Missing the Mark: how young adult (teen) services in libraries are designed to fail
I have worked at 4 different library systems in my 19 years as a teen services librarian and they have ranged from big, well-funded systems to smaller, not so well-funded systems. I have been a teen services team leader where I had the luxury of directing a staff of 2 other teen services staff members, but mostly I have gone it alone. And often I have had a job description that really entailed the job of 2 1/2 full time librarians, yet I did it all in 37 hours a week. As I reflect on my experiences and on the experiences of other teen services librarians, I can’t help but notice that most library systems continue to set up their teen services in a way that are in fact designed to fail. There are, of course, always exceptions: there are libraries out there doing amazing things with great budgets and a team of staff members dedicated to serving teens. But there are still many libraries that are asking staff members to perform miraculous feats in the face of challenging conditions. Below are what I find to be the top 4 challenges to teen services in our libraries. Let me know in the comments if you agree or if there are other challenges that you would like to discuss.
As a whole, libraries themselves are now underfunded. And teen librarians having traditionally gotten the smallest piece of that pie (if any). Yet, in many ways, teen librarians are challenged to appeal to one of the most visually sophisticated audiences with some of the highest competition out there. It is hard to meet the technology needs, the collection needs, and the programming desires of this age group without reasonable funding. Crafts from recycled toilet paper rolls work great with toddlers, less so with teenagers.
At the same time that the YA publishing market is exploding, thanks in large part to the popularity of titles like Twilight and The Hunger Games, ya budgets in libraries seem to be shrinking. Also, it is hard not to notice that approximately 80% of teen titles (I am totally making this number up by the way) seems to be a part of a trilogy or series. This means that when doing collection development you have to find a way to pick the series most likely to circulate and keep any future titles in mind when looking at your overall budget numbers. And then there needs to be some built in monies for replacement copies because nothing is more frustrating than having books 2 and 3 but missing book 1.
Without adequate funding, it is hard for teen services to be successful. If we want our teen services to be successful we must invest in the infrastructure and allow ourselves the time to build a solid base. Like all services, there needs to be time to develop a successful program and allow it the opportunity to continue to build.
If you are lucky, you are at least a full-time teen services librarian without additional responsibilities in either the adult or children’s department, which means you get to spend your 40 hours a week doing collection development, programming, etc. for teens. If you are really lucky, like TLT co-blogger Stephanie Wilkes, you have some support staff dedicated to helping you serve teens in your library, or in her case library system. But many libraries, especially smaller libraries, still shove their YA librarian in another department and ask them to do additional tasks like help with children’s or adult programming. Then you have to work either the reference or children’s desk (which I actually support because I think it gives you a chance to keep your skills up, interact with your patrons, and of course to keep yourself informed about what types of materials and questions your patrons are asking). O you have to page or work circulation. In fact, at smaller libraries, like where Christie works, there is only one desk and you do everything.
However, if you want to be successful in reaching the teens in your community, you have to invest the resources – including staff – to be make that happen. That means you hire, at a minimum, one full-time teen services librarian who is dedicated (and passionate) to understanding teen development, researches popular culture trends, spends time developing collections and programs, and spends time connecting with teens both in person and via social networking sources. In the most ideal situations, you would have one full-time staff and a part time staff to make sure there is someone there during the hours that teens are likely to be in your library, after school and weekends. It’s also important that we put staff members who actually have a passion for serving teens in these positions. I have heard too often of staff members being shuffled around and being forced to work with teens when they didn’t have the knowledge or the passion to do so. A great tool for staffing is the YALSA Contempetencies for YA Librarians.
Today’s teens are tech savvy. They are visual. They are used to being courted by businesses and we have to step up our efforts, which means that we need the tools to make this happen. In an ideal world we would have the tools to create stunning visual marketing pieces – you know, fast computers, full color printers, and training and access to various publishing programs. At the very least, the tech that they’re using in the school system they’re working with. Derp. Then, we would also have access to the technology and funds necessary to make short commercials and booktrailers to share. And isn’t it your dream to have a monitor in your teen area where you can have a continual loop of activities happening at your library on display (yes, yes – I know that some of you are in fact lucky enough to have this and I pretend not to be jealous).
And how about programming budgets? And to have system tools in place to make the purchasing of programming needs quick, easy and efficient. I don’t know about you, but some of the libraries I have worked in had so many procedures to purchasing that they became a roadblock in their own way. Perhaps the greatest necessity I have found over the years is the need to have streamlined procedures in place that allow spontaneous programming to capitalize on those moments where something is suddenly so popular that you can quickly put together a program before it fades.
Another challenge facing library staff is our slow adaptation policies. While teens are taking off on Facebook and Twitter, we are still trying to put together library policies on how we want to incorporate our social networking sites and who can access them, etc. By the time we have finally figured out what to do about Facebook, our teens are moving on to Twitter and we have once again missed our woo (window of opportunity). In fact, sometimes the very nature of the library world forces us to miss a lot of woos. What we need is to create climates that promote proactive library services rather than reactive library services because when we react, we often react too late.
And somewhere in here we really should have a conversation about space, both design and location. And when talking about space we need to make sure and include display space and ways to incorporate local teens into our spaces by doing things like displaying their artwork, etc. And location can be so very, very important.
If you have spent any time working with teens, you know that one of the greatest challenges is getting your fellow staff on board. Teens tends to be some of the most misunderstood and maligned members of our community. Some staff members fear teens, others just don’t understand why they do the things that they do. This is why it is important that we keep communication open with our co-workers and continually remind them that our teens are acting in developmentally appropriate ways.
We also need to help them re-frame their experiences in interacting with our teen patrons. It’s human nature to focus on the negative; when you walk away from the desk you are more likely to tell your co-workers about that one negative experience you had rather than the 42 other perfectly normal experiences. So if we change our focus, and keep it in perspective, we will see that most of our experiences with our teen patrons are perfectly normal. That group of teens standing outside the entrance of the library causing problems doesn’t represent the whole teen population anymore than that family lying about returning lost books represents your adult population. For more on this topic I highly recommend you read the previous post on The “Be”Attitudes of Communicating with Staff.
This is Where Advocacy Matters
Our jobs as teen services librarians is not only to advocate for our libraries in our communities, but to advocate for our teens in our libraries. This means that we put together plans and information that helps us go to our administrators and ask for the funding and staffing that we need. This means that we keep the communication lines with our co-workers open, honest and positive so that we can create scenarios that work best for both our teens and our library system. This also means that we are engaged in the professional community, that we spend time in the world of teen popular culture to stay relevant, that we keep ourselves familiar with teen literature and trends, and that we take the time to get to know our local teens and teen culture.
Whew – when you think of all that is involved in being an effective teen services librarian, it really is a full-time job plus some. We all know that we do a lot of work on our own time. You probably take journals home, and I know you do all of your reading at home on your own time (no library worker really reads at work despite the popular misconception).
Despite all the above, teen services librarians are succeeding every day because they are passionate, dedicated, creative and resourceful. And we are indeed advocates for both our libraries and our teens!
What else do you think you need to succeed? What other stumbling blocks do you see? Discuss in the comments.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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