Proposal: Serving New Adults in Public Libraries
When I began working in a public library to serve young adults, I was truly myself a young adult – the tender age of 20 – so it didn’t seem weird to me at the time that the library called teenagers young adults. As I grew older, however, I began to realize that what libraries meant when they said young adult services was services for teenagers. To this day, it rankles that what we mean by YA services is Teen services, primarily because 1) we are the only industry that calls teenagers young adults and because 2) teenagers do not think of themselves as young adults. I think that the label of YA for teenagers was a misstep.
If I’m being honest, at every library I have worked at in the last 15 years, although our books have a YA sticker on them, the locations and services are called and marketed as Teen Services. This is because teens think of themselves as teens. In fact, I recently made “I LOVE YA” buttons to hand out at a promotional events and the teens didn’t even read it as I LOVE Young Adult (as in YA Lit) but as I LOVE YA (as in I LOVE YA MAN). This was a dramatic demonstration to me, once again, that there is a real disconnect between the publishing industry, libraries, and the very teens we serve in the language that we use.
In the current YA market, there is a real push for books set in college. I see and respect the need for the books, but I also recognize that for school and public libraries, putting books with adult aged characters in a college setting among more traditional YA books with teenage characters could make us very susceptible to real challenges. It’s one thing to make books available to everyone and say we don’t act as parents, it’s quite another to put them into a space targeted and marketed as teen and say these are acceptable to teen readers. These books, more than most YA, it occurs to me truly are young adult; they are very much about the young adult experiences of 19 to say 24 year olds, which are different then the teen experience because there are still very real legal, social, emotional differences between these two age groups.
Throughout all of human history, we have known that people like to read up. Middle schools like to real books about high schoolers. So it makes sense that high schoolers would like to read books about the college experience, especially those high schoolers who are very near to entering college themselves. The question is, where do we put them? I am by no means an advocate for censorship or content warnings, I work actively hard to build a solid, well rounded and inclusive collection for my teen readers. But the reality is many teenagers have parents and some of them are very invested in what their child is reading at the library which something that libraries have always advocated: we’re not responsible for what your teen reads, you are. And let’s face it, many parents would have a legitimate complaint to be made if we put books with characters that are by all practical purposes adults into a collection marketed to teens. It’s one thing to look at a parent complaining about a book and say some teens have sex and quite another to look at a parent and say it’s okay that your teen is reading this book with adults having sex. It’s a challenge that would be hard to defend in the local press, and like it or not administrators care very much about challenges and the local press.
I see this rise in YA books featuring college age characters as an opportunity which I am embracing to push for more and better services to truly young – or new -adults. Libraries have always engaged in adult services, but early adulthood is challenging and can often be overlooked. Once again, however, the terminology gets in the way. Industry wise, young adult means teen, so calling these new services young adult – even though they are targeted to adults who are very young in the adult world – can be confusing. And yet the term new adult has come to mean a very particular type of literature that has a heavy emphasis on sex, which is unfortunate because I think new adult is exactly the term that we need. So for all intents and purposes, I think public libraries should truly embrace the term new adult and start serving them in very real ways.
Infographic on the Teen Brain and Development
The transition from being a teenager to a new adult is a complex one. For some people it happens quickly, for some it is a slower transition. Many teenagers have been having adult responsibilities for a while now, many new adults won’t face true adult challenges until they are closer to their mid-twenties. It’s a complicated and complex time period. Legally, a person becomes an adult at age 18, but we know through brain science that it is not until the age of 24 or 25 that we begin making more concrete, adult types of decisions and engaging in more adult like thinking. Many parts of adolescence continue into adulthood in contemporary society, but numerically there is that finite dividing line of age 18. Legally, everything changes on your 18th birthday in most circumstances. We can argue whether that’s good or bad, but it is current reality.
Creating Services and Collections for New Adults
What I am proposing at my library is to create some new and special collections and services targeted to new adults, those ages 19 through say age 24.
New Adult Collection
For my collection, I have found a space which is incredibly close to the teen collection, which makes it a very smooth transition. I would include a variety of titles that center the new adult experience, including the well spring of YA titles set in college that are currently being released. Anyone can read them, because anyone can read anything at the library, but we are not labeling them as teen. Some of the series and authors I would house here include Sarah J. Maas, some of the older Rainbow Rowell books, and Cora Cormack.
Some example lists can be found here:
10 YA Books Set in College – Book Riot
Go Back to School With These 6 YAs Set in College – Barnes & Noble
10 New and Upcoming College-Set YA Novels – The B&N Teen Blog
7 YA Novels That Take on the Journey from High School to College
Young adult books set in college or after high school (58 books)
College and Career Planning and Test Books Collection
While we’re at it, I am proposing making a specific college and career planning collection a part of this collection. So it would flow nicely: Teen, New Adult, College and Career Planning. They’re all right there together and more clearly labelled for discovery. Books would include topics such as paying for college, choosing a college, career planning and test prep books.
Circulating Adulting 101 Kits
We have also been talking about circulating some non-traditional materials. We initially had tremendous success with our circulating maker kits, though with the creation of our Teen MakerSpace this circulation died and we took the kits apart and just assimilated the pieces into the Teen MakerSpace. However, circulating Adulting 101 kits are something we are investigating because if we’re being honest, a lot of what it takes to get started in adulthood can be expensive and overwhelming.
For example, we could include a Baking 101 kit that has a couple of cookbooks, some baking pans, measure cups, etc. Or a Basic Home Repair 101 kit that has a basic home how-to book, a basic tool set, work gloves, etc. With the news that many teens are putting off learning to drive until adult hood, we’ve even talked about a Driving 101 kit that would include a basic car repair book, a driver’s handbook, collapsible cones to practice driving, etc. These kits, like any other library material, could be checked out by anyone so teens learning to drive or older adults who want to try some basic home repair may be interested in them as well. There are a lot of interesting things we can do here if we choose to go in this direction.
Make! After Hours
In the midst of all of this, is our Teen MakerSpace. Due to limited space and safety concerns, we have a very strict age limit for our Teen MakerSpace. But we could host a monthly after hours event for new adults and take those tools out of the space and set up stations throughout the library. This would allow us to host an event for new adults where they could engage in making and be social with their peer group.
As I mentioned, this proposal is, I think, a natural way to help our teens transition into new adulthood, while also providing some more targeted services to an age group that can get really lost in the transition from teen to adult services. It helps that it works really well for our physical space. All of our teen services and collections are on the main floor near our adult collections and services and there is space near both to help provide for these new collections. We have the right space to make this work if we so choose to follow through. It’s actually quite a natural and beautiful bridge amongst all of the spaces, almost like it was meant to be.
To be clear, we are currently at the proposal stage. I’ve done the research, written the proposal, and turned it in. Who knows what will happen next, because there are a lot of pieces and parts in play and I am not the only staff person requesting space, time and money. But even if we don’t adopt this plan or don’t adopt it now, I think it’s a good plan. I think doing targeted services to new adults will help libraries cultivate and maintain adult supporters, it bridges the gap in the same way that we used to argue for young adult services. If we make the effort to serve teens, it would be a real loss to lose them in early adulthood and then have to try and find ways to woo them back once they have children or get a little bit older. I think it’s a natural progression of library services that many libraries have been under-serving.
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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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