a smile.

One day the student walked over to Wilk and asked him if he heard the news. Wilk was not quite sure what he was talking about, so he asked him what had happened. The student explained how he was accepted into a study abroad program in Russia and would not be stopping by the library anymore.

The student then told Wilk how much it meant to see him every day. “‘You probably don’t know this, but I’ve been going through some health issues, and it was a really hard time. And as much as I tried to make you as miserable as I was, you never let me do it and I looked forward to seeing you every day,’” Wilk recalled him saying.

The student gave him a silver bookmark in the shape of a crescent moon.

Joseph Wilk worked as a Teen Specialist at the Carnegie Library for 12 years beginning in 2004. During this time, he worked with teenagers helping them learn through reading and discovering books. And in doing so, he wanted to change the library’s role as a community resource; a place where people came together and communicated with each other and learned in ways that best suited them.

Joseph Wilk hopes to implement innovative engagement at the Carnegie Library.
Photo by Daniel Priore

“A Teen Specialist wears many hats,” Wilk explains. “They effectively serve as advocates for teens, and their special and unique needs, their reading and recreational habits and their desires.”

As Wilk’s job changed from being a simple page to a fulltime employee, the library was going through changes as well. The branch first floor just finished its renovation and looked different from what might be found in a typical library. Of course, books encompassed open space, but there were new features. A Crazy Mocha coffee shop welcomed visitors and, as they strolled through, they could find many places to sit and relax, and crack open magazines or graphic novels. Around a few corners was the Teen Department. A large green, graffiti text styled sign hung above the bookshelves to show teens this was a place just for them.

For Wilk, coming to the library was a natural move.

“The library gives people an opportunity to be extraordinarily creative. It is a field in general where your day-to-day life is very unpredictable in a delightful way,” Wilk explains. “It’s a combination of routine and surprise allowing you to challenge yourself to be creative and be flexible, which are two aspects of myself that I like to cultivate.”

As the young University of Pittsburgh graduate looked around the first floor, he came to the realization about what he felt the library needed be.

“The focus was, and still is, to ensure that relationships are a key toward community building and a key toward creating meaning in people’s lives,” Wilk says. “Because otherwise, without these relationships, the library is just a repository of stuff.”

With many schools throughout Oakland, Wilk believes the students coming to the library working on projects or assignments can use relationships in ways to enrich their learning. He argues the key is recognizing, in many cases, that education is very systematic and therefore students need a place where they can learn independently and broadly develop themselves.

“I got to sort of break in and remind students that literature exists outside of the school environment, which is a message many youths lose track of after being a child,” Wilk says.

He demonstrated this through innovative programs designed to expand a teen’s skills and willingness to learn. Wilk admits a popular one was when he played improv games about the plots of the books he was presenting. Most of these were in forms of book talks, which he says were “very loud and boisterous” performances of a book summary.

“We tried to script the descriptions of the plots of books in a way that would catch people’s attention,” Wilk says.

Kelly Rottmund, the coordinator of Teen Services, says one of Wilk’s biggest contributions to the library was his monthly program called the Anime Club because of how much it meant for teens to interact with different people.

“It provided a space for teens to connect with like-minded peers, gush over their favorite anime or manga, share their fan art with one another, and build new friendships,” Rottmund explains. The program was open to teens from all schools in the region and from all neighborhoods.

She says many times during the program teens would call out each other’s names and then run over and hug each other. “This showed just how much the program meant to them,” she explains.

While Wilk’s programs engaged students, Leah Durand, the Teen Department Services Manager, says the former Teen Specialist’s biggest impact was the way he treated teens. “He was very aware of language and the power it has to affect people and their thoughts; he spoke to teens with respect and interest, but was also firm when needed,” she says.

As the late summer of 2016 came, the Teen Specialist left the library. Wilk is now a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh and looking at a new challenge. “I wanted to push myself to the other side of that coin and think of what can I do with current curriculums,” he says. “What can I do to ensure that when a librarian comes and gets someone excited about a book, the student has the skills to read it.”

However, as far as his approach to his job, not much will change from Joseph Wilk the teacher to Joseph Wilk the Teen Specialist. He says it goes back to the scowling student, and how they made him think about the importance of human interaction.

“That really framed my world in terms of the power of a relationship and how much having a positive one can serve someone in ways greater than you might ever know.

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