Thursday, September 6, 2012

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.

Basic Elements of a Teen Services Plan
A Teen Services Plan Example


  1. This video has actually helped me explain teenagers to many people: And it has good links to other sources.

    1. Robin, thanks for the link. I always love good resources to help others explain teens.

  2. I also think under the misunderstood portion isn't just that people misunderstand teens, teen culture, and how to help teens, it's that they misunderstand the role of the teen librarian and what services we provide.

  3. I think it's even harder to advocate for teens than it is for children, because teens no longer have the "cute factor"...and some patrons, and even some staff members (who may not admit it) are inherently ephebiphobic.

    Getting teens to participate is hard work too!
    Especially when you're confronted with:

    1. It also doesn't help when you have a world that sees teens as a threat in groups. Look at the local malls and their rules- no congregating in groups, no movies for teens after 9 without an adult present, etc. etc. etc. It enforces the stereotype. *bangs head against wall* And when you're dealing with a group of kids who are already fighting cultural stereotypes, it's like there's already two strikes as soon as they stop looking cute and fluffy.

  4. Fantastic post! I'm fortunate to work in a library that values teens and teen programming, but this opens my eyes to the challenges other libraries face.

    1. I am always excited to hear about libraries that are doing it well, and I know there are a lot of them out there.

  5. Wow, what a great rundown of the status quo! Very eye-opening. On the one hand, it sounds kind of dire, but on the other hand, we realize that you're focusing on the deficiencies rather than extolling the many virtues and successes we know the system has managed to create.

    Question: Do you think technology (ebooks, digital lending) are going to help teen services in libraries?

    1. You are correct, the flip side to this post - appearing some time next week - is all the ways that teen services librarians knock it out of the park, even when faced with the challenges presented above. Also, I do think that growing technology use, including e-books, will continue to present new challenges to teen services librarians and public libraries as a whole. This is definitely another area we need to be proactive about. What has been your experience with e-books and teens?

  6. My dream is to have anothe full-time librarian in my department, at which point I would happily hand over the teens to them. Right now I handle everything from babies to college-age, and while I love my teens and have a great rapport with them, I am willing to admit I am clueless in too many areas. I am not terribly tech-savvy, I don't even have cable at home, haven't seen a movie in theaters or played a video game in years. I can plan a great pirates vs. ninjas party, but, gaming in the library? Not a clue where to start. So I just don't. They aren't being served the way they need to be, but without more staff/funds/space, there isn't much we can do about it. Thanks for a great article, I will be bookmarking it!

  7. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for this post! I am constantly getting comments about so and so is doing this they are offering programming for teens every week, after school programing, clubs, etc... I envy those libraries, but what the commentators, sometimes my own co-workers, fail to understand is that in a library with 1 main location, 2 branches, and 2 bookmobiles, I am the only teen librarian in our system, the only one who orders materials for teens, does programming for teens, and works with the schools. My complete job title is Teen and Reference Librarian, so I also spend a large amount of time working the adult reference desk, and doing adult programming. I spend probably about 30 (or more) of my 38.5 hours per week working on the adult reference desk. So doing weekly programs, at multiple branches, multiple time per week, just isn't possible unless I start working every hour we are open. Sometimes I listen to the criticism (and much of it comes out that way) and want to cry. I take work home with me every night, I read almost exclusively teen books to keep up, I purchase craft supplies, and do crafts at home, to test them for the teens. I would love to have another full-time teen librarian to help me. Children's does weekly programs, but they have the staff for it. If they want me to do similar programming for teens--I really need some support staff. Sorry if this sounded long, but your post really struck a cord. It is good to see I am not alone!