Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

From a Librarian in the Trenches: Thoughts on Themes (a guest post by Jennifer Wills)

I came into this Teen Librarian position all “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” about pretty much everything.  I was revved up by library school classes that stressed the importance of Programming For Teens and introduced me to the high holy days:  Teen Read Week, Teen Tech Week, and the Summer Reading Program.  Teen Read Week?  Awesome!  “Books with Beat?”  Um . . . Sure!  Let’s do this!  I will take a poster in every size and as many bookmarks as you can spare, thanks.  I threw myself into displays and contests and school visits and everything short of a stage show.  

But as that first year progressed through Teen Tech Week (Learn Create Share @ Your Library) to the summer reading program (Make Waves @ Your Library) I began to notice that any time I invoked one of the provided themes for these special weeks, there was a definite shift in the conversation I was having with the teens.  They would be right with me as we talked about summer reading and prizes and such, but the second I mentioned the theme there was a subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) cringe, or smirk, or glaze of the eyes as if to say, “I see you are trying to market to me, Adult Person.  And you are doing it wrong.”  The focus of the conversation immediately changed from the library and how we are relevant to their lives to an explanation of how the theme was relevant to the event.  
Flash forward three years.  I’m a bit more settled in my job and I’ve discovered the secret that many of you know but no one mentioned in any of my grad school classes on programming for teens or advocating for teens or teen literature, and it is this:  getting to know and genuinely connecting with teens is the BEST PART OF THE JOB and absolutely essential for getting teens excited about libraries.  Knowing that means now I’m the one who cringes as each new theme is announced.  For instance, take this recent exchange:
Awesome Teen: {picks up Summer Reading Program entry form} What’s this?
Me:  That’s the entry form for our Teen Summer Reading Program.
AT:  Why does it say “Beneath the Surface?”
Me:  That’s just the theme this year.  But see, it says “Teen Summer Reading Program” there at the top.  {Proceed to tell him all about the program.}
AT:  But . . .
Me:  Yeah?
AT:  If the theme is Beneath the Surface, why does it have a Pegasus on it?
I feel like I’ve had this conversation at least ten times a day since summer reading outreach began in May.  There’s about five seconds of connection about how great summer reading is and five minutes of “What does this mean?”
I promise that I’m not here to bash YALSA or CSLP for their choice of themes.  I know there are exceptional librarians out there who take the themes and run with them in amazing ways every year (I’m looking at you, Karen!) I also know that for those libraries that don’t have a Teen Services department or dedicated teen librarian, the special interest weeks and themes offer a chance to focus on and connect with teens.  And I absolutely know that none of us are legally obligated to use these themes and that many of you have developed amazing stand-alone programs without them.   That said, I really think that by diving in to themes we lose a lot of what’s most important about our jobs.
I’ve been lucky enough to assemble a robust and opinionated Teen Advisory Board over the past few years and each special interest week or SRP leads to a lengthy discussion of the theme.  They tolerated “You are Here” for an SRP theme a couple of years ago and “Geek Out @ Your Library” for Teen Tech Week was met with stoic skepticism, but things came to a head last summer when I thought “Own the Night” might just be the end of them (“That’s a prom, not a reading program,” was probably my favorite reaction.)  And then “Beneath the Surface” arrived.  There was literally a two-hour meeting where the poster was deconstructed in a way that I’m pretty sure could be counted as their thesis project for grad school:  “Jen, there’s a creepy face in the shrub.  What is the purpose of this?” (It’s true, by the way, take a look.) “Jen, there is absolutely no correlation between this theme and reading books to win prizes.”   
About an hour into the meeting, as my teens talked about taking to the streets to ask random people what they thought the “Beneath the Surface” poster was advertising, I found myself looking around the table and thinking that this will definitely be the last year I use stock themes for anything.  From now on I’ll celebrate Reading for the Fun of It for Teen Read Week and Connecting @ Your Library for Teen Tech Week.   Those are the kind of general themes that say exactly what we’re trying to accomplish.  And I’ll use my TAB’s awesome passion for coming up with a better slogan for our SRP that we can use for several years.

My eyes are still clear, my heart is still full, and I know I can’t lose if I continue to just be my goofy self in a genuine way with these guys, learning what they love and telling them about the awesome ways our library can fit into their lives.

Jen Scott Wills, MLS
I’ve served as the Teen Services Librarian for Boise Public Library’s Main Library for the past three years, though I’ve been addicted to libraries since I lived across the street from one as a kid. My teens always ask me if I actually get paid to do what I do (usually when we’re in the middle of some water balloon war or heated Mario Kart race) and I tell them yes and that I can’t believe it either. I’m obsessed with YA lit and read a little bit of everything, though David Levithan and Rainbow Rowell are definitely my spirit animals. You can find me at jen1nsw.tumblr.com or as jen1n on Twitter or in my office that the teens call my TARDIS. Because it’s bigger on the inside.