Real Talk About the State of YA Services in Public Libraries
I found my calling at the age of 20 while in college majoring in youth ministry. My heart was already dedicated to the idea of serving and working with teenagers and then I stumbled upon a job doing YA services at my local public library purely by accident, and it changed my life. For the last 25 years, my life has been dedicated to serving teens in public libraries. I feel blessed every day that I get to do exactly what I love.
When I began working in public libraries in the 1990s, public libraries were in a renaissance in both YA publishing and YA services. This was aided by the assistance of some phenomenal series that compelled readers in a way that we haven’t really seen in the last five years. Harry Potter and Twilight brought teens into the libraries in epic numbers as the desire for more books was hard to fill in the space that we had allotted. In some ways, The Hunger Games and Divergent sustained this, but I haven’t seen that type of series or book response in several years online or locally. That doesn’t mean that teens aren’t reading, because they are, but this was an entirely different phenomenon.
As we the early 2000s approached, YA titles were skyrocketing in numbers and public libraries were pushing hard to increase their services to teens in local communities. Many multi-branch systems began hiring YA librarians for each branch. The reasoning was that we were putting all of this effort into service children and develop both readers and library users, it seemed like we should do the same for teens so that we would maintain that initial push and retain library users and supporters. We argued that once you lost library users in the teen years, it would be hard to get them back into the library. It was a correct argument then and it’s the correct argument now.
Recent reports indicate that public library use was up – way up actually – by millennials. Millennials are by definition people in their 20s and early 30s. These are the very teens that public libraries were pushing to retain and it looks like that push to retain teens worked because millennials are in fact big library users. We said we would help raise a generation of adult library users, and by all accounts it appears that we did.
In 2008, you may recall, the market crashed and it crashed hard. Although the economy has slowly been recovering from that plunge, public libraries are still trying to regain their financial footing in this new world where individualism and capitalism are considered the end all, be all and there is a hard push against taxes, social services and social welfare, and just the idea of working together towards a common goal. Education, a traditionally feminine and unionized profession, has been consistently and categorically challenged by conservative groups as they push for privatization and whatever it is they are pushing for. Libraries, I believe, in some ways fall into these same categories. We are a female dominated profession that is funded by tax payer monies and we rally around the idea of the collective social good. In other words, we have a huge target on our back in the current political climate and we are struggling.
And when public libraries struggle, sacrifices must be made and teens are often an easy sacrifice to make: they are a smaller percent of the population, they are traditionally reviled by adults who don’t remember what it was like to be a teenager, and it can, quite frankly, be easier just not to have them around. Teenagers can be loud, challenging, smelly, and hard to please. But trust me when I say that they are worth it.
Since 2008, I have watched my fellow professionals advocate and fight hard for libraries. I have seen friends laid off. I have seen libraries shut their doors. I have seen budgets slashed low, staffing sizes reduced, and a fight to get the most basic of materials and updated technology into our public libraries. And I have watched teens become under-served once again in our public libraries.
I have also noticed a dramatic shift away from emphasis on YA/Teen services. I have been watching this trend for a while and keep looking for statistics, but they are hard to come by. One of the things I started doing quite a few years ago was paying attention to job postings. Anecdotally, the number of YA librarian positions that are posted are fewer and farther between. Part of this is, of course, due to retention. There is not a lot of turnover in librarianship. Part of the reason also appears to be just a decline in the number of dedicated YA librarians being hired across the board.
Actually, speaking of a decline in hiring, there does appear to be a decline in the number of professional, degreed librarians being hired by libraries across the board. When MLIS librarians are hired, they tend to be in management positions and there seem to be fewer degree holding librarians per library or library system. For example, you may have an MLIS librarian as the head of youth services and have a variety of paraprofessionals working in the youth services department to provide things like programming and day to day operations. One of the library systems I worked for went from having 7 MLIS librarians to 2. There are no longer any specialists, there is no more reference, and the overall staff numbers were cut in half. The statement that public libraries are dying is categorically false, but I think there is an argument to be made that it is harder to get a full-time job with adequate compensation in today’s public libraries, especially if you want to dedicate your career to teen/YA services.
At the same time, we see an overall decline in the teen population. In these times of economic hardship, people are having less or no children, and who can blame them. The U.S. birth rate has hit a historic low. Millenials may be using libraries more, but they are often choosing to have zero to two children and we will all be filling the effects of that soon, especially in our libraries. In 2014, teens made up 13.2% of the population and that number is expected to keep going down. Though the overall number of teens in the population is growing because the population itself is growing, the percentage of teens in terms of the rest of the population is declining. It is projected to be 11.2% by the year 2050. In an era of shrinking budgets, it’s hard to keep asking admin for more staff and money to serve a declining population, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep asking because we should. Whatever percentage of the population they may be, teens deserve dedicated services by passionate staff who want to serve the and understand how to do it well.
There have been a lot of articles decrying the bloody trail of items killed by millennials, but this is not one of those articles. I see the fruits of my labor in the early 90s and 2000s in the fact that this demographic groups are in fact using public libraries in large numbers. Millennials aren’t just using public libraries more out of economic necessity, but they are using them more because when they found they had a need, they remembered that we told them to use the library and they are. We told the public that dedicated service to teens would result in retained library supporters and users and we were right. We shouldn’t stop that effort now in the midst of these challenging times, but I fear that many libraries are in fact doing exactly that. What will the long term harm to public libraries be if we lose a generation of teen readers and library supporters? I hope we don’t find out because we agree today to rededicate ourselves to providing amazing YA services to teens in our public libraries.
Talking heads in the media continue to tell us that the economy is improving, but anyone who works with the public knows that this is not entirely true. Most of the reporting looks at unemployment figures, which have gone down. What these figures don’t take into account is lower wages, the high rate of underemployment, the number of unemployed who simply gave up and stopped looking for work, and the number of adults who can’t actually afford to live on their own in the current economy. These too are the millennials, and they are struggling to make ends meet.
I gave birth to my second and final child in 2008, the year that the bottom fell out of everything. I remember how terrifying it was to bringing this new delicate human being into this world that was entirely dependent on me as my library started laying off employees. I was very lucky to get to continue to work at that library for 3 more years as their dedicated YA librarian, a position that they no longer have. I am equally lucky to be working in my current position as a YA services coordinator with 2 remarkable assistants. I have many friends who have watched as their libraries were restructured in the past 5 years trying to find new YA services jobs that just aren’t there.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there are no more YA librarians or no more libraries hiring YA librarians, because that is not the truth. I am honored to consider several dedicated YA librarians among my personal friends and peers. But I am seeing that there are fewer and, as a passionate advocate for YA services, I get alternately angry and sad about what I perceive to be the decline in YA services in our nation’s public libraries. I feel like the public library use statistics regarding millennials proves that we were right about the power of dedicated YA services, so why are we moving in the opposite direction?
But speaking of millennials and YA services, I think we must also consider the impact that this generation is having on YA literature. When I observe patrons perusing the YA collection at my library, they are just as likely to be adults as they are teens, a statistic which appears to hold true when you consider what publishing research tells us about who exactly is buying YA fiction. The answer is: adults. Now there are a lot of reasons for this, including the fact that a lot of these adults are buying YA fiction for teen readers. I am adult who buys YA fiction for teen readers and quite regularly. But this is also another way that we are seeing the fruits of our labor, we have raised a generation to be readers and the market didn’t keep up with their needs so they continue to read YA because those are the stories that most closely resonate with them, they are the authors that they grew up loving, and, although the YA market has really grown, it is easier to find a title in the YA section in comparison to the adult section which covers a much wider age range and number of titles. The YA section is, in a word, familiar, easier to browse, and like a warm, comfortable blank to millennials. We built it, they came, and now they’re staying.
But what impact has this had on YA literature itself? When we used to talk about YA literature, we were talking about books for ages 12-18. If you look at most YA being published today, it says 14+. Middle school aged teens in particular are being pushed out of the YA market which is aging up in terms of voice and content in part because the research has shown that this is where the money is. If you spend any time on book twitter or in the company of YA librarians, you are likely to hear them asking just who, exactly, is YA being written for these days. It’s a legitimate question with a complex answer.
Authors and publishers want to make a profit, this is capitalism after all. So if adults are buying YA, from a production point of view it makes sense to age YA up to meet the demands of those readers. Publishing tried out the idea of new adult fiction for a while, but it never seemed to take hold in the market. But those readers are still there and you can feel the impact on YA in terms of voice and content. Many authors will state that they don’t write for teens, they just write for whoever, and that’s a valid point of view. However, there are still those authors dedicated to writing primarily for the teen audience, and teens need these authors. Teens need books written for them that speaks to their real life experiences and that unique developmental challenges that they are facing.
The other part of this discussion is that teens are changing. They are more aware, more engaged, and more open about talking about their lives and the worlds around them. It’s not that teens have grown more sophisticated, it’s that teens now have different tools to speak and demand to be heard. So this too changes the way we write the books we want them to read. Authors have to be more honest and relevant because teen readers demand it, even though it makes a lot of adults uncomfortable. Teen literature changes because teens themselves change just as the world in which they live does as well.
So here is some real talk about what I think is happening in YA services in our public libraries:
1. YA fiction is being ages up as a generation of YA readers has matured and continued to read the category as adults.
2. YA collections are just as likely to be read by adults as they are YA readers, and there are pros and cons to this. From an administrative point of view, a circulation statistic is a circulation statistic. As a YA librarian, I would like to see the emphasis on teens be at the heart of YA collections, but that is entirely dependent on what authors write and what publishers publish.
3. Young teens are being aged out of the YA market almost completely.
4. Some authors are trying to compensate for number 3 by increasing the breadth and scope of middle grade publishing, though many young teens appear reluctant to read middle grade because teen readers tend to want to read up in age. Some libraries are helping with this issue by building bridge collection of MG near their teen collections.
5. As demographics change and budgets get tighter, we are seeing a decrease in the number of dedicated YA librarians in our public libraries. Many youth services department continue to put an emphasis on teen services, but fewer libraries seem to have a dedicated YA specialist or a YA team or department.
So what does it all mean?
As someone who has been in this field for two and a half decades, I remember very well the glory of YA services in the 90s and early 2000s. And as I have mentioned, I work in a public library that is doing everything right and am proud to know fellow colleagues who are as well. But I can’t deny the subtle shifts I am seeing in these times and worry about the future of YA literature and YA librarianship. And I don’t just worry about these issues because I care about teens, which I do, but because I also understand that when we said we needed to retain teens in order to retain adults, it was true. The current status of YA librarianship effects the future of all librarianship, the future of public libraries.
This isn’t meant to be a the sky is falling type of post. Nor is it meant to be an old bitter get off my lawn or in my day kids used to whatever it is they used to do type of post. What this is meant to be is a reminder to us all: teens deserve dedicated YA books and services that meets their developmental needs. Public libraries need to be providing this if we want to continue to raise generations of library supporters and users. That call to action we put out in the early 90s wasn’t wrong, I feel that the recent statistics about millennial using the library prove it. The question is, what are we going to do with this information moving forward?
It’s time for another renaissance in YA services in our public libraries.
Filed under: Professional Development
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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